Quote of the Week
"Texas is about to become the center of the political universe." – State Rep. Juan Garcia, D-Corpus Christi. Pictured are Garcia (r), wife Denise, and presidential candidate Barack Obama (l).
Texas is indeed in play. The Democratic presidential campaign arrives in Austin Thursday, Feb. 21, as Hillary Clinton debates Barack Obama at UT. And no, we ain't got no tickets.
Marc Ott assumes office as Austin's new city manager this week, so this morning's City Council meeting (Thursday) promises some ceremonial acknowledgment as well as charter discussion and related matters. See "Beside the Point."
Need nukes? Not yet, says the City Council this morning; an Austin Energy review of an offering to expand the city's interest in the South Texas (Nuclear) Project concluded it is too rushed and too expensive. See "Austin Says, 'No, Thanks.'"
Though not yet garnering headlines, negotiations are continuing between Capital Metro and Amalgamated Transit Union 1091, the city transit authority's workforce union. Featuring tense negotiations and a one-day strike, the previous contract expired at the end of June 2007. According to ATU 1091 President Jay Wyatt, one major sticking point in negotiations – which have been occurring about once or twice a month since the spring of 2007 – has been the shape of bargaining rights. ATU currently enjoys collective bargaining rights that include the right to strike as a last resort. The Cap Metro board has tried to end subcontracting and bring all employees in-house (something the union in principle supports) but in return wants to make ATU members subject to meet-and-confer bargaining, thereby abandoning the right to strike. On Jan. 22, City Council Member Mike Martinez wrote his fellow Capital Metro board members to argue "that adopting any other form of bargaining that is not equal to or greater than" ATU's current rights "would simply not serve our workforce or this community in any positive capacity." The request fell on deaf ears: The latest memorandum of understanding from Cap Metro to ATU 1091 continues to encourage a "meet-and-confer relationship" between the parties. Negotiations are due to resume Feb. 28. – W.D.
Stow away the raft, paddle, and Deliverance DVD – the city has ruled out white-water rafting as part of its revitalization plans for Downtown's Waller Creek. A Jan. 31 briefing to City Council sounded the death knell, with the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee resolving that Waller's "flow should maintain a reasonable depth, health, and movement of water without impeding access or use for all users or causing additional erosion (No whitewater)." White-water rafting on Waller was the brainchild of outdoorsman Jim Stuart, who directs doubters to similar Downtown white waters in cities like Denver. The cost of additional water pumps to speed the waters for limited white-water usage is negligible, compared to the $100 million tunnel project designed to standardize the creek's flow and pull surrounding real estate out of the floodplain – but apparently, the city has spoken. "Bottom line," writes Stuart, "whitewater on Waller Creek in Austin has been nixed!" – W.D.
Austin Police have charged five people, including two juveniles, with the Feb. 7 kidnapping of 5-year-old Adrian Jaimes, who was taken from outside his North Austin home but found that evening and returned to his family. Police say 26-year-old Modesto Vences-Garcia was the kidnappers' ringleader and that he allegedly spent several weeks planning the kidnapping (the initial target was Adrian's 10-year-old sister, Zuleima, police said). According to police, Vences-Garcia believed Adrian's father, Salvadore Hernandez, owed him money, and Vences-Garcia intended to hold the boy until the family paid up. APD Cmdr. Julie O'Brien said Vences-Garcia had told his associates he wanted the family to pay $150,000 in ransom, though police say he still hasn't explained exactly why he thought the Jaimes family owed him money. Vences-Garcia has been charged with aggravated kidnapping, a first-degree felony that could net him up to life in prison. Reportedly, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are also looking at Vences-Garcia for possible immigration violations. – Jordan Smith
