The Top 10 Austin News Milestones of 2018
Days like these
By Mike Clark-Madison, Mary Tuma, Nina Hernandez, Sarah Marloff, Austin Sanders, and Michael King, Fri., Dec. 28, 2018
The biggest stories of any year in Austin tend to unfold over weeks and months, sometimes fading and then roaring back, sometimes intersecting with each other. For 2018, we aimed to give some sense of structure to a chaotic year in news by locking these stories down to specific points in time; it's both difficult and unwise to rank them in order of importance, but the stories of the year aren't random events either. Here's how the year unfolded from the vantage point of the Chronicle news desk. – Mike Clark-Madison
FEB. 16: The Austin City Council adopts Texas' first ordinance to guarantee paid sick leave
Led by District 4 Council Member Greg Casar and advocacy coalition Work Strong Austin, and following hours of passionate testimony, the city adopted an ordinance – the first in Texas – requiring businesses with more than 15 employees to provide up to eight days of paid sick leave; smaller businesses would provide up to six. In addition to illness, the ordinance also applies to taking leave for legal action related to domestic abuse, sexual assault, or stalking, or to take care of sick family members. Advocates pointed to the community benefit of not forcing sick employees – among the more than 200,000 Austin workers who had no guaranteed leave – to interact with the public. The labor protection became a target of anti-Austin, anti-worker hysteria. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, representing the Texas Association of Business and others, fought the ordinance in court with the blessing of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, preventing it from taking effect Oct. 1 as planned. Ultimately, the 3rd Court of Appeals ruled in November that mandated paid sick leave violated the state's minimum wage laws – a dubious and misguided decision in the eyes of labor advocates. The three-judge panel remanded the lawsuit back to District Judge Tim Sulak for a full trial in 2019; Rep. Matt Krause, R-Ft. Worth, has already filed a bill for the upcoming 86th Texas Legislature that would ban cities from implementing paid sick leave rules. Once again, taking steps toward a more equitable society in our city threatens the state powers-that-be. Frankly, that's pretty sick. – Mary Tuma
MARCH 12: A bomb delivered to an Eastside home explodes, killing Draylen Mason and injuring his mother
The bombing spree that killed two, injured six, terrorized Austin, and made international headlines actually began on March 2, with the death of 39-year-old Anthony Stephan House; that explosion drew relatively little media attention and was downplayed by law enforcement. But the second attack, which killed 17-year-old Mason, a student at East Austin College Prep and member of the Austin Youth Orchestra poised for a successful musical career, was followed within hours by an explosion in Montopolis that grievously wounded 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera. At that point, during South by Southwest, the shaken city knew a serial killer was loose in its midst; an army of FBI and ATF agents came to assist then-Interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley in the investigation. After three more incidents that injured another three people, the trail led to 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt, a Pflugerville native raised in an evangelical Christian household who still lived nearby with two roommates. After a short chase early on March 21, as SWAT officers surrounded his truck in a Round Rock hotel parking lot, Conditt detonated his final explosive and died. Manley would go on to become Austin's permanent police chief, with City Manager Spencer Cronk and other leaders citing his even-keeled performance during the crisis. – Nina Hernandez
APRIL 5: Bird scooters appear in Austin, without a go-ahead from the city
Just as Uber and Lyft did in 2014, Bird (and a week later Lime) decided to ask for Austin's forgiveness rather than permission, flooding the streets with dockless electric scooters and incurring the ire of the Austin Transportation Department – but also proving enormously popular as a "first/last mile" mobility solution throughout Central Austin. After being threatened with having their entire fleet confiscated, the two operators backed off and allowed the city to quickly adopt emergency rules governing how many and what kind of dockless units – including conventional and electronic bikes as well as scooters – could enter the Austin traffic scrum. More operators joined the fray in the subsequent months (including Uber and Lyft themselves), with a predictable negative impact on the city-sponsored dock-based bike-share system, Austin B-cycle. By the time permanent dockless mobility rules were adopted by the city in October – a month that saw nearly 300,000 miles traveled by scooter and dockless bike users – the buzzy little beasts had become a fixture in the physical and cultural landscape, with lawyers trolling for scooter-injury cases, our first scooter-based DWIs, and innumerable social media posts and barroom arguments. – Mike Clark-Madison
JUNE 4: Southwest Key calls the police on U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) at its Casa Padre youth shelter in Brownsville
