News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere
CAP METRO DRIVER GETS JOB BACK A federal labor arbitrator overturned the dismissal of Capital Metro driver Travis Cornelius, who was fired in 2006 for allegedly making harassing phone calls to Cap Metro President Fred Gilliam shortly after a one-day strike in 2005. Following the strike, Gilliam was the target of anonymous harassment, including a note signed "ATU Commandos" threatening to ship Gilliam "back to Houston in a pine box." The Austin Police Department opened an investigation into the case, and the first lead came when an anonymous caller left a message on Gilliam's machine instructing him to "eat shit and die." APD traced the call to a pay phone along Cornelius' route, pinpointed the time based on the caller ID, and gathered enough probable cause for an arrest warrant. Upon Cornelius' arrest, StarTran, which manages Cap Metro drivers, discharged him. But Cornelius was exonerated when it was found that at the time the call was placed, he was clocking out 20 miles away. Union leaders claim Cornelius, an outspoken union activist, was the target of retaliation for union activity, but the arbitrator said there was not sufficient evidence to support this claim. The arbitrator ruled that StarTran denied Cornelius due process and "arbitrarily acted on incomplete information." Cornelius will be reinstated with back pay. – Justin Ward
*Oops! The following correction ran in the August 15, 2008 issue: There were also errors in the article "Cap Metro Driver Gets Job Back," which reported that a harassing phone call had been traced to Capital Metro driver Travis Cornelius' route. In fact, according to Cornelius, he was driving along a different route, and the "probable cause" against him was not his route, but the statements of three Cap Metro employees who said the phone caller's voice belonged to Cornelius. He was exonerated not because he was clocking out 20 miles from the site but because, among other things, the federal arbitrator judged the voice-identification testimony to be suspect. In addition, the investigation was not conducted by the Austin Police Department but rather the Travis County Sheriff's Office.
OPPONENTS MOBILIZE AGAINST SH 29 BYPASS On Aug. 4, Williamson County's steamroller streak took a hit, as hundreds of citizens seeing red over the planned expansion of State Highway 29 wore red to a raucous "open house" hosted by county commissioners Cynthia Long and Valerie Covey. At issue is a multilane SH 29 bypass, proposed by the Commissioners Court, that would be constructed either to the north or south of Liberty Hill. Two groups opposing the road plan – Keep 29 Local and LibertyHillRiver.org, which advocates keeping the San Gabriel River countryside unspoiled by asphalt – pronounced the Wear Red campaign a success. According to one report from the event, when the audience was asked how many were opposed to both of the proposed routes, the entire crowd stood up. The mounting flap over the dubbed "Highway to Nowhere" could signal a shift in the political winds, too, as some WilCo GOP incumbents face Democratic opponents in November. – Patricia J. Ruland
EDUCATION AGENCIES BRAWL OVER GRANTS The Texas State Teachers Association and the Texas Education Agency will square off in court on Monday for an injunction hearing over the distribution of the agency's dropout recovery grant funds to two nonprofit programs and a San Antonio-area private school. TSTA has called the grants an effort to shift funding from worthy public schools to private schools. That would be illegal if these were funds set aside to pay for public education; instead, they're dollars out of the state's general revenue fund. TSTA calls the grants an effort to institute vouchers. Education Commissioner Robert Scott has denied the charges. Start-up money is set to go out to the various recipients on Aug. 18. Austin Independent School District was one of the public school applicants rejected for the $6 million grant fund. – Kimberly Reeves
NO MORE BROWNSVILLE BORDER WALL With both parties illustrating the adage "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has struck a deal with the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College to halt condemnation of university property recently pegged as the site of another leg of the controversial DHS border wall. In a July 31 press release from UTB/TSC, university President Juliet Garcia said that the agreement will serve "mutual interests." Indeed, UTB/TSC will keep its land and face no more court action initiated by DHS to slice off 180 acres of campus property with an 18-foot wall; in return UTB/TSC will raise the height of a current fence from 6 feet to 10 feet and outfit it with "high-tech devices," according to a report by the Rio Grande Guardian. In addition, both sides will jointly operate a new campus center to be built for the study of border issues, which will include a laboratory for testing new security and infrastructure technology. – P.J.R.
BOARDS AND COMMISSIONS APPOINTEES ANNOUNCED With a new City Council come new boards and commissions appointments, making the normally brief reading of appointees to the city's B&C system a long-winded yarn at City Council last week. Among the bold-faced names read into the record: Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder, newly appointed to the African American Resource Advisory Commission; Lone Star Cab founder Solomon Kassa, reappointed to the Commission on Immigrant Affairs; Democratic activist and campaign consultant Amy Everhart to the Commission for Women; City Council candidate Allen Demling to the Urban Transportation Commission; long-serving Betty Baker, reappointed to Zoning and Platting, along with fellow member Clarke Hammond; Donna Tiemann followed as ZAP's new appointee. Most notably, Shudde Fath was reappointed to the Electric Utility Commission, where she has served since 1977. "Shudde was one of the original members of that commission," said Mayor Will Wynn. – Wells Dunbar
RG4N AND WAL-MART MAKE NICE It's not quite a peace accord, but Responsible Growth for Northcross has pledged to work cooperatively with Lincoln Property Co. on new plans for a scaled-back Wal-Mart. In an e-mail sent out this week, RG4N announced it would be meeting with Lincoln this week and noted that some members had been critical of such an approach. The board, however, considered cooperation to be the best direction, at least until a revised site plan is filed with the city. The scaled-back Wal-Mart will be just under 100,000 square feet, with no parking garage and fewer trees cut down, according to the e-mail. RG4N has scheduled a public meeting for Aug. 21, 7pm, at St. Louis Catholic Church's Wozniak Hall, 7601 Burnet Rd., to discuss the new plans. – K.R.