News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere
This 2006 photo, taken at Danny Young's Texicalli Grille restaurant, exemplifies Young's zest for life. The local restaurateur, musician, and political junkie died Aug. 20. On Tuesday, friends and family gave the "Mayor of South Austin" a proper send-off, followed by a reception at Antone's. Friend and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin recalled a favorite Young mantra: "Never trust a skinny cook." "He was never shy with the fries, the chicken frieds, and the catfish, all washed down with at least one original formula Dr Pepper," he said. In a similar vein, Doggett said, Young's restaurant "was always the place to get the skinny on what was happening in South Austin." The Texicalli, in fact, was the venue for one of Doggett's political ads about the need to support "folks like a Texicalli waitress" with federal student financial aid.
Justice for Would-Be Suicide Victim
Foiled again, Williamson County has failed its latest attempt to stamp out the use-of-force lawsuit Richard Graves v. Don Zachary. In 2004, Zachary, a WilCo sheriff's deputy, nearly killed Graves by shooting him twice as Graves held a gun to his own head, threatening to kill himself; the deputy has argued in numerous motions that he believed Graves might have turned the gun on him. But, on Aug. 12, New Orleans' 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld for a second time a 2007 decision by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks denying Zachary's motion for summary judgment, which, if granted, would have ended the case. Now, the lawsuit is most likely headed back to Sparks' court for trial. "This makes my week," said a jubilant Graves. "All Graves has ever asked for," said attorney Jeff Edwards, "is a jury of his peers to decide whether Zachary used excessive force. [WilCo's] done everything in their power to prevent this." Though Zachary may appeal yet again, Edwards doubts that the U.S. Supreme Court would consider his appeal because "the 5th Circuit has applied the law correctly in this case." Assistant County Attorney Steven Ackley, who's defending Zachary, could not be reached for comment. (For more, see "WilCo Follies," June 27.) – Patricia J. Ruland
The Harrold Independent School District school board, just west of Wichita Falls, voted last October to approve a policy allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons onto the district's single K-12 campus. The policy didn't go into effect until Monday (thus giving teachers time to get their concealed carry permits and complete required training before the new school year began), and the news has brought mixed reviews. In a guest editorial in the Wichita Falls Times Record News, Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, applauded the board for its "visionary approach toward student safety." But the policy did not go over so well with gun-control advocates at the national Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, who said the policy might violate Texas law. The district must comply with the Texas Education Code, which mandates that security be provided by commissioned peace officers trained and licensed to do such work. That legal provision conflicts with a portion of the Penal Code highlighted by HISD officials to allow teachers to pack heat – under the code, firearms are banned on school property except when the school has authorized an individual to carry. The law "doesn't say a school district is allowed to come up with their own system," Brady Campaign spokesman Doug Pennington told the Times Record News. – Jordan Smith
Don't Need No Stinking RSVPs
Immigration Reform Effort, a grassroots organization recently organized to oppose the incarceration of noncriminal immigrant families at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, will host a Sept. 24 public forum, they say, even if government officials continue to snub an invitation to participate. According to organizer MaryEllen Kersch, the organization's vision is to provide a setting for "dignified, serious" discussion, but the group has received no response whatsoever from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement – which funds and fills detention centers – or from Corrections Corporation of America, which operates many of them. District 31 U.S. Rep. John Carter "won't attend, won't send a representative," Kersch told the Chronicle, and though WilCo Commissioners Court administers the facility, County Judge Dan Gattis hasn't confirmed, either. Regardless, the show must go on: Scheduled to attend are Barbara Hines, litigator in successful Hutto lawsuits; Wayne Krause, of the Texas Civil Rights Project; Bob Libal, of Grassroots Leadership; and Jose Orta, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens Council 4721. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for details. – P.J.R.
