Quote of the Week
"I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren." – Presidential candidate Barack Obama, speaking in Philadelphia on Tuesday, March 18
The state Democratic Party rejected a request from the Hillary Clinton campaign for a delay in county conventions pending additional "verification" of precinct delegate selection. See "Election Notes."
And as the presidential campaigns heat up elsewhere, in Austin the May 10 municipal campaigns are finally coming out of the shadows. City Council, Austin Independent School District, and Austin Community College candidates are hitting the forums and answering questionnaires. For our early breakdown of the races, see "Spring Training."
The already elected City Council meets today (Thursday), with two headline items suddenly foundering: A lingering proposal for single-member districts is doomed for lack of a fourth vote, and the proposed Webberville tract landfill and utility facility will be put on the back burner for a more auspicious day. See below and "Beside the Point."
A coalition of Webberville residents, Travis Co. Commissioner Ron Davis, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, and others on Tuesday urged the Commissioners Court to amend Chapter 62 of the county code to prohibit landfills on a specific tract of land where the city of Austin has proposed one, but Davis' motion died for lack of a second. Prior to the meeting, the coalition held a press conference to decry disparate treatment between eastern and western Travis Co. Most curious was an attempt by Dukes to connect the proposed landfill with the Villa Muse project, which she supported (and the CEO of which supported her with $4,000 in campaign funds). "Why is it OK to put something negative in a community that a community opposes but to oppose something that is positive like the Villa Muse development?" Dukes asked. (Villa Muse's request to carry out its film studio/residential development free of Austin developmental restrictions was rejected earlier this month by City Council.) When one Webberville resident afterward asked Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt why no one would give Davis a second, Eckhardt said it was because Davis' proposal was "legally indefensible"; she later told the Chronicle, "My understanding of the current state of the law is that a county cannot create a prohibition without specifically designating where landfilling will be exclusively permitted within the county." An item to discuss the landfill at the March 20 City Council meeting has been postponed. – Lee Nichols
The city's 25-page Request for Proposals for redeveloping the Green Water Treatment Plant and Energy Control Center sites is being super-fast-tracked, thus leaving to private development teams a duty that belongs firmly to the public sector: translating council's guiding vision and community benefit priorities into a master plan. The RFP, which is online at www.ci.austin.tx.us/seaholm/green.htm, solicitation number RML0012, includes the point matrix that council (not staff) will use to evaluate finalists. Council has firmly seized the reins in the selection process, giving staff the power only to determine which proposals include all mandatory elements. Council members will rank and interview master developer teams, looking favorably upon those that exceed public-benefit minimums for green building and affordable/workforce housing, for example – and that offer up the fattest price for the land. The city made a first-time decision to live video-stream the preproposal conference from council chambers, via Channel 6, due to extensive national interest. Bids could top the initial appraised value of $41 million for the Green site, plus $14.5 million for the Austin Energy parcel. Look for a final appraised land value by March 31; proposals are due April 30. But again, why the rush to judgment? Due to extensive site remediation needs, construction can't begin until 2010. For more info, see "Developing Stories," March 7. – Katherine Gregor
The draft Station Area Plan for two of Austin's future Transit Oriented Development districts – MLK and Plaza Saltillo – are ready for a broad public vetting. The third SAP, for the Lamar/Justin Lane TOD, will be ready early next week. The plans address redevelopment of areas surrounding three future Eastside stops on Cap Metro's commuter rail Red Line and promote development bonuses to achieve 10% of the city's TOD goal of 25% affordable housing in the station areas; achieving the remaining 15% will require subsidies and other strategies. But Brewster McCracken recently said that despite the funding challenges, he and other council members remain firmly committed to 25% affordable housing – just as at Mueller. Public comment was heard on the first two SAPs at Planning Commission March 11; look for PC action on March 25. They go to council April 10. The Lamar/Justin SAP goes to the Planning Commission April 8, and to council April 24. Attend the public presentations at PC or council, and/or review each of the draft plans on the city's TOD website, www.ci.austin.tx.us/planning/tod. – K.G.