The Austin Independent School District received an evaluation of its performance last year at the board of trustees meeting Monday. The annual District Report Card is based on both the state and federal accountability systems and looks at everything from test scores to dropout rates. It showed that while students in the district have improved on most areas of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests, passing rates are lower than the state of Texas as a whole. And while the district has begun to slowly close the gaps in test scores between student groups (based on socioeconomic class and ethnicity), there's still much work to be done. The high school graduation rate was 77.3% in 2006, with girls graduating more often than boys (80.2% compared to 74.5%). The report also noted that AISD's per-student expenditure is $10,357, higher than the state average of $9,629. AISD explained this is because of costs associated with building new schools and updating old facilities. – Michael May
Within the next four months, more than half of the city of Austin vehicle fleet will run on alternative fuels, including biodiesel and ethanol, thanks to a six-year, 6 million-gallon, $138 million biofuel supply contract approved Jan. 31 by City Council. The move was prompted by the Austin Climate Protection Plan's goal of having a carbon-neutral city fleet by 2020. A blend of 20% biodiesel and 80% low-emissions diesel (B20) will power the city's 1,138 diesel trucks, 248 "flex-fuel" vehicles will use 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline (E85), and 2,023 gas-powered nonflex-fuel rides will use gasoline blended with 10% ethanol (E10). The city also currently has 151 hybrids, 244 propane-powered vehicles, and six running on compressed natural gas. "We're taking baby steps," said Ester Matthews, the ACPP director. She said the city is conducting a detailed carbon analysis of its entire fleet and is anticipating the commercial availability of plug-in hybrids within the next few years, as well as considering construction of a biodiesel plant, perhaps tapping algae used to treat city wastewater. The city discussed making biofuels available to the public at one or more of its 40-plus fueling stations, but no such plans exist today, she said. On the opposite end of the spectrum, ExxonMobil, the world's second-largest corporation and a leading climate-change denial-monger, broke its own U.S. record for yearly profits, pocketing $40.6 billion in 2007. Exxpose Exxon, a coalition of prominent green groups, has called for an ExxonMobil products boycott, based on Exxon's efforts to stifle climate-change reforms and its refusal of a $4.5 billion court-ordered settlement to an Alaskan fisherman impacted by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, among other reasons. See www.exxposeexxon.com for more. – Daniel Mottola
A youth suicide cluster may be developing in Travis County, and local health officials are mobilizing the community to prevent any further deaths, according to the Austin-Travis County Suicide Prevention Coalition, which held a press conference Monday to spotlight the issue. From July to November 2007, there were five deaths by suicide for youths aged 15-19 in Travis Co. There was another death within recent weeks, and a youth was hospitalized in critical condition from a suicide attempt only days ago, said Merily Keller, co-chair of the Texas Suicide Prevention Council. This compares with only four deaths for this age group in all of 2005. "Of those who die by suicide, most have an underlying mental-health or substance-abuse condition," continued Keller. "The majority of suicidal individuals do not want to die; they just want their emotional pain to stop. Take all suicidal talk seriously, and take action to get that person to help." Some warning signs include threatening to hurt or kill oneself, withdrawal from friends or family, increased drug or alcohol use, and increased irritability or rage. For more, see www.texassuicideprevention.org. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800/273-TALK (8255). For local help, contact Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Mobile Crisis Outreach at 454-3521 or call 911. – D.M.
