Quote of the Week
"We have made the Austin school district a premier urban district in this country. We should all be very proud of that." – Austin Independent School District Superintendent Pat Forgione, announcing his decision to retire, after 10 years of service, in June 2009
Early voting began this week in the Democratic and Republican primary elections, if you don't want to wait until election day, March 4. See voting information and the Chronicle endorsements.
The Texas presidential campaign shifts into high gear today (Thursday), as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama debate on the UT campus, broadcast by CNN. If you do not have a ticket already ... there are debate-watching parties around town. See "Happenings."
In Tuesday's Wisconsin Democratic primary, Obama defeated Clinton (58% to 41%), and John McCain (55%) whupped Huckabee (37%) and Ron Paul (5%). Lloyd Doggett annouced Wednesday afternoon that he has pledged his superdelegate vote to Barack Obama.
Looks like there will be no City Charter amendments on the May city ballot after all; the election falls less than two years after the last such vote; see below.
The Austin Independent School District announced on Tuesday that Superintendent Pat Forgione will retire next year. In a press release, the district said, "Dr. Forgione informed the board during its executive session last evening in order to give the board ample time to select a strong successor and for that successor to work with Dr. Forgione to provide the smooth transition the Austin School District deserves."
Need another reason to hate Wal-Mart and Lincoln Property? OK: One of Travis County's busiest early-voting sites is consistently Northcross Mall. Oops, make that was – thanks to the construction under way on the property, that is no longer an option. For the upcoming election, the county was forced to move two blocks west to the less convenient and less visible Ben Hur Shriners Hall at 7811 Rockwood. (OK, let's be fair – this likely would have happened at some point anyway. But we'd be more accepting if Lincoln had proposed a good redevelopment for Northcross.) Other early-voting moves: Rather than continuing their exile to portable buildings in the parking lot of the East Seventh Street HEB, county officials moved that voting location one block north to the Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center, 2608 Gonzales. Also, after being gone for a few election cycles, early voting returns to Hancock Center (North I-35 at 41st). But instead of HEB, it's now in the tiny Washington Mutual Bank branch. Early voting runs through Feb. 29. For a full list of early-voting sites, see "Travis Co. Early Voting." For more election news, see "Election Notes." – Lee Nichols
Good news and bad news for pressure group Stop Domain Subsidies in its efforts to block the city from entering into retail subsidy agreements with developers. On Feb. 19, Austin City Clerk Shirley Gentry confirmed the group had collected the 18,433 signatures to get a City Charter amendment onto the ballot to prevent the city from entering into or honoring economic-development agreements for any project where the money would go to the developer rather than the retailers. It is specifically targeted to block a 2003 agreement between the city and Simon Property Group, the firm behind the first stage of the Domain retail center, and prevent similar agreements. The bad news? That same day, city legal announced that, oops, there can't be any charter amendments on the May ballot, as there have to be two years between such votes. This year's election is scheduled for May 10 – three days short of the two-year anniversary. So while Stop Domain Subsidies hoped to have the proposition on the May ballot, they'll have to wait until November. "Everyone was caught out by this," said group founder Brian Rodgers. – Richard Whittaker
Karen Bunton, 40, entered a plea of guilty on Feb. 14 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for tampering with evidence in connection with the 2006 murder of her 22-year-old niece, Latoya Finley. Finley, an aspiring singer-songwriter, left Austin in February 2006, heading to Los Angeles to make connections; she never got there. Instead, she was beaten and smothered by Bunton's husband, 26-year-old Tony Holmes. Her body was stuffed in the trunk of her Hyundai sedan, which Bunton and Holmes then drove around in, back and forth to Abilene, for more than a month before they were finally pulled over by Abilene police and subsequently arrested. The pair was charged with capital murder; in a plea deal, prosecutors dropped that charge against Bunton. Holmes pleaded guilty to Finley's murder and last week was sentenced to 60 years in prison. – Jordan Smith
The AISD board of trustees approved a plan last Monday to reduce overcrowding at Linder and Walnut Creek elementary schools. The plan will shrink the attendance boundary for the schools, which have been operating at 155% capacity, and enlarge the boundaries of nearby Brooke, Metz, and Sanchez elementaries, which have all been operating below capacity. Fifth-graders at Linder won't be moved next year and will remain with their classmates through middle and high school. Trustees also agreed to move the 210 students in the Vietnamese Bilingual Program at Walnut Creek to Summitt Elementary. Walnut Creek is at 119% capacity, while Summitt is at 67%. – Michael May
