News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere
Quote of the Week
"With spring in full swing, we decided to hit the trail. I just hit it a little harder than I had planned." – Austin U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, after suffering a broken leg in a bicycle accident while out for a ride with his wife, Libby
If this is Austin, then there must be a new transit plan making its debut; see "New Rail Plan Rolled Out."
At its first budget work session Wednesday, council members learned that, even with generous tax projections, the city's $20.6 million in the hole; see "Beside the Point."
Hillary Clinton may be hanging by her fingernails, but she scored a victory Tuesday in the Pennsylvania primary.
Horse sense or hogwash? A handful of equine dental practitioners has filed suit in Travis Co. against the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners for requiring that only state-licensed vets care for horse teeth.
The latest attempt to tackle the issue of Downtown billboards has suffered a setback, with a proposed city ordinance being pulled from this week's council agenda. On Friday, Council Member Mike Martinez requested that his fellow members postpone the public hearing scheduled for the April 24 meeting to allow time for more discussion. The ordinance would have introduced a "cap and trade" system intended to move billboards out of Downtown; it also would have banned mobile billboards. Council sent the proposal out in November for consultation, but the Design and Planning commissions and Scenic Austin criticized it for not going far enough on cutting billboard numbers; billboard firms, meanwhile, say it goes too far. Martinez intends to offer a new "slim line" ordinance on May 8 (two days before the council election), which will keep the ban on mobile billboards while also creating a new billboard database, introducing registration fees, setting energy-efficiency requirements for lighting, and dumping the ability to replace a removed board. If the proposal makes it to a third reading, it could be the last significant ordinance the current council passes. – Richard Whittaker
The Bus Riders Union of Austin, formed last year to advocate for mass-transit users, called on Capital Metro Tuesday to return to a free-fare system. Such a move would be a complete turnaround for the agency, which declared last fall that it intended to double fares – a plan put on hold after widespread protests. The proposal argues that eliminating fares would cost Capital Metro a negligible amount of revenue, a small price to pay in exchange for the net benefit to the environment and the efficiency of the system. According to the report, fares account for about 3.3% of total revenue after the costs of fare-box maintenance and accounting are factored in; nearly 78% of the agency's revenue is derived from sales tax. If fares were eliminated, the report suggests, ridership would increase (alleviating traffic congestion, the city's greatest source of pollution), and bus-boarding would be streamlined (making the system faster). The report also identifies some areas where waste could be cut to make up for the lost fares, such as the bloated marketing budget, a fleet of fuel-inefficient supervisor sport utility vehicles and sedans, and $31 million budgeted for "services," which include paying consultants for jobs that could be done in-house. Cap Metro briefly flirted with the idea of a fare-free system in 1989-90, but agency officials say the plan was killed because it didn't produce a significant increase in riders. See the full report at www.busatx.org. – Justin Ward
The changing of the guard continues at the Austin American-Statesman. Publisher Mike Laosa announced his retirement this week, just a month after Editor Rich Oppel announced his own departure. Laosa will leave Oct. 1, Oppel in June. Laosa, 54, told a Statesman reporter, "I just wanted to spend more time with my family and friends." He said the decision was prompted in part by a bout with prostate cancer in 2001. In keeping with Cox Newspapers' focus on promoting from within the company, Laosa will be succeeded by Michael Vivio, publisher of the Waco Tribune-Herald, another Cox paper. Described in the Statesman as "innovative," Vivio is credited with redesigning the Tribune-Herald. While noting that "there isn't any part of the business that wouldn't benefit from a fresh approach," Vivio told the Statesman reporter: "The Statesman is an incredibly well-managed newspaper. It doesn't need to be fixed." In the article, Cox Newspapers President Jay Smith described the Statesman as "solidly in the black" and as "one of the top-performing newspapers in the country." But Smith is also leaving the company, retiring next week after 37 years with Cox. – Kevin Brass
Austin Police reported last Thursday that they believe Riad Hamad, a local teacher and activist whose body was found Wednesday afternoon in Lady Bird Lake, died by his own hand, based on preliminary observations by the medical examiner. Police said they do not suspect foul play despite the fact that Hamad was found with his arms and legs loosely bound and with tape over his eyes and mouth. Police observed that the "bindings of his hands and legs and the placement of the tape was consistent with Hamad having done this to himself." When Hamad was reported missing on April 14, his friends informed investigators that he had expressed suicidal thoughts and had a number of "stressors" in his life. Apparently one of those was the fact that he was the target of an FBI investigation. FBI spokesman Erik Vasys confirmed in the Statesman Friday that Hamad was a "person of interest" in a criminal investigation. Initially it was rumored that Hamad's death was a homicide after Debbie Russell, president of the Austin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, sent out an erroneous e-mail to that effect. Hamad, who taught at Small Middle School and was an official for the Palestine Children's Welfare Fund, was eulogized by family members in a written statement as a "peace activist who worked tirelessly on behalf of those less fortunate than him." – Justin Ward
Austin Chronicle News reporter Kimberly Reeves was recently honored with the Texas State Teachers Association School Bell Award, which aims to "recognize outstanding media coverage of education issues and events." Education Austin nominated Reeves for her reporting last fall in the Chronicle on efforts to save Johnston High, the East Austin school that faces closure after years of lagging test scores ("The Slow Dying of Johnston High," Nov. 30, 2007). Reeves continues to follow Johnston's story and reports this week on the most recent developments (see below). Congrats, Kimberly! – Nora Ankrum
Only one person showed up at Monday night's Austin Independent School District board meeting to testify on a potential closure plan for Johnston High School. Even so, Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Chair Robert Franco's testimony was no plea to keep the Eastside school open; instead, he admonished the school district to take more substantive action before additional schools follow Johnston's fate. After four years of failing test scores, state law gives Education Commissioner Robert Scott the right to close Johnston this summer if this spring's test scores continue to fall in the "academically unacceptable" range. The Texas Education Agency has two options: either close the school outright or seek an alternative manager to operate the campus next year. A request for qualifications is already on the street, seeking managers to operate the state's academically unacceptable campuses. – Kimberly Reeves
Supporters of Pearce Middle School will gather this Saturday, April 26, to march and rally for the campus as it heads toward this year's final state-standardized tests. Pearce, in its third year rated as an academically unacceptable campus, could face potential closure if scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test don't rise. Radio talk-show host Michael Lofton, who is rallying the community, said teams will go door-to-door in the Pearce neighborhood to raise awareness of the importance of the test. Supporters, and especially alumni of the 50-year-old school, are encouraged to meet at 1pm at Andrews Elementary, 6801 Northeast Dr., to begin the march. – K.R.
