News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere
Quote of the Week
"The president's plan to have America stand by while greenhouse gases reach dangerous levels and threaten America and the world is worse than doing nothing – it is the height of irresponsibility." – U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., responding to President Bush's global warming policy rolled out this week
Kristen Vassallo, chief of staff under city managers Toby Futrell and Marc Ott, has announced plans to step down in early May. The loyal member of the Tobyocracy says she needs more face time with her family.
Neighborhoods continued to fight eastern Travis Co. landfill expansion this week.
The Save Our Springs Alliance vowed not to liquidate, despite a judge's rejection of its bankruptcy repayment plan.
City Council candidates are collecting hundreds – and hundreds and hundreds – of dollars in the race to election day; see "Fundraising Haul: Leffingwell, Shade and Galindo Cleanup."
Yet another bit of Austin's soul is disappearing in the name of progress. Texas Showdown Saloon, the venerable watering hole near UT campus – and home of beloved Happy Minutes, the daily 15-minute interlude when 10-ounce domestic beers cost only 40 cents – will close down, probably sometime in late April or May. "We've lost our lease; that's a fact," says Eddie Mack, general manager of the chain's Austin and San Marcos locations (Showdown also has bars in Arlington and Fort Worth). "They did not renew it. ... They're not willing to give us another lease. They've taken another offer on something; I'm not sure what." We're not sure what, either – Mack didn't want to give us contact information for the property's owners, saying, "I really don't know how that's relevant to anything." Through county property records, we learned that the site is owned by Julia J. Sawyer, who owns other Austin properties (including famed breakfast-taco joint Tamale House). We know that Sawyer has been in ill health in recent years and that her family has been managing her properties, but we were unsuccessful in contacting the family. "It's a sorrowful occasion," said Mack, manager since 1992. "I've put a lot of blood and guts into this place. It's been here since 1981. We have lots of faithful clientele that really hate to see us go, and I hate to see it go, but there's nothing I can do." Prior to the Showdown, the property previously housed the legendary punk venue Raul's. Mack says Texas Showdown will try to relocate elsewhere in Austin. – Lee Nichols
The grand opening of Southwest Key's new Govalle/Johnston Terrace headquarters is scheduled for Saturday. The $8 million facility, located only a block from Johnston High School at 6002 Jain Ln., will be home to Southwest Key's corporate offices, as well as community-based facilities for a Boys & Girls Club, community cafe, and Advanced Micro Devices Community Technology Center. Those facilities, plus a 150-seat amphitheatre, will bring new space to Southeast Austin for educational, arts, and workforce development programs. The goal, said Southwest Key founder and CEO Juan Sánchez, is to find ways to empower the East Austin community. Already, Southwest Key has launched a door-to-door voter education and registration program in the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood to turn out new voters in the city's May election. Southwest Key's grand-opening celebration will be 10am-9pm on Saturday, with an afternoon community fiesta. Southwest Key holds the federal government's largest contract to provide shelter for unaccompanied minors who enter the country illegally without parents. Southwest Key's shelters in California, Texas, and Arizona provide education, counseling, and caseworkers while immigration cases are processed. – Kimberly Reeves
It's property-tax time again, and the Travis Central Appraisal District has issued early house-price statistics to give people "some understanding of [their] valuation process," with a caveat that these are broad outline numbers and "do not precisely measure appreciation rates." In the Austin Independent School District, the average sale price per square foot has risen by 9.4%, from $135.67 to $148.48, but average sale price has only grown from $271,876 to $287,079 – a 5.6% jump. The county notes that prices have risen sharply in East Austin, due to "relatively lower house prices, yet close proximity to the University of Texas and the central business district." Beyond Austin, the highest per-square-foot appraisal is Eanes ISD, at $218.44, but the biggest percentage jump in value is in Lago Vista ISD (31.9%). The county reminds homeowners that their appraisal notices should arrive during the week of April 20. There will be a return form on the back available to anyone aiming to protest their property appraisal, and the district will start scheduling protests on May 27. TCAD also reminds people that, as long as the property is their homestead, 10% is the most by which the taxable value can rise. – Richard Whittaker
Beyond City Limits
