News briefs from Austin, the state, and beyond
• BIG Aquifer fight Hays County has become the latest party to join a contested case against Jeremiah Venture LP, a group planning a 607-acre subdivision in Hays Co., on a site located in the Edwards Aquifer watershed, adjacent to Austin watershed protection lands and a rock-crushing site. Hays Co. Commissioner Jeff Barton introduced the motion to join the suit, which was unanimously passed. The opposing parties were divided into three groups at a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality hearing Jan. 26. Hays joins the city of Austin and the Lower Colorado River Authority in one group, Save Our Springs Alliance is in another, and the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is in the third. The developers want to discharge 330,000 gallons of treated effluent across more than 122 acres. Opponents are concerned that the proposed site may contain significant recharge features and that the thin, rocky soil will allow runoff to seep into the aquifer. – Jacob Cottingham
• TINA LOSES RNC BID Republican Party of Texas Chair Tina Benkiser has failed in her run to replace Jo Ann Davidson as co-chair of the Republican National Committee. In December, Benkiser struck a deal with former Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell to run on a joint ticket. But on Jan. 30, the 168 RNC members selected former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as the RNC's first African-American chair and former RNC Western States Association Vice Chair Jan Larimer of Wyoming as his co-chair. –Richard Whittaker
• MILES AND MILES OF BLUE A new Gallup report throws the idea of Texas as a red state into question. In "State of the States: Political Party Affiliation," released Jan. 28, the polling firm reports that of 19,415 Texans surveyed in 2008, 43% described themselves as Democrats or Democrat-leaning, while only 41% self-identified as Republicans. Republican Party of Texas spokesman Hans Klingler called the figures a rallying cry for Republicans and said the 2010 elections will belong to "the party that is able to reach out and capture that middle and claim them as conservative and liberal." He argued that Democrats had failed the real test, which is parlaying that support into winning a statewide race. –R.W.
• EASY WITH THAT MATCH The Texas Forest Service is urging citizens from Austin to San Antonio, south to Cotulla, across the Hill County, and over to the Rio Grande to be aware of heightened wildfire danger due to low humidity levels and high winds. Said Tom Spencer, TFS predictive services department head: "This weather, added to critically dry fuels, such as grasses and trees, can lead to very high to extreme fire danger." Central Texas has the potential to see very dangerous wildfires due to the prolonged drought. Through February, grasses and trees are expected to remain critically dry, and conditions could lead to wildfires that will be hard to contain and can quickly endanger public safety. – Michael King
Austin's first female fire chief, Rhoda Mae Kerr, was sworn in Jan. 30 before a packed audience at City Hall. The fourth-generation firefighter was chief of the Little Rock Fire Department before accepting the Austin post last year. She takes over a department that continues to struggle with how to diversify its ranks. "There is really a great value in having diversity in any organization," she said at the ceremony. Monday was Kerr's first official day on the job, overseeing a department of more than 1,000 firefighters for $160,000 a year.
– Jordan Smith
Rally for Yogurt Shop Defendants
Supporters of yogurt shop defendants Michael Scott and Robert Spring-steen took to the street Jan. 24, calling for charges against the two to be dropped. The two men await a retrial for the grisly 1991 murder of four teen girls. New DNA evidence found on the girls does not match either defendant, which supporters say exonerates the two men (see "Yogurt Shop," Jan. 16). The pair are due back in court in early March for a hearing that should determine whether they'll have a chance to be released on bail while awaiting trial. – J.S.
Hyde Park Baptist Loses Appeal
On Jan. 30, the 3rd Court of Appeals rejected the appeal of the Hyde Park Baptist Church of a decision in Travis Co. district court that found the church liable for negligence in its day-care program. In the original lawsuit brought by Tara Turner and Terry Curtis on behalf of their son Parker, the jury found that in 2004 and 2005, longtime teacher Sue Lowry had "physically, emotionally, and verbally abused" Parker in her class for toddlers and that the church's negligence had contributed to his injuries. Day-care administrators had been told repeatedly of Lowry's rough treatment of the children, including Parker, but did not respond until a teacher's assistant, acting on her own, initiated an investigation by Child Protective Services. The jury awarded a total of $163,562 to the family, including pain, past and future medical expenses, and mental anguish. Hyde Park appealed the award and the jury's 80% allocation of fault to the church. Writing for the court, Justice Diane Henson rejected the appeal on all grounds and affirmed the trial court's judgment. For more detail, see "When the Bough Breaks," Nov. 17, 2006.
Riding to the Rescue
City officials recently joined the Greater Austin Crime Commission to unveil the group's gift of two new motorcycles outfitted for use by city paramedics. The addition of the motorcycles is part of Austin-Travis Co. EMS' efforts to become more nimble within a changing urban environment – the bikes will allow medics to get to calls more quickly, especially within increasingly congested Downtown, where ambulances can have trouble maneuvering quickly.