When news that hundreds of children had been ripped away from their families at the border under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy, the shock waves rippled through the nation – and also hit home. East Austin nonprofit Southwest Key catalyzed local and national anger when it refused to allow Merkley entry into the converted Walmart in Brownsville that now serves as a migrant youth shelter. Revelations that Southwest Key was enabling family separations by housing hundreds of minors in its 27 shelters in Texas, California, and Arizona put the group and its CEO Juan Sanchez in the hot seat. Digging deeper, media reports exposed incidents of sexual abuse and medical neglect at the facilities, and Sanchez drew fire for his $1.5 million salary, one of the highest in the country for a nonprofit leader. Protesting in front of his Northwest Austin home, newly formed local activist group Frente de Liberación Inmigrante called on Sanchez to break his hefty federal contracts, to no avail. The New York Times later revealed more questionable practices, writing that Southwest Key "stockpiled taxpayer dollars" and possibly "engaged in self-dealing with top executives." Sanchez told the Chronicle at the height of the controversy that certain "limitations" kept the group from speaking out: "They fund you and they expect you to support the policies of the administration." – Mary Tuma
AUG. 9: City Council votes unanimously to scrap CodeNEXT
The city's attempt to rewrite Austin's stodgy, 30-year-old land use code met its maker in August after six years of effort and $8.5 million in consultant fees. Though it already feels like a fading bad dream, CodeNEXT was a black hole of city politics for the better part of two years (the first draft dropped in January 2017), sucking in city staff from numerous departments, both land use commissions, neighborhood activists, local urbanists, the mayor and Council, and the media. When the third draft was unveiled in February, three months behind schedule, CodeNEXT proponents – staff, advocates, and volunteers – were hopeful, but the flame flickered out fast in the face of several lawsuits aiming to thwart the project, one of which persisted in proposition form all the way to the November ballot. After a month of confusing deliberations, Mayor Steve Adler came back from Council's summer break resolved that CodeNEXT must die so that real land use reform could move forward. After the mayor's resounding triumph in his November re-election bid, it's safe to assume that rewrites to the land use code will make next year's Top 10 list as well. – Sarah Marloff
AUG. 15: Council votes to move forward with deal to bring Major League Soccer to Austin
As of year's end, Austin still doesn't officially have its first major league sports team, but the future Austin FC is looking more real than ever. The term sheet approved in August between the city and Precourt Sports Ventures produced a deal that became official just last week (Dec. 19) to construct a soccer stadium on the city-owned McKalla Place property in Northwest Austin near the Domain. Despite a groundswell of support from soccer-mad Austinites, the MLS2ATX set-piece looked for a while like it'd be busted apart from three different directions. First, fans and civic leaders in Ohio – home to PSV's current franchise, the Columbus Crew SC – mounted an all-out PR and legal push to keep their team, which ended with new owners ready to facilitate a deal allowing both state capitals to have MLS squads. Second, opponents at City Hall, led by CM Leslie Pool (whose district includes McKalla Place), attacked the deal on multiple fronts, forcing it away from other city-owned sites before eventually being defeated on the dais. And third, a fairly bumbling and unexpectedly bigoted Astroturf campaign to throw the whole thing to voters – ostensibly a populist effort by IndyAustin, but mostly funded by PSV's rival sports entrepreneurs at Circuit of the Americas – stalled out by year's end. – Austin Sanders
OCT. 22: Austin Water issues its first ever boil-water notice to utility customers
Only a few years ago, Central Texas (and much of the state) was gripped in a years-long drought, the worst in Texas since the legendary "Years It Never Rained" of the Fifties. More recently, we've been caught in a flood-and-drought cycle that reflects the unpredictable but intensifying effects of climate change. Houston and the Gulf Coast endured Hurricane Harvey in 2017; Central Texas began its own "aquapocalypse" this year with the wettest September in state history. That was followed by even worse flooding in October, causing catastrophic damage in communities along the Highland Lakes and sending the equivalent of "four and a half Niagara Falls" (according to Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros) flowing per second downstream. The deluge threatened to flood Downtown and overwhelmed AW's treatment system, where officials eventually mandated the first-ever "boil water" notice for the entire city of Austin. Residents were also asked to reduce usage while the utility dealt with a massive increase in sediment produced by the upstream flooding. The restrictions, initially anticipated for a couple of weeks, ended after six days – Austin Water is working on an "after action" report to City Council, including peer review by independent civil engineers. In December, Meszaros assured Council that "our water system is sound" – while everyone hopes we're not just whistling past the watershed. – Michael King
OCT. 31: City announces the completed testing of the entire backlog of APD rape kits
2018 has been a complicated year for local rape survivors, their advocates, and the justice system that is supposed to serve them. The year started hopefully: Dr. Dana Kadavy took over APD's forensic division (a year and a half after the DNA lab was shuttered) and was on track to clear the department's massive backlog of untested rape kits, the last of which were sent out to contracted labs for testing in April. But Casar's October announcement was soon overshadowed by national reports that police departments throughout the U.S., including APD, often clear rape cases without ever making a single arrest (despite usually having identified a suspect), which reopened questions about whether the new forensic evidence would bring anyone closer to justice. On Dec. 4, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley announced he'd requested an audit of the department's processes, to be conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety. An exit briefing is now expected to happen in January, as advocates voice concern over whether DPS is qualified to conduct such an audit. Meanwhile, in June, three local rape survivors filed a lawsuit against Austin and Travis County law enforcement agencies, alleging that systemic failures have led to gender discrimination and mistreatment of women rape survivors. By August, five additional survivors added their names to the suit. Last week (Dec. 17), U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel heard oral arguments on the city and county's motions to dismiss the suit, with a decision to come in 2019. – Sarah Marloff