Local TV stations are refusing to broadcast a commercial from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which links buying a dog from a breeder with the death of dogs in animal shelters. Titled "Buy One, Get One Killed," the spot shows a couple with a young girl buying a canine. With the deal complete, the breeder dumps a large black body bag on the desk. "And here's the dog you just killed," he says. "When you buy a dog from a breeder, you kill a dog in a shelter." The spot ends with, "Four million unadopted animals are killed in shelters every year. Adopt. Never buy." PETA specifically wanted to show the ads in Austin, home to Uno, the much-hailed beagle that won best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show last week. But Austin's network affiliates rejected the 30-second ad, apparently due to the disturbing imagery. (Local station execs did not immediately return calls seeking comments.) "It is the stark reality of the overpopulation crisis," said PETA spokeswoman Melissa Karpel. PETA is still trying to place the ad on local cable systems; they tried to run the spot in Washington, D.C., but it was rejected by every station except the CBS affiliate. The ad did run on the USA Network, however, Karpel says. Check out www.peta.org to view the spot. – Kevin Brass
Beyond City Limits
Here's another howler – the largest recall of beef in U.S. history has taken place as a result of an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States that went public earlier this month, uncovering extreme and repeated acts of animal cruelty at a Southern California slaughterhouse, despite the presence of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors. Workers at the now-shuttered Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. were videotaped abusing downed cows (or those too sick or injured to walk), engaging in acts including beatings, applying electric shocks to the cows' faces and eyes, and ramming them with forklifts. Workers were forcing the downed cows to walk to slaughter, even though it's known that such animals may carry bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka mad cow disease). Last Friday, San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos charged one slaughter-plant employee with five felony counts under California's anti-cruelty statute and three misdemeanor counts for abusing animals, while another worker received three downed-animal-abuse misdemeanor charges. The Humane Society is now calling on Congress to enact two pieces of pending farm-animal-welfare legislation: the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act and the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act. For more info, see www.humanesociety.org. – Daniel Mottola
Controversial Harris Co. District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal has left the building. That's right, the man who has proudly led the nation in the number of inmates sent to death row has resigned his position as top law enforcer in Houston amid questions about his integrity and judgment, as well as an ongoing investigation into his conduct by the Texas attorney general, reports the Houston Chronicle. In his resignation letter, Rosenthal blamed his indiscretions on drugs. Prescription drugs, that is: "Although I have enjoyed excellent medical and pharmacological treatment, I have come to learn that the particular combination of drugs prescribed for me in the past has caused some impairment in my judgment," he wrote (that, or perhaps he's just a mean and spiteful guy). Rosenthal's troubles began in December when a host of e-mails he'd written on his public machine were made part of public record in a pending federal lawsuit – including a handful of suggestive notes written to his executive assistant, for whom, apparently, the married Chuck had the hots. Harris Co. GOP officials pressured Rosenthal to remove his name from the primary ballot, making him a lame duck. But less than a week later, more e-mails were released, including one where Chuck was asking prosecutors for help arranging a barbecue kickoff for his re-election campaign, reports Texas Lawyer, even though Texas law forbids using state equipment for campaign purposes. That got the attention of the AG's office, which announced that it would be investigating whether Rosenthal's campaign e-mails constituted "official misconduct." According to the Houston Chronicle, Rosenthal decided to resign in response to the AG's offer to call off its investigation if he would step down. Really, its a win-win for all of us – don't let the door hit you, Chuck! – J.S.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced on Feb. 13 that it has suspended its Feb. 25 deadline for public petitions and intervention in the South Texas Project permitting case. NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said the suspension was based on a request by the applicant that the NRC postpone its review of the plant's safety documents. On Feb. 8, the environmental group Sustainable Energy & Economic Development Coalition filed a motion to suspend the deadline. "The STP application was so full of holes, the NRC said they were planning on suspending their own internal review of the application. Opponents would have been required to develop their list of contentions or problem based on an incomplete application by the 25th. That was an impossible and illogical burden," said SEED Director Karen Hadden. "We are delighted with this victory, but this is only a temporary pause in the battle against this unneeded, budget-breaking, radioactive-waste producing, water-guzzling nuclear plant." – D.M.
