Quote of the Week
"The execution may have been a little chaotic, but the spirit of a precinct convention – of neighbors who rarely get to see each other coming out of their homes, standing in line on a chilly Tuesday evening, talking, arguing, thinking about political and policy beliefs, making their voices heard – that's democracy at its finest. ... Get rid of them, and our politics becomes just about commercials on TV." – Houston state Rep. Garnet Coleman, refuting suggestions that Texas Democrats should drop the second half of their dual primary/caucus system
For those of you permanently glued to your computers – or who no longer can afford to buy gas – those thousands of hipsters clogging the Downtown streets are here for the South by Southwest Interactive, Film, and Music Festival – the Music began last night (Wednesday) and runs through the weekend. Enjoy! (Note: The Chronicle went to press a day early this week – Tuesday.)
Barack Obama won the Wyoming caucuses 61%-38% on Saturday, adding to his delegate lead over Hillary Clinton, which as of Monday was at 1,553 to 1,438 (2,025 needed to win). On Tuesday night, the networks projected Obama as the winner of the Mississippi Democratic primary. The overall March 4 Texas results remain incomplete because of partial results from the precinct conventions. See our election coverage for an update.
And there's another election on the way! Monday was the filing deadline for the May 10 city of Austin municipal elections (and Austin Independent School District and Austin Community College), so the campaigns are trying to find some airspace amid presidential hoopla, spring break festivities, and March Madness.
Last week City Council declined to allow the Villa Muse film studio/residential development project, proposed for the State Highway 130 corridor, to leave the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction. The feathers are still flying. See "Point Austin," "Beside the Point," and "Developing Stories."
The fight over McMansions in Central East Austin has spawned a takeover attempt by the "Council of Five," which is lobbying the city to become the area's officially recognized contact team for neighborhood planning and zoning. The team already in place – the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods – has long been considered a model of an integrated and involved neighborhood group. In January, however, City Council unanimously denied a proposal by OCEAN; its members sought an amendment to the McMansion Ordinance to require smaller houses on the small lots prevalent in their neighborhood. Fighting OCEAN's proposed change was property owner "Hollywood" Henderson; he's now seizing the political advantage in an attempt to displace OCEAN. Other Council of Five members include Byron Marshall (chief executive of the Austin Revitalization Authority), real estate investor Eric Shropshire, and several investor-developers. They propose to add just one OCEAN representative to their group. Alarmed by the challenge to OCEAN's authority, President Rudy Williams urged each neighborhood association within OCEAN (and others) to draft a resolution in protest: "Developer takeovers of neighborhood associations is a real problem." – Katherine Gregor
Another reason to rail against McMansions: Colin Clark of Save Our Springs sent us provocative March Atlantic Monthly article "The Next Slum?" which discusses how "fundamental changes in American life may turn today's McMansions into tomorrow's tenements." The article, by Christopher B. Leinberger, a Brookings Institution fellow, states: "In most metropolitan areas, only 5 to 10 percent of the housing stock is located in walkable urban places. ... Yet recent consumer research by Jonathan Levine of the University of Michigan and Lawrence Frank of the University of British Columbia suggests that roughly one in three homeowners would prefer to live in these types of places." – K.G.
City Council approved a new incentive for film, TV, and video productions: Austin will waive facility use and rental fees and provide police officers for traffic and crowd control. Creative types will stoke the economy and make us feel hip and cool (in keeping with MovieMaker magazine naming us the No. 1 city for makers of indie films). Meanwhile, Austin Studios is preparing to make multiple improvements to its stages in the coming months, funded by the city of Austin bond program. – K.G.
Austin Police say they have arrested the man who "directs" the Austin operations of the infamous prison gang the Mexican Mafia. On March 4, the APD Gang Suppression Unit – working with the FBI, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and its Office of Inspector General – arrested alleged Mexican Mafia Austin honcho Benny Martinez and alleged underling Richard Salazar, in connection with an ongoing cocaine-trafficking investigation. Police confiscated roughly 13 pounds of coke, two pistols, and approximately $73,000 in cash during the arrest. APD says the Mafia is responsible for distributing roughly the same amount of coke each week in Austin, and police believe pinching Martinez and Salazar will "put a significant damper" on the group's area coke-distribution network. – Jordan Smith
Here's the straight poop: Unless pooch-paraders clean up their act – and their pets' waste before it reaches the water – the public may lose cherished swim privileges along Bull Creek. A new city water study has documented that pathogen levels in the creek often exceed the state-recommended limit for contact recreation, with readings soaring eight times higher on weekends, corresponding to increased visits by dog-walkers to off-leash areas. Moreover, the study shows that 100,000 dogs drop 50,000 pounds of waste daily in Austin. Even small amounts of excrement reaching city waterways can cause serious human illnesses – such as dysentery, hepatitis, typhoid fever, and ear infections – as well as imperil the pets' health, said Kathy Shay of the city's Watershed Protection and Development Review Department. So Austin is launching a scoop-the-poop campaign at Bull Creek. "The city is asking Austinites to help by cleaning up pet waste, in order to preserve all uses of the park, including swimming, wading, and the off-leash dog areas," announced Shay on March 7, urging visitors to bring bags from home or pull mitts from park dispensers, then scoop, seal, and shuck waste in cans. During spring break and beyond, city staff will distribute pertinent information and "doggie" bags, and police will issue warnings and citations for waste code violations. – Patricia J. Ruland
Spay Austin Coalition is calling on conscientious objectors to gather from noon to 2pm, Sunday, March 16, to protest the new Southpark Meadows Petland, located at 9900 S. I-35. The boycott announcement claims Petland is not welcome in Austin and says animal lovers should not buy a pet from the national chain. "We'll be gathering outside, hopefully for a very visible protest," promises SAC's Calene Summers. According to SAC, Petland patronizes "factory-style" puppy and kitty mills, which reportedly mass-produce and neglect animals, then fail to disclose medical problems. SAC alleges most Petland puppies come from Hunte Corp., the largest puppy dealer in the U.S. and the target of a national protest. And since the Lady Bird Lake shelter is killing 1,000-plus pets a month, "Why do we want to bring in more animals to Austin from out of state?" Summers asks. Lest anyone presume that poorly run pet mills are a faraway atrocity, "I know there are some in Central Texas," says Summers, noting that last year dachshund and terrier rescue groups squired animals from possibly illicit mass breeders in the Central Texas area who were closing their doors. Petland spokesman Elizabeth Kunzelman denied the allegations. "We do not buy from puppy mills. We purchase only from 'hobby' [local] and USDA-licensed breeders that have a good history of clean kennels and meeting all the proper requirements. Our biggest concern is the welfare of our puppies." – P.J.R.