At press time Wednesday, lawyers for death row inmate Rodney Reed were set to argue before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that their client deserves a new trial. Reed was convicted in 1998 of killing Stacey Stites, a 19-year-old Giddings resident. Reed has long protested his innocence, and his supporters assert that a far more compelling suspect is Stites' then-fiancé, Jimmy Fennell Jr., then a Giddings police officer, who they say knew about a relationship between Stites and Reed and was not happy about it. Startlingly, police practically dismissed Fennell as a suspect, even though he twice failed a polygraph exam wherein he was asked if he was responsible for Stites' death, and failed to search the apartment the two shared, even though that was the last place Stites was seen alive. (See "Who Killed Stacey Stites?" May 24, 2002.) The CCA remanded Reed's case to the Bastrop trial court in 2005, asking that District Judge Reva Towslee Corbett hold a hearing to determine whether Reed should be granted a new trial. Not surprisingly, Towslee Corbett, daughter of the judge who presided over Reed's original trial – a trial that Reed's family and supporters have long decried as a sham and conducted with clear bias – concluded in 2006 that Reed should not be granted another shot. But the CCA has not yet upheld that decision and on Wednesday was set to consider whether new information – including Fennell's 2007 criminal indictment for aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault, and official oppression of a woman he detained while on duty as a Georgetown cop – supports Reed's contention that his case should be reheard. – Jordan Smith
City Council is set this week to approve a new lease on life for Austin's Yellow Bike Project, an all-volunteer transportation-geared bicycle collective that operates free community bike shops and donates rehabbed bikes to the community. Since 2006, YBP has been scrambling to locate a new home after learning its current East 51st Street headquarters – a city-donated warehouse – will be demolished this summer as part of the Mueller redevelopment. After more than a year of negotiations, council votes today (Thursday, March 20) to approve a 50-year lease agreement with YBP for a city-owned property at 1200 Webberville, a former Austin Energy substation that's well-situated for both bike and bus routes. Rent's pretty cheap: $10 total. However, YBP must carry insurance and construct its own building on the empty tract. Additionally, YBP must teach three, 12-week bicycle-maintenance or traffic-safety courses per year for city employees, in addition to donating 100 kids bikes annually and maintaining its two current afterschool programs. YBP hopes to build a simple, eco-sustainable, metal building but needs community help with everything from surveying to funding to construction. See www.austinyellowbike.org for more info, shop hours, and contacts. – Daniel Mottola
Austin philanthropists Ernest and Sarah Butler pledged to donate $55 million to UT's School of Music on Tuesday. The gift is considered to be the largest single donation ever given to a public university's music school and will more than double the school's current endowment of $33 million. Most of the money will be used for scholarships and student support; around a third will go toward faculty and other programs. Ernest Butler, a physician and businessman, and his wife, Sarah, have given large donations in the past to the Blanton Museum of Art, Ballet Austin, and the Austin Symphony Orchestra, but this is their largest. "We love music," said Ernest Butler in a press release. "And we have a great appreciation for, and belief in, the educational value of the arts." – Michael May
"New Urbanism and the Booming Metropolis" is the so-relevant-to-Austin theme of the national Congress for the New Urbanism conference coming to the Convention Center April 3-6. Attended annually by up to 2,000 cutting-edge thinkers, it's the biggest and most progressive real estate industry conference ever held in Austin – complete with professional education sessions (Building for the Streetcar), speakers, shared meals, parties, labs, and tours (Mueller, the Domain, Downtown Austin). A five-day registration is $495; individual events start at $35. At a minimum, any Central Texan involved in the real estate industry (and related public officials) will want to attend the opening Wednesday session and inspirational full-day Thursday "New Urbanism 101" crash course. (Although we aren't affiliated with the event, if you mention The Austin Chronicle during same-day, on-site registration, you get a discounted$225 nonmember rate for both.) Central Texas public officials needing a scholarship should direct inquiries to CNU board member Mike Krusee: email@example.com. To learn more or register, visit www.cnu.org/cnuxvi. – K.G.