Elgin Rail Beta Test
Proposed commuter rail service between Austin and Elgin has been officially selected as the first regional transit project to go through a Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Transit Working Group "decision tree" evaluation – most likely in mid-September. An Aug. 25 memo from Doug Allen, Capital Metro executive vice president, to Cap Metro's board provided the rationale: "strong interest from project partners (City of Elgin), the fact that Capital Metro already owns the rail right of way, and the relative simplicity of the project relative to others being considered." The other motivation: The learning curve from this "beta test" of the Transit Working Group review process should smooth the way for the more complex (and potentially controversial) Downtown Austin streetcar circulator proposal and subsequent financing plan, expected to be ready for Cap Metro board and City Council review in November. At press time, the board was expected to seal its concurrence with Allen at a work session on Wednesday. In other transportation news, Cap Metro is submitting a request for federal funding for two initial MetroRapid bus transit lines: North Lamar/South Congress and Burnet Road/South Lamar. If awarded, the multi-tens-of-millions federal funding check would be cut in 2010. – Katherine Gregor
Stay of Execution for Convicted Nonmurderer
Just hours before Jeffery Wood's scheduled execution Aug. 21, San Antonio federal District Judge Orlando Garcia granted the Texas death row inmate a 30-day stay of execution in order to give the court time to weigh Wood's claim that he is too impaired to be killed. Wood was deemed incompetent to stand trial in 1997 – as a "party" to the murder of his friend, Kris Keeran, the year before – because he was incapable of assisting in his own defense. After a brief stay at a state hospital, Wood was found competent to stand trial. Still, during the sentencing phase of his trial, he tried to fire his lawyers, which the judge would not allow, and then he refused to allow them to either call or cross-examine witnesses – effectively hobbling his team's ability to demonstrate that he did not deserve to die. Wood's appeal attorneys asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to stay his execution and appoint an expert to assess Wood's mental health. The court refused, forcing the appeal into federal court. Judge Garcia intervened, opining that a system that would force a defendant to make a "substantial showing" that he is too ill for execution without the aid of mental health experts is, "by definition, an insane system." (For more, see "Defense Lawyers Try to Halt Execution," Aug. 15.) – Jordan Smith
E-Voting Machines Take Over
Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir went before the Commissioners Court Tuesday to request the purchase of 35 more eSlate electronic voting machines for an expected heavy turnout in this fall's election. Meanwhile, advocates of a return to paper ballots turned out to demand no further money be spent on devices they say can't be trusted. In repeating the same points that they've made ad nauseam before, they didn't make much of an impression. "What is it going to take for you and the other public servants to listen and understand that using machines that count our votes secretly is wrong?" asked VoteRescue's Karen Renick in frustration. "I would say we are done presenting you with the evidence because unless you tell us what it's going to take, we don't know what to do." Judge Sam Biscoe replied: "It may help us to hear something new and different. I think we get your point, and I don't know that hearing it multiple times helps a whole lot." Biscoe said there was insufficient time this election cycle to make major changes in the county's voting system. Commissioner Ron Davis said he'd like to see VoteRescue's concerns addressed within a year. Ultimately, the vote passed 4-0. – L.N.
Austin's New Pardner
The two finalists for director of the Parks & Recreation Department gave presentations and talked with City Council members on Monday and later met with citizens' groups at two town hall meetings. Cindy Curtis is PARD director in Virginia Beach, Va.; her friend and colleague Sara Hensley is PARD director in Phoenix. Either would bring fresh energy, knowledge, national perspectives, and professionalism to the perennially funding-challenged Austin parks department. The two spoke about the importance of community involvement, volunteerism, and early PARD involvement in planning for new development. Of the two, Curtis provided more specific suggestions for improving Austin's PARD operations. A final selection by City Manager Marc Ott, in consultation with council and other staff, is imminent. – Katherine Gregor
Stop Domain Undies
Supporters of the Stop Domain Subsidies charter amendment got their undies in a bunch last week in a dispute over ballot language. City Council was scheduled to set the amendment wording at their meeting last week, the latest they legally could for the November election. The meeting agenda contained language SDS supporters thought was city legal's recommendation – until City Attorney David Smith noted it was only a "placeholder." "I've had about 35 seconds, 45 seconds to examine the [new] language," SDS leader Brian Rodgers said, angered considering the amendment was approved back on Feb. 19. The Texas Libertarian Party's Wes Benedict, clutching overpriced tighty-whiteys from Domain-housed Neiman Marcus, was incredulous, asking council if they were "smart and corrupt" for opposing the amendment or "just stupid." Eventually, Council Member Randi Shade produced language the council and SDS supporters agreed on: "Shall the City Charter be amended to prohibit the City from entering into future agreements to provide financial incentives in connection with the development or redevelopment of property that includes one or more retail uses, and to stop the City from providing financial incentives under certain existing agreements in connection with the development or redevelopment of property that includes one or more retail uses?" – Wells Dunbar