News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere
On May 20, former Georgetown Police Sgt. Jimmy Fennell Jr. pleaded guilty to one count of kidnapping and one count of improper sexual conduct with a person in custody, in connection with his handling of a domestic disturbance call in 2006. Fennell was accused of driving a woman to a secluded area, forcing her to dance for him, and then raping her while she was pinned against the side of his police cruiser. Reportedly, Fennell has agreed to plead guilty to the two counts in exchange for a two-year term in state jail for improper sexual conduct, as well as 10 years probation on the kidnapping charge. As part of the deal, Fennell will also be forced to forfeit his peace officer license. Fennell is best known as the former Giddings police officer engaged to 19-year-old Stacey Stites, who was murdered in 1996 and found dumped by the side of a road near Bastrop. Bastrop resident Rodney Reed was tried and sentenced to die for her murder but has maintained his innocence. Reed's supporters have long thought Fennell was a far more likely suspect – Reed's family and friends argue that Fennell was enraged to discover that his white fiancée was having an affair with Reed, who is black. (For more on this, see "Who Killed Stacey Stites?" May 24, 2002.) Reed's conviction is currently on appeal, pending before the Court of Criminal Appeals. Fennell is scheduled for sentencing in Williamson Co. District Judge Burt Carnes' court on June 24. – Jordan Smith
There will be no run-off election for Place 1 on the Austin Community College board of trustees. On May 15, candidate Harrison Keller issued a statement reading: "Over the past few days I have reviewed the election results, and I have learned that the cost of the upcoming runoff ... could cost the college up to $400,000. Given that I joined this race to expand educational opportunities for our community and to make sure that taxpayers' money is spent as efficiently and effectively as possible, I think this money would be better spent on ACC's educational programs. Therefore, after careful consideration, I have decided to withdraw from the runoff election and to donate the balance of my campaign funds to the Austin Community College Foundation." A professional data-cruncher, Keller no doubt saw the writing on the wall in those results: Leading vote-getter Tim Mahoney garnered 49% of the vote on May 10, well ahead of Keller's 33%. "I have told Mr. Keller that I appreciate his difficult decision to withdraw," Mahoney wrote in response. "The Runoff would have cost ACC hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Mr. Keller's challenging choice was for the benefit of ACC and the community at large." – Lee Nichols
Annexation of Round Rock into the Austin Community College taxing district passed by 64.5% of the vote on May 10. With the tax boost, ACC will build its largest facility to date, to house 10,000 students, at University Boulevard and CR 112. After the measure passed, Stephen Kinslow, ACC president, addressed an ecstatic crowd. Community efforts to pass the measure, he said, would "set the benchmark for future annexations," further promising new district residents – who'll enjoy a 67% reduction in tuition immediately – that ACC would "continue to amaze you" as the flagship campus is built. "The community voted ... and made history," said Raymond Hartfield, who co-chairs ACCtion 4 Education. Also to celebrate, Charlie Dromgoole, of the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce, flung hats inscribed with "Expand Higher Ed in Round Rock" and made in the 1990s to the crowd, quipping he'd finally gotten rid of them. "This has been a long time in coming," Kinslow concurred. The pro-ACC group overcame hardcore opposition, as voiced at WilliamsonRepublic.com, where bloggers have written that annexation would leave homeowners "powerless" and have called the tax hike "obscene." – Patricia J. Ruland
Sad news from Austin's Yellow Bike Project, a volunteer-run collective known for rehabbing and releasing free yellow-painted bikes, as well as for operating free community bike workshops and afterschool programs for kids: Last Thursday evening, three young men estimated to be about 14 to 16 years old stole the laptop computer YBP uses to log in its volunteers. As the three fled across a field toward East 51st Street, Argos, a Labrador-mix dog belonging to a YBP coordinator, chased the kids and was hit by a car on 51st. Neither the kids nor the car stopped. On the way to an emergency veterinary clinic, Argos stopped breathing and died later that night. The police were called, and a report was taken over the phone, but officers never came to the scene, volunteer Simon Evans says. Russell Pickavance, Argos' owner, said he's not actively pursuing the thieves, but he wants them to know that their actions had real, painful consequences, "so they might grow as humans." Yellow Bike is accepting donations toward the vet clinic bill; see www.austinyellowbike.org if you'd like to contribute. – Daniel Mottola
Less than two months after he was told by his City Hall bosses – that is, City Manager Marc Ott – to shape up and, in the words of Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald, lead the city's Fire Department "into the future," Austin Fire Department Chief J.J. Adame resigned his position on May 7, effective immediately. Apparently Adame wasn't acting chiefly – relying too much on his chief of staff, McDonald noted in a March memo. Adame told reporters that he was surprised by the memo and that his fall job-performance evaluation rated him as meeting "expectations." Nonetheless, Adame, who came to Austin from Corpus Christi and was hired by former City Manager Toby Futrell, has left the building. Ott told reporters he hopes to have a new chief lined up within six months; meanwhile, Jim Evans, the former chief of staff upon whom Adame apparently too heavily relied, has been named by Ott to serve as acting chief. Among the first moves Evans made: appointing the department's first-ever female assistant chief. Evans tapped Division Chief Dawn Clopton for the job last week to fill the spot being vacated by retiring Assistant Chief Flo Soliz. – J.S.