World peace is being declared in Austin during SXSW. A group of local anti-war activists (and that's all wars, not just current conflicts) is circulating what they call a worldwide referendum on ending wars and promoting goodwill toward all. Locals and visitors are being asked to sign the declaration as "a physical manifestation of humanity's increasing desire for peace," then collect more signatures around the world. The declaration will not be online: In its accompanying explanation, the declarees say, "We believe a person-to-person connection will best honor and give respect to this document." Spokesman Paul Thrailkill said he hopes the influx of international musicians for the Festival will help jump-start the plan globally. For more info, e-mail email@example.com. – Richard Whittaker
Pondering the children imprisoned at the internationally scorned T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor – an immigrant detention facility funded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, operated by Corrections Corporation of America, and administered by Williamson County – often brings Terlingua resident Adrienne Evans to tears. Last week, Evans organized last Saturday's International Women's Day peace rally at the center. "I'm ashamed to say that I'd known about this prison since August and had done nothing about it but cry," Evans told Naked City. "I couldn't sleep unless I fought what Homeland Security and crony CCA is doing to innocent people for profit, and God knows what other bad reasons." Evans reported that seeing children in the prison playground upset activist parents and offspring alike. "It was very emotional for us to witness such a horrible prison." View rally videos at www.youtube.com/user/closehuttodown; for more on International Women's Day, see www.internationalwomensday.com. – P.J.R.
Beyond City Limits
Drugs in the water! That's what a five-month Associated Press study found in 24 major metropolitan areas but not in Austin. Drugs including antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers, and sex hormones were detected in small amounts, passed through people's bodies into wastewater and then on to the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans. Although the individual amounts are minuscule, scientists worry about the long-term consequences of such exposure. According to the AP, the federal government doesn't require any testing and hasn't set safety limits for drugs in water. Of the 62 major providers contacted, drinking water for only 28 is ordinarily tested. Bottled water, some of which is simply repackaged tap water, is not typically treated or tested for pharmaceuticals, the AP notes. Recent lab research found small amounts of medication caused breast cancer cells to proliferate too quickly, kidney cells to grow too slowly, and blood cells to appear inflamed. David Foster, director of Clean Water Action's Austin office, said the synergistic impact of various drugs is of concern, as are Bush administration plans to cut $10 million in funding to the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors water quality. Austin's water is believed to be largely drug-free mainly because we're not downstream of any other major cities. – Daniel Mottola
Who's more qualified to say whether we're breathing an unsafe amount of pollution, a panel of doctors and scientists or industry lobbyists? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing its decision on changes to federal smog standards – specifically how much ozone pollution ought to be allowed. Ozone is linked to asthma, bronchitis, and heart attacks and acutely impacts children and the elderly. The EPA concluded last year that the current ozone standard of 80 parts per billion isn't protective of public health. Industry lobbyists representing automakers, utilities, manufacturers, refiners, and cement plants have increasingly visited the White House and Capitol to argue that tighter standards will cost too much – although the Supreme Court has ruled twice that air-quality standards cannot be based on cost. An EPA review panel of more than 25 scientists and physicians was "unanimous in recommending that the primary ozone standard should be no greater than 70ppb." Dr. John Balbus, a physician with Environmental Defense, said a change to 75ppb would result in a 10-fold decrease in ozone-related deaths. Rick Perry joined 10 other governors in a letter last year opposing stricter standards, citing "uncertain health and environmental benefits." Tighter smog standards would likely make Austin a federal air-quality violator. On Tuesday, the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and the American Lung Association of the Central States called on the EPA in a statement "to follow its own Science Advisory Committee's recommendation and establish a new National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone pollution that will truly protect public health." – D.M.
Punctuation Man saves serial comma! The serial comma, which goes just before the connecting word in a list of three, got a powerful defender last week. Grammar experts have been arguing over the serial comma for several long, brutal centuries, and the debate had threatened to break out into armed conflict in recent years. They fought over whether the punctuation was an affront to tradition, the most natural way to write, or just an extra speck on the page. But this week, punctuation man, aka Jeff Rubin, the founder of National Punctuation Day, assured the world that the serial comma will never have to slink off the end of a sentence in shame. "I recommend the use of the serial comma," thundered Rubin (in a press release), "because it helps make clear the meaning of a sentence." Thank you, Punctuation Man! [Ed. note: Chronicle style is to use serial commas.] – Michael May