The Austin Chronicle


September 9, 2011, News

• Central Texas has been devastated by a series of major wildfires that broke out over Labor Day weekend, claiming hundreds of homes and thousands of acres, including much of Bastrop State Park. Travis County Commissioner Karen Huber was among those evacuated from their homes; the Bastrop home of former City Council Member Betty Dunkerley was spared despite initial reports it was destroyed. City officials this week were trying to ascertain how many city employees were affected by area fires. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized the use of federal funds to pay for firefighting costs in six counties affected by the fires, meaning the President's Disas­ter Relief Fund will cover 75% of eligible state and local costs.

City Council doesn't convene this week but gathers Monday for what may be a prolonged slog through the city's fiscal year 2012 budget. Budget adoptions in recent years have been largely pro forma, but council members predict this year might see a fuller discussion on the dais, with park facility privatization a recurring theme. Council is posted for action Sept. 12, 13, and 14, should it need all three days.

• While Central Texas burned, Mayor Lee Leffing­well was a visible presence at press conferences and media briefings, but Austin Fire Department Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr was not. As the Austin American-Statesman reported, Kerr was vacationing in Colorado over Labor Day weekend. While her absence did not appear to hamper any fire response, the future of the embattled chief, plagued by hiring and diversity issues, appears decidedly hazy.

• Speaking of the Statesman: Editor Fred Zipp announced his retirement last week, saying, "I have felt my passion for the job wane and decided to leave so that others can pick up the fight." Managing Editor Debbie Hiott will serve as editor while a broader search commences. This comes as Statesman parent Cox Media Group pushes for layoffs in Ohio and discusses centralized copyediting of its major dailies.

Betty Baker – once called "the eighth council member" due to her longtime board and commission service – is again chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission after an error led to a ZAP chair election last month where Baker was demoted to vice chair. The vote is rescheduled to occur this month – but whether Baker, who has helmed ZAP since its inception in 2001, will still be on the board is unknown. Her term is up, and she was last reappointed by former Council Member Randi Shade.

• Another week, another education ranking: The Texas Education Agency has released its Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas for 2009-10, and Austin, Del Valle, Eanes, and Leander ISDs all earned "superior achievement" status for their financial management processes.

• Veteran Austin defense attorney Keith Hampton announced last week he'll again run for a spot on the Court of Criminal Appeals, taking on newly appointed GOP Judge Elsa Alcala.

• On Tuesday, Sept. 6, Austin Water enacted Stage 2 mandatory watering restrictions because of the exceptional drought conditions. Residents and businesses may only water once a week, including sprinklers, irrigation systems, hoses, and soaker hoses. Restrictions also limit water use for ornamental fountains, pools, and ponds. See for full info.

• The path for Texas A&M to switch athletic conferences may lead through the courts: Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe released a letter saying the remaining colleges in the conference would not sue if A&M quit, but the Southeast­ern Conference has said there's actually a lawsuit pending, thought to have been filed by Baylor.

• There are no City Council meetings the next two Thursdays, Sept. 8 and 15, but there will be City Council budget readings Monday-Wednesday, Sept. 12-14, beginning with the 9am Monday meeting in Council Chambers where council will vote to set the property tax rate for the next year. The city's Council Meeting Information Center, "Your one-stop source for Austin City Council meeting information," doesn't mention when or where the other meetings take place.

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