Capital Metro has confirmed that it will add bus links to the new light-rail system but is fighting back against pressure to close the bus stop in front of the Legislature. At its Monday meeting, the board of directors approved several route changes and voted to start the public consultation process on fare increases. But the board did not vote to close the Capitol Transfer Center – the benches at Congress and 11th that Gov. Rick Perry claims are a security risk. The board "wants to make sure they've exhausted all alternatives," said spokeswoman Erica McKewen, and it plans to reopen discussions with the State Preservation Board. While many existing routes will undergo schedule changes, the biggest switches will be to Downtown commuter services. Five new MetroRail connector routes will provide direct bus service for the Convention Center and MLK Boulevard stations when the Red Line light-rail service starts in late fall. The current 'Dillo routes will be canceled, to be replaced by a north-south and an east-west route, with more regular services running longer in the day. The approved changes will take effect on Sunday, Aug. 24, except for the MetroRail connectors, which enter service when the light rail does. – Richard Whittaker
The Texas State Employees Union is holding a memorial event this weekend for noted local union activist Paul Sherr, who died last month. A founding member and later executive board member of the TSEU Local 6186 of the Communications Workers of America, Sherr was a tireless advocate for worker rights. He brought a public voice to public affairs, such as in his position as chair of the city's Day Labor Community Advisory Committee and in his work for Texas Labor Against the War. In lieu of flowers, the organizers say "friends are urged to make a generous contribution, in money, work, or both, to the organization of their choice that is working to build the kind of society that Paul worked for all his life." The event will be held at the Texas AFL-CIO, 1106 Lavaca, on Sunday, May 25, at 6pm. Catering is potluck, so bring a dish. – R.W.
A perfect storm of storms: Two simultaneously wild weather patterns tracked west to east across Austin last week, bringing with them power outages, shattered windows, bird massacres, and giant trees twisted out of the ground by their roots. Hail was frighteningly large in some areas and eerily plentiful in others, as in Tarrytown, where it covered the ground like a thick blanket of snow, with drifts reportedly reaching 18 inches high. Some meteorologists conjectured that we were hit with a "dangling" tornado that never quite touched ground, while others said it was simply a supercell. In any case, the sunshine was back the next day, along with the tree trimmers (actually, the trimmers didn't even wait that long – Eastside resident and Chronicle Community Listings Editor James Renovitch was handed a tree trimmer's business card as he surveyed his block's damage at 1:30am Wednesday night). Thankfully, at press time, a week after the storms, the citywide sound of chain saws had finally dissipated. – Nora Ankrum
• It's not how long it is, it's how long it's been going: 16 years. Dr. Joycelyn Elders brought the Trojan Brand Condoms Evolve sexual-education bus to Austin on May 19 to help launch the 16th Texas HIV/STD Conference, organized by the Texas Department of State Health Services. The five-day event, which ends today (Thursday, May 22), brought researchers, policy-makers, and health-care professionals together at the Renaissance Austin Hotel to discuss practical approaches to reducing STD rates and encouraging safe sexual behavior – a good idea, since Texas is No. 1 in teen pregnancies and syphilis rates are rising. Elders, the first African-American and second woman to become U.S. surgeon general, is a strong advocate of comprehensive sex education and famously said, "Vows of abstinence will break more easily than condoms." The conference ends today, but the Evolve bus will be touring the country through November. – Richard Whittaker
*Oops! The following correction ran in the May 30, 2008 issue: In last week's News section, a photo caption reporting on a historic Hyde Park home tagged for demolition stated that Steve Sadowsky, the city Historic Preservation officer, overruled the Historic Landmark Commission's recommendation to preserve the home. In fact, it was a technical procedural error – the clock ran out on further consideration of the case – that moved Sadowsky to issue a demolition permit on the Avenue F home. The Chronicle regrets the errors.