How is TC doing? A new "snapshot" study shines the spotlight on Travis Co. demographic trends, both good and bad. At last Tuesday's Commissioners Court meeting, the county's Research and Planning Division explained that the user-friendly "Travis County Snapshot From the American Community Survey 2006" distills information pertinent to the county from the unwieldy parent study. Welcome news is that the county's population is more educated than most. Disconcerting, however, are the study's revelations that since 1999, the median income has dropped nearly $6,000, and poverty rates have risen, even as they have fallen in the state. The county is working to buffer the negative trends. Meals on Wheels and More is teaming up with the Travis Co. tax office to notify residents older than 65 that they may qualify for significant tax exemptions. "The Travis County tax department may owe you money," a MOWAM press release states. According to Dan Pruett, MOWAM CEO, "Many clients are homebound, elderly, disabled, and live in poverty. [We can] deliver important financial information along with a nutritious meal." See the report here. – Patricia J. Ruland
Beyond City Limits
The Wimberley Independent School District board of trustees voted Tuesday to back down in a standoff with the Texas Education Agency over payments owed to the state under the school financing regime known as Robin Hood. Wimberley, officially a property-wealthy district, earlier this week refused to pay some $2.3 million in property-tax revenue required by state law, which is due on Feb. 15. Education Commissioner Robert Scott called the district's bluff and threatened to break apart its property-tax base and appropriate it to surrounding districts. The board voted 6-1 to make the first installment in a payment plan with a note that it was "made under protest." – Justin Ward
Disgraced undercover police officer Tom Coleman – notorious for his role in fingering dozens of black residents of Tulia, Texas, as cocaine dealers in 1999 – has lost a second appeal of his 2005 aggravated perjury conviction. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed on Feb. 6 the appeal court ruling that the trial court didn't err in allowing two appointed special prosecutors to handle Coleman's trial, even though the newly elected Swisher Co. District Attorney had taken office nine days earlier. Coleman argued the judge should have handed the case over to D.A. Wally Hatch; the court ruled the judge was not required to do so and noted Hatch didn't ask to take over the case. Thirty-five of 38 Tulia residents convicted on drug charges because of Coleman's corrupt work were ultimately pardoned by Gov. Rick Perry; 45 of the 46 residents arrested in the infamous drug sting shared a $6 million settlement of a civil rights lawsuit brought against the involved law-enforcement agencies. Coleman was sentenced to 10 years of probation. – J.S.
Attention meat lovers: If you don't know where your meat is coming from, chances are it may be the product of an operation like California-based Hallmark Meat Packing Co., shut down last Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture when a long-term undercover investigation by the Humane Society revealed widespread mistreatment of "downed" cows (those too sick or injured to walk), including video of workers kicking cows, ramming them with forklifts, jabbing them in the eyes, applying electrical shocks, and even blasting them with hoses to force the animals to walk to slaughter. USDA Undersecretary Richard Raymond cited "egregious violations of humane handling regulations." Hallmark, which slaughtered about 500 cows a day (mostly "spent" dairy cows), supplied the Westland Meat Co., which processed the carcasses and marketed the meat. The USDA itself bought Westland meat for its National School Lunch and Emergency Food Assistance programs. Texas received nearly 4.7 million pounds of Westland beef through the USDA in 2007, second only to California. Austin ISD was among the recipients. AISD Food and Nutrition Director Chris Carrillo said the district received three, 40,000-pound, USDA-provided shipments total but that the latest truckload was put on hold and never made it to students' plates. "There was never a question of the wholesomeness of the product," Carrillo said. See www.humanesociety.org for more info and undercover video. – D.M.
District Judge Stanwood Duval recently booted "a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the levee breaches" produced by Hurricane Katrina, reports the Associated Press. Duval ruled in New Orleans on Jan. 30 that the corps should be held immune over failures in drainage canals that caused much of the flooding of New Orleans in August 2005. He cited the Flood Control Act of 1928, which protects the U.S. government from lawsuits when flood-control systems like levees break, the AP notes. Despite the dismissal, Duval rebuked the corps for "'cast[ing] a blind eye' in protecting New Orleans and 'squander[ing] millions of dollars in building a levee system' that was known to be inadequate by the corps's own calculations." Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they plan to appeal the case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. – C.S.
Despite opposition from the Bush administration, the U.S. House voted overwhelmingly last week for a bill to renew the Higher Education Act, with revisions intended to rein in college costs and to curb abusive practices of the student loan industry. The HEA, which has returned in various incarnations since it was first passed in 1965, touches all aspects of higher education, from financial aid to accreditation and federal funding. Under the latest version, there will be sanctions for states, like Texas, which cut funding for public universities and institutions with runaway tuition, like UT. Universities will also be required to report earnings from private donors and may be forced to spend some of their endowments annually to defer costs. This provision might irk some with the UT System. Its endowment, the Permanent University Fund, is one of the largest in the country and is guarded with a miser's zeal, like so many millions of dollars tucked under the system's collective mattress. The Senate version of the bill passed last fall, and though Bush has said he "strongly opposes" the legislation, there has been no threat of a veto. – J.W.