NOV. 6: Mayor Steve Adler wins re-election in a landslide; Dems gain four local legislative seats
After November 2016, apprehension was only understandable – would the popular backlash against Trumpism be realized at the polls, or would hope meet defeat once again? The national returns told the tale: Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans by 8.5 million (more than an 8% advantage), and the national turnout was the highest for a midterm election since 1914. The "blue wave" landed most strongly in the U.S. House, where Democrats countered widespread gerrymandering and picked up 40 seats and a majority; it was echoed in Texas, where El Paso's Beto O'Rourke became a national brand and Democrats picked up a dozen Texas House seats, including four in the Austin metro area. Locally, incumbent Mayor Steve Adler handily defeated former City Council Member Laura Morrison (and a brace of also-rans), and (after run-offs) will lead a 2019 City Council that's younger and more urbanist than before. Voters enthusiastically supported bonds for housing, parks, libraries, social services, etc., but rejected ideologically charged propositions concerning the land use code and an external audit of city spending. Local Democratic politics saw its own tsunami in the spring, when young "Our Revolution" activist Dyana Limon-Mercado arrived apparently out of nowhere (not really) to defeat veteran party hand Anne Wynne in a symbolic generational changeover that seemingly reflected national party changes. She may well calm a recently fractious organization that needs focused energy – 2020, and the fate of Travis, Texas, and the nation, is already looming. – Michael King
NOV. 15: City Council approves a new four-year, $44 million contract with the Austin Police Association
One of our top stories from 2017 was the collapse of the draft police contract in December, rejected by a City Council troubled by its fiscal impact and urged by justice activists toward more robust civil rights protections. As the city and union went back to the table, Austin's new police monitor, Farah Muscadin, led a working group of stakeholders – from activists to cops to lawyers – to determine new best practices for an oversight system, leading to a relaunching and strengthening of Muscadin's office (now the Office of Police Oversight). While the working group crafted its recommendations on oversight, discipline, and transparency, negotiators struggled with the money issues, blowing up when APA President Ken Casaday broke all kinds of decorum and stormed at Council Member Jimmy Flannigan during an October meeting. Weary police, activists, and city staff celebrated a hard-fought victory when both Council and the APA membership approved the new deal before Thanksgiving. – Nina Hernandez
Top 10 News Headlines of 2019
1) Trump Flees to Crimean Dacha; House Impeaches President Pence
2) Mickey Drowns as Category 6.2 Storm Destroys Magic Kingdom
3) Javanka Children Adopted by Obamas
4) Bullhorn Seeks Restraining Order Against Alex Jones
5) Mayor Steve Adler Crafts Peace Deal in Jerusalem
6) Longhorns Make College Football Playoffs, Surrender to Alabama After First Quarter
7) Preservationists File Suit to Stop Teardown of Frank Erwin Center
8) City, Cap Metro Approve Funds to Study Domain-to-McKalla Water Slide; COTA Protests
9) Texas AG Paxton, Wife, Pastor, Special Friend, Local Pool Boy Indicted in Bitcoin Mining Scandal
10) Sen. Schwertner's Naked Evil Twin Returns to
Port Charles Georgetown, Sends Sexts
Top 10 Faceplants of 2018
1) Laura Morrison. Losing to Steve Adler, OK, expected. Not winning a single precinct, that takes work.
2) James Valadez. The most serious challenger to the most vulnerable incumbent; spent more of his own money than any Council contender; finished with 7%.
3) IndyAustin. Faux-populist front group for angry rich white men's money showed its entire ass with Pepe the Frog gaffe.
4) CodeNEXT. Six years, $8.5 million, and by the end even its friends wanted to see it dead.
5) Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Somebody please teach these people how to award a contract.
6) Emily Donahue. A uniquely graceless exit that paralyzed KUT's newsroom for months.
7) Jason Dusterhoft. From APD assistant chief to jobless Bad Lieutenant cosplayer in less than 12 months. Enjoy the cocaine!
8) Alex Jones. And not a moment too soon for this tool!
9) Mark Zuckerberg. He was going to run for president (next year, when he's old enough). Now he's lucky to have a job.
10) Cody Wilson. Why didn't he just 3-D-print himself some jailbait? (Nope, still creepy.)
Top 10 Ways the City of Austin Will Create "Government That Works for All"
1) Stress relief zones in Council chambers with baby goats and pigs to pet and feed.
2) Real-time Leslie Pool and Jimmy Flannigan GIFs for open-data meme generator portal.
3) Uploading Zilker Resident David King into the matrix to allow him to speak on every item beyond his natural life span.
4) Serving liquor when Council meetings go past 10pm (cash bar 'til midnight, then open bar 'til last call).
5) Stationary B-cycle locations where tourists will be required to generate electricity to heat water for showers for the homeless.
6) Hotel bed tax dividends paid out to every single Austin resident, so "the people" can sustain "the culture" that attracts visitors.
7) "Name Your Own Price Tool" for Austin Water bills
8) Prohibiting any Council member from living within three miles of any other Council member.
9) Auctioning off Department-Head-for-a-Day positions exclusively on Nextdoor.
10) Granting density bonuses only to winners of best-of-three Rock'em Sock'em Robots contests.