Uri Horesh, an Arabic lecturer at UT, started a rumble earlier this year when he resolved not to eat until UT offered same-sex health benefits to faculty. He made it seven days without food, in which time his silent, nonviolent protest managed to make some noise (and not just hunger pangs) for the cause. But sadly, the university is held accountable to state law, which says that coverage can only be provided to an employee's married spouse (defined by a 2005 constitutional amendment as a union between "a man" and "a woman" only). So Horesh had a burger and recognized the need for more voices to make the change. Since then, he's been joined by UT's Human Resources Department, staff council, faculty council, and Pride and Equity Faculty Staff Association, as well as Equality Texas and former UT President Larry Faulkner. With their prompting, and following the lead of the student governing body of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, the UT Senate of College Councils has passed a resolution urging UT to offer domestic-partner benefits to employees, sending the message that students do support commonsense civil equalities. You earned your burger, Uri Horesh. – Kate Getty
Beyond City Limits
Bill Dingus, the Democratic candidate challenging House Speaker Tom Craddick for his seat in the Texas Legislature, has resigned his seat on the Midland City Council as part of his fight to stay on the November ballot. On April 15, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr. had ruled Dingus (running under the slogan "One of the Good Guys") ineligible because he had not stood down from the City Council before filing his paperwork. Texas has a "resign to run" rule that requires anyone holding a lucrative office to resign before running for a higher office. But the Texas Democratic Party interpreted a 1996 case as specifically giving Midland council members an exemption from this rule. While Smith's decision did not remove him from the ballot, Dingus offered his resignation on April 21, as a pre-emptive measure. "The chances are that someone, somewhere, will try to get me off the ballot, so every scenario we went through started with me resigning," said Dingus. He says he intends to remain in the race and has retained an attorney. – R.W.
A solar farm in West Texas may grow out of a land deal announced last week between Austin Energy and the Texas General Land Office. Our city-owned utility has leased 438 acres in Reeves Co. near the town of Pecos and is authorized to develop up to 150 megawatts of solar-generated energy, but they probably won't decide on a particular solar technology until next year. The announcement was made in front of a solar array at Austin's O. Henry Middle School, one of 20 demonstration solar systems AE has installed at local schools. The connection: While O. Henry was penning his famous short stories, he made ends meet by drawing maps for the General Land Office, explained agency spokesman Jim Suydam. When the solar project eventually goes online, Suydam said, proceeds will flow into the state's Permanent School Fund – currently bolstered by wind and oil and gas projects on state lands. "Oil and gas is our bread and butter, but it's going away," Suydam said. "We think solar is an entirely viable option." The GLO has also offered leases in the Texas Gulf and along the coast for proposed wind and geothermal power production. – Daniel Mottola
The Texas Education Agency has offered the job of science coordinator to Kenn Heydrick. That should quash the conspiracy theorists who speculated that the agency removed former coordinator Chris Comer last year to replace her with someone who supports intelligent design. Heydrick, who's been the coordinator of science and health in the Pflugerville ISD since 2000, is the immediate past president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas and a vocal supporter of evolution. In a news release on the National Science Teachers Association website, he said, "We do our children a great disservice if we allow pseudoscience to be addressed in a science classroom." – K.R.
City Hall Hustle
Watch the Chronicle do it vloggy-style with our inaugural video blog, City Hall Hustle. Every Thursday this month, City Hall Hustle has delivered the down-low on the upcoming City Council elections, bringing you profiles and interviews with the candidates – all imbued with the inimitable flavas of City Council reporter Wells Dunbar. Catch the entire three-part series online at austinchronicle.com. This week's stars: Place 4 candidates Robin Cravey, Laura Morrison, and Cid Galindo.