Beyond City Limits
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on March 17 in the case of Fredericksburg man Walter Allen Rothgery, who is asking the court to clarify at what point in the criminal justice process a defendant has the right to an attorney or legal counsel. Rothgery was arrested in 2002 on an erroneous charge of illegally carrying a firearm. The charge was predicated on a mistake contained in a California database that incorrectly listed Rothgery as a convicted felon. Unfortunately, Rothgery could not afford an attorney, and even though he asked for counsel when he appeared before a Texas magistrate, it wasn't until six months later, after he'd been indicted on the felony charge, that he was actually given access to the attorney; Rothgery spent three weeks in jail before the charges were finally dismissed. He sued Gillespie Co., arguing it had violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. His case was rejected by the district court and later by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But he has now earned the support of the American Bar Association and the NAACP, among others. The county, joined in support by the state of Texas, argues the right to counsel doesn't kick in until a defendant is faced with his first "adversarial" hearing – some time after being indicted. Texas is one of only five states that does not provide counsel to the accused at the time of an initial court appearance. – J.S.
In the return of a familiar face to Texas politics, Gov. Rick Perry has appointed former Republican Party of Texas Chair Tom Pauken chair of the Texas Workforce Commission. In 2006, Perry appointed the Reagan loyalist, tax reformer, and Christian conservative to chair the Texas Task Force on Appraisal Reform – a far removal from Pauken's often combative relationship with Perry's predecessor, then-Governor George Bush (not to mention, Karl Rove), who was seen as being responsible for cutting off big-donor contributions to Pauken in the 1990s. He's had a better record on appointments than at the ballot box: In 1978 and 1980, he twice lost in the Congressional District 5 to Democrat Jim Mattox and, in 1998, lost the attorney general nomination to then-state Supreme Court Justice John Cornyn (rumored at the time to have been recruited by Rove to derail Pauken's ambitions). Pauken doesn't need to worry about elections for a while, as his term does not expire until Feb. 1, 2013. – Richard Whittaker
Conservation groups Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on March 17 a petition requesting justices "hear [their] argument that the REAL ID Act, which grants Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff unprecedented and sweeping authority to waive any and all laws to expedite the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, is unconstitutional," as well as "harmful to the environment and border communities," states a press release from both organizations. "By granting one government official the absolute power to pick and choose which laws apply to border wall construction, the REAL ID Act proves itself to be both inherently dangerous and profoundly un-American," says Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen in the release. Also, on Wednesday in Brownsville, U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen approved an agreement calling "for dismissal of a lawsuit filed against the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College," requiring the feds to consult on construction plans with the two universities, which share a joint campus, reports the Associated Press. The government "sought a condemnation so 160 acres could be placed on the Mexico side of the proposed fence." Hanen cut border-dwellers another break on March 8, ruling in a different case "the [federal] government must first try to negotiate a price with a South Texas landowner before seizing her property for the border fence," reports the AP. DHS "must provide proof of bargaining with landowner Eloisa Tamez or conduct 'good faith' negotiations with her by March 21." For more "Frankenfence" news, see "Cross Border Craziness." – Cheryl Smith
President Bush may not show much interest in dealing with the economy, Katrina survivors, civil rights, or international turmoil, but he's a raging hyena when it comes to protecting telecommunications companies from lawsuits. Last week the president vowed again to veto a House bill, passed March 14, that sets up rules for wiretapping and spying on American citizens but doesn't include blanket immunity for the telecom giants' role in spying on their customers without a court order. "Allowing the lawsuits to proceed could aid our enemies," because the litigation process might reveal details on surveillance techniques and "give al Qaeda and others a road map as to how to avoid the surveillance," said Bush with his usual rhetorical artistry. Even though the Democrat-controlled House essentially caved and passed a bill that gives the administration unprecedented powers to monitor calls and e-mails without the simple step of first obtaining a warrant, the Bush administration is charging Dems with playing politics with security. In turn, Democrats say the administration is simply protecting itself, out of fear that more investigations will reveal just how far the White House pushed the boundaries of privacy laws in its zealous pursuit of terrorists. But the brewing showdown may never occur. The Senate, which will now take up the House bill, has already passed a version of the legislation that includes the immunity. Few observers believe the business-friendly Senate will pass a bill to the president without some sort of protection for the telecom companies. – Kevin Brass