News briefs from Austin, the region, and beyond
• Drug Charge Dropped in Sanders Case On Tuesday, Travis County Court at Law No. 5 Judge Nancy Hohengarten dismissed the misdemeanor marijuana possession charge against Michael Franklin, who drove Nathaniel Sanders II and Sir Smith home on May 11, the night Sanders was shot and killed by APD Officer Leonardo Quintana. The dismissal ("pending further investigation") came as Franklin was scheduled to go to trial for the charge, filed several weeks after the shooting. Prosecutors weren't ready to proceed Monday, in part because Quintana, a key witness, had called in sick to work. Franklin's attorney, Jason McMinn, argued at a pretrial hearing that Quintana had no reason to approach Franklin that night and thus had no reason to detain him or enter the car where Smith and Sanders were passed out. McMinn released a statement calling the case an "embarrassment" to the Travis County Attorney's Office and a waste of "time and money on a bogus political prosecution of my client in efforts to justify a police shooting." An outside investigation is slated for completion by the end of the month. The Citizens Review Panel will then review the findings, and APD Chief Art Acevedo will have until Nov. 7 to decide Quintana's fate. – Jordan Smith
• Safer SAFPF for Inmates? The Gateway Foundation of Chicago, which provides substance-abuse treatment in Texas prisons, appears to be losing its grip on the state, possibly due to accusations of prisoner maltreatment. In 2008, inmates of state-funded, Gateway-run Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities sent Austin attorney Derek Howard letters detailing abuses they'd undergone, including "tighthouse," in which inmates had to sit motionless in hard-backed chairs all day, sometimes for months at a time, while staff called them "bitches" and "bad mothers" as part of "confrontational therapy." (See "Rehabilitation or Torture?," May 23, 2008.) Last year, former inmate Kerry Wolf testified about her experiences with "torture ... in the name of treatment" before the Texas Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee – in response, committee chair Sen. John Whitmire praised Gateway prodigiously. But during the latest budget cycle, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice awarded Gateway only six of 10 treatment contracts it sought this year (nine of which it held previously), reducing its annual funding from $11.7 million to $6.2 million. New Jersey-based Community Education Centers has since taken over several former Gateway facilities. In an interview with the Chronicle, Howard credited inmate complaints with Gateway's partial ouster: "Four out of 10 – that's not a strike, but it's better than a gutter ball," Howard said. – Patricia J. Ruland
• Cash for Neighborhoods Neighborhoods, help thyselves – soon, with a matching grant from the city. Council members will consider a resolution Thursday to start a new initiative, modeled on Seattle's successful 20-year-old Neighborhood Matching Fund program. Council Members Sheryl Cole and Bill Spelman are co-sponsoring the resolution, which asks for a roll-out by Jan. 22. The program will invite applications from community groups in need of cash infusions for neighborhood improvement projects. (Seattle has four separate funds: Large Projects, Small and Simple Projects, Tree Fund, and Neighborhood Outreach and Development Fund.) City matching-fund awards would start in the 2009-2010 fiscal year, from unallocated funds already in departmental budgets; applicants would provide matching donations, materials, and/or volunteer services. The program could help remediate longstanding neighborhood frustration over the city's failure to fund top-priority improvements detailed in neighborhood plans. In Seattle, the$3.2 million program has proved a morale-booster and city-shaper, as residents partner with the city to build new playgrounds and pocket parks, plant trees, calm traffic, restore open space and wetlands, create active public spaces with public art, improve neighborhood business districts, and more. – Katherine Gregor
• An ACCtual Master Plan Seems like Austin has gone master-plan crazy recently, and now Austin Community College is getting in on the action – with the caveat that its approach may actually result in real policies. On Sept. 21, the ACC board of trustees met with members of the seven newly revamped campus advisory committees to explain their expanded role in future planning. Place 1 trustee Tim Mahoney, who spearheaded the initiative, explained that previously their involvement had been "ad hoc and not very systemic." Now, he said, "Cap Metro is doing a master plan, the city is doing a master plan, but we're building the structure first." The committees will bring a campus-by-campus voice to the development of a three-year institutional master plan, balancing the districtwide approach of the "at-large" trustees. Their input will become part of the annual review, as well as developing a facilities plan for operations through 2025, and trustees want to integrate both plans into the budget process. As ACC board President Steve Kinslow told attendees, if it's not in the master plan, it's not in the budget. There is a pressing need for a coherent vision: ACC's fall enrollment has risen from around 31,000 to 40,000 in six years. – Richard Whittaker
• Cost Concerns Cloud Climate Progress The local debate over the costs of going green heated up this week as several groups voiced apprehension over Austin Energy's generation plan, which aims to increase the use of renewables in providing electricity. Several commercial and industrial customers – including Samsung, Freescale, St. David's, and the Building Owners and Managers Association – formed the Coalition for Clean Affordable Reliable Energy, pushing for the plan to be postponed until, among other things, cost-forecast discrepancies can be resolved and federal climate legislation has been passed. Meanwhile, the Catholic Diocese of Austin raised concerns that potential rate increases could hurt AE's lowest-income customers. Other groups came forward to question the cost of not going forward with the plan, however. "It's a false choice ... to pick between clean energy and taking care of poor people," said Bee Moorhead of faith-based advocacy group Texas Impact. "If we don't do them both, we're not really fixing either issue." At press time, energy consultant Mike Sloan – who said that "Austin's cheapest sources" of energy in 2008 were in fact efficiency and renewables – planned to speak alongside environmentalists about the affordability issue prior to AE's Wednesday night town hall meeting, which both Texas Impact and area Catholic parishioners planned to attend. – Nora Ankrum
• AISD: Not 'a Rubber Stamp' According to Austin Independent School District disciplinary data, district schools are in fact pretty safe places, and students are fairly well behaved; serious incidents, and consequent mandatory removals, are rare. Although AISD, with about 90,000 students, is the fourth largest school district in the state, it has one of the lowest rates of disciplinary placement of kids in either of the district's alternative learning centers – about 2% since 2004. During the 2008-2009 school year, 1,713 students were subject either to mandatory or discretionary removal; about half were high school students.
Expulsions are "few and far between, and they are [all] very unique situations," says AISD student discipline coordinator Andri Lyons. "It's confusing because state law says we have to remove them for X, Y, and Z. But we don't know if X, Y, or Z happened before we provide due process. Otherwise it's just a rubber stamp." – J.S.
• Cats Sue TLAC On Sept. 11, District Judge John Dietz denied a request for a temporary restraining order in the case of Cats Across Texas & John Doe v. Dorinda Pulliam, executive director of the Town Lake Animal Center. Plaintiffs Cats and "Doe" had asked the court to order a temporary halt to all cat euthanasias at the shelter, and more specifically, to enjoin Pulliam and TLAC "from killing the living evidence, cats and kittens, housed at TLAC before or during the September 5, 2009, adoption of Plaintiff's kitten, named 'Sammie' at TLAC." According to the plaintiffs' petition, they blame Pulliam and TLAC for Sammie's respiratory illness, saying it was caused by negligence and poor hygiene at the shelter. They also describe conditions at the shelter as deplorable and ask that the court "halt all killing at TLAC pending the investigation of the proper authorities for TLAC's possible criminal and civil liability." Pulliam referred questions about the suit to the office of the city attorney, where assistant city attorney Patricia Link said she's preparing the city's response for the court, due Oct. 5. – Michael King