Lawyers for Texas Child Protective Services are headed into court today (Thursday) to argue that the state should be given permanent custody of the 416 children seized earlier this month from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' gated compound outside the West Texas town of Eldorado. The children were taken during a weeklong raid prompted by a phone call allegedly placed by a 16-year-old at the ranch; she told officials at a family-violence shelter that she had been beaten up by her 50-year-old husband. She also said she is the man's seventh wife. Polygamy is key to the FLDS, which believes that a man must have at least three wives to be accepted into heaven – and that women must submit to the practice if they hope to follow. (For more on the FLDS, see "Meet the New Neighbors," July 29, 2005.) State officials say they took the children – ranging in age from about 6 months to 17 years – after finding a "pattern of abuse" at the ranch that places the children at imminent risk. Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle reports that several FLDS women have penned a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry claiming that the children have become ill while in state custody. Officials have said that about a dozen children had chicken pox, but CPS spokeswoman Marissa Gonzalez told the daily she had not seen the letter yet and thus could not comment on its content. – Jordan Smith
At press time, the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments in a case that asks whether the execution of a child rapist contravenes the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The case, Kennedy v. Louisiana, involves 43-year-old Patrick Kennedy, who was convicted and sentenced to die for the rape of his 8-year-old stepdaughter in 1998. Kennedy claims he is innocent and that the crime was actually committed by two boys in his suburban New Orleans neighborhood – he refused to plead guilty even after prosecutors offered him a deal that took the death penalty off the table. According to his defenders, Kennedy is the "only person in the United States who is on death row for a nonhomicide offense." Indeed, no one has been executed for rape since 1964; just 13 years later, the Supremes concluded that imposing the death penalty on a man for the rape of an adult woman was unconstitutional. However, lawyers for the state (joined by nine other states, in a friend-of-the-court brief authored by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott) argue that the rape of a child – among society's "most vulnerable" – might warrant the ultimate punishment. Kennedy's lawyers argue that expanding the death penalty for nonhomicide offenses is counter to the current trend of contracting its use – indeed, in recent years, the Supremes have ruled the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles and for the mentally retarded. Four states, including Texas in 2007, have joined Louisiana in making child rape a capital offense. (Two others have similar laws on their books, although their constitutionality has been called into question by state courts.) – J.S.
The state's school accountability system faces a major overhaul in the next legislative session. At a hearing for a select committee in San Antonio this week, various school districts talked about the possibility of growth models that would measure a school's overall progress rather than pegging its rating to its lowest-performing subgroup. Depending on how you look at it, that could provide serious help – or a more-balanced picture – to schools in danger of closing because of persistent low ratings. In Austin, that would pertain to both Pearce Middle School and Johnston High School, as well as a number of other secondary school campuses that are on the cusp of facing state sanctions. Under the current accountability system, Education Commissioner Robert Scott has a right to force a persistently low-performing school to revamp curriculum or replace faculty. He also can replace a public-school system with a nonprofit provider to run the school. – K.R.
When is a junked car not junk? When it's art. But who gets to decide when that is? The city of San Marcos says it does, which is why it's trying to seize Ralph the Cactus Planter, a decorated garden ornament in front of the Planet K store on I-35. The problem is what Ralph once was: an Oldsmobile '88. The city issued a citation in November saying Ralph violated its junk-car ordinance and could be seized and scrapped. Now Planet K's lawyer Pete Kennedy (who also represents The Austin Chronicle) is fighting the citation in federal court, saying Ralph is art and therefore protected by the First Amendment. Attorneys for San Marcos argue that how pretty or ugly Ralph is now is irrelevant, since the citation was made before the store brought in artists Scott Wade and Furly Travis to paint Ralph. Planet K's founder and CEO, Michael Kleinman, called this "big government following the rules and ignoring the reality," since he's had similar "transformed cars" at other Planet K stores around Austin since 1990, with no prior complaint. "Everybody loves to look at them and take pictures in front of them. It's public art," said Kleinman. But now one of Ralph's siblings, located at the Stassney store, has been served a similar citation by the city of Austin. Kleinman says he will appeal this in municipal court on April 25. – R.W.