This just blew in: Not only does Texas produce more wind power than any other state in the U.S., but Texas increased its wind-power capacity in 2007 by 59%, more than twice as much as any other state, installing nearly 3 billion dollars' worth of windmills and hardware, reports the American Wind Energy Association. Texas' wind farms represent 26% of the nation's overall wind-power capacity, and those 4,356 megawatts of energy are enough to power a million Texas homes. AWEA says plans to add new transmission lines are set to be finalized by state regulators this year, which will help facilitate the 3,064 MW of new wind-farm plans made during 2007, but that extensions of federal production tax credits, dropped out of the recent energy bill during partisan wrangling, are desperately needed to sustain growth. New and existing wind projects could reduce wholesale power costs by more than $1 billion per year while reducing statewide power-plant emissions by 5%, AWEA says. See www.awea.org for more. – D.M.
Speaking of plant emissions, aside from carbon dioxide and smog, mercury – a potent neurotoxin chiefly affecting unborn and developing children – is viewed by watchdogs as among the most imminent threats posed by coal-burning power plants. A federal appeals court recently struck down the Environmental Protection Agency's so-called Clean Air Mercury Rule, which, instead of mandating the Maximum Achievable Control Technology for limiting power-plant mercury pollution (expected to cut emissions by 90% if enacted), exempted plants from the Clean Air Act and allowed operators to buy emission credits in a cap-and-trade system. Fifteen U.S. states challenged the EPA rule, which the court found to be in violation of federal law. According to Environmental Defense, one of the plaintiff groups, the EPA used language drafted by industry attorneys for the rule. Local mercury-pollution reformer Karen Hadden said: "This is a big victory for Texas children. Texas leads the nation in emissions from power-plant mercury, and childhood autism in Texas is increasing." Said Sierra Club analyst Alice McKeown, "Claims of 'clean coal' will now be put to the test," adding that new regulations will test whether coal is still viable in a cleaner energy future. – D.M.
The votes are in: Pretending to drown someone by sealing up their mouth and pouring water down their nostrils is torture, after all. The U.S. Senate, by a slim 51-45 margin, voted last week to ban water-boarding, an interrogation technique dating back to the Spanish Inquisition, which has been mimicked by infamous human-rights violators such as the gestapo and the Khmer Rouge. The new intelligence legislation limits the interrogation techniques the CIA can use to the 19 allowed by the Army handbook. President Bush has already threatened to veto any legislation limiting the agency's interrogation methods, and he is joined in his opposition by presidential hopeful John McCain, who is no stranger to torture because of his stay at a Vietnamese prison. The Senate also approved new rules last week to retroactively protect telecom companies from lawsuits for cooperating with the government on telephone and e-mail surveillance without a court order. So far, there have been around 40 such lawsuits from customers who claim their rights under privacy and wiretapping laws were violated. – Justin Ward
A U.S. district judge refused last Thursday to dismiss the Target Corp. from a lawsuit filed on behalf of cleaning crews in Austin and other Texas cities who were denied thousands in wages and overtime. Target contends it isn't responsible for paying the workers, since they were employed through Jim's Maintenance Service, a contractor. The judge ruled otherwise, saying there was sufficient evidence to conclude the workers were employed by both Jim's and Target. Cleaning crews reported directly to Target managers, who set shift lengths, sometimes as long as 10 hours, by locking janitors in overnight. According to court documents, crew members worked 50-70 hours per week and were paid on a semimonthly basis that amounted to less than the federal minimum wage. When Target terminated its contract with Jim's – effectively putting the company out of business – it also withheld nearly half a million dollars in wages for the month of May 2006, which the company used to pay its lawyers. Target has been ordered to enter into mediation with the workers to settle the dispute. – J.W.