Ten Local Stories That Got Overshadowed
Most of these could top the charts in a normal year ...
1) Jan. 23: Council Nixes Low-Level Pot Busts In 2019, the Texas Legislature legalized hemp, defined as cannabis with a THC concentration of less than 0.3%. Because the test to determine that percentage is not widely available, many district and county attorneys subsequently decided not to prosecute low-level possession of marijuana cases. At the beginning of 2020, Council unanimously voted to end such arrests (which are already discretionary) in Austin; however, Austin Police Department Chief Brian Manley pushed back, saying possession "is still illegal and APD will still enforce marijuana laws." Even so, though arrests are still possible, there's no longer a possibility of a court case or jail time. – L.F.
2) Feb. 10: Yeakel Dismisses Survivors' Suit U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed a class-action lawsuit filed by eight rape survivors against the Austin Police Department, the Travis County District Attorney's Office, and the city and county themselves. Yeakel cited state legislative progress in 2019 to improve the response to sexual assaults as a reason for the federal court to abstain from getting involved. The plaintiffs argued that their constitutional rights had been violated by persistent failures within the local justice system, and that women survivors had been treated inequitably because of their gender. – C.E.M.
3) Feb. 4: First Travis County Public Defender The Travis County Commissioners Court named Adeola Ogunkeyede as the county's first-ever chief public defender, heading an office that will represent those accused of crimes who cannot afford to hire an attorney. Travis County had been the largest jurisdiction in the nation without a public defender's office, and still outsources many of its cases to court-appointed private attorneys with the Capital Area Private Defender Service. – C.E.M.
4) Feb. 18: All Aboard for Resignation Station The spring saw lots of moving and shaking in Texas education. In February, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, announced he'd be stepping down to become the founding dean of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. A day later, Austin ISD Superintendent Paul Cruz announced he'd be making a similar move to work with UT's College of Education. Then, barely a month later, UT President Greg Fenves said he'd be leaving the flagship to preside over Emory University in Atlanta. Out with the old ... – C.E.M.
5) March 18: City Loses LDC Court Challenge Just as COVID-19 arrived in Austin, District Judge Jan Soifer voided City Council's votes on first and second reading to approve its Land Development Code Revision, because the city failed to provide written notice to property owners and to recognize owners' right under state law to protest the changes. At the time, many were concerned this would further delay a code-writing process that had already lasted nearly six years, and would force Council to muster a nine-vote supermajority to adopt a code. But as of now, the whole thing is on indefinite hiatus, because COVID-19. – L.F.
6) July 8: UT Pushed Toward Equity Fenves' resignation (No. 4, above) heralded a slew of other changes made during a summer of protest against institutional bigotry. From March to July, the Husch Blackwell law firm conducted an external review and made recommendations to revise UT's sexual discrimination policies "to help those who experience sex discrimination receive better support," according to a July 8 letter from (then-interim) UT President Jay Hartzell. Meanwhile, a list of demands signed by thousands and an open letter from the Longhorns football team called for reducing spending on both UT and Austin police, renaming several buildings, and changing the "Eyes of Texas" alma mater to something without a racist history. Hartzell responded with investments in athletic recruiting from underrepresented groups, honors for three Black athletes, and a vague promise to educate students about UT's past, but the equity demands of the summer remain largely unmet. – L.F.
7) Aug. 5: Save Austin Now Petition Fails Ever since Council voted to decriminalize sitting, lying, and camping in public last summer, activists opposed to Austin's new approach to homelessness have tried to get the bans reinstated, as the city and state conducted encampment cleanups. As groups and mutual aid efforts including the Other Ones Foundation, Stop the Sweeps, and Austin Street Forum provided food, water, shelter, and basic supplies to people living without housing, the Save Austin Now campaign mailed its petition to every Austin-registered voter. But on August 5, the city clerk ruled the GOP-aligned campaign had failed to reach the threshold of 20,000 signatures. – L.F.
8) Aug. 16: 136 People Choose One County Judge The timing of Watson's resignation (No. 4, above) and the subsequent special election to replace him (No. 6 under "Vote Early and Often") meant the task of picking current County Judge Andy Brown fell to 136 Democratic precinct chairs, 120 of whom are white. That's 119 more white people than the one – Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak, also co-founder of Save Austin Now (No. 7, above) – who selected Brown's subsequent token opponent on the November ballot. – L.F.
9) Nov. 9: AISD's Enrollment Crisis After delaying the first day of school by a month and beginning the semester online, Austin ISD still found itself below its projected enrollment by more than 5,000 students once they started to return to classrooms. The drop could represent over $50 million in lost funding for the district, and many of the missing students are in pre-K or kindergarten, an age where missing a year of schooling could have devastating consequences. – C.E.M.
10) Nov. 20: SBOE Recoils From Real Sex Ed The State Board of Education approved the first changes to Texas' sexual education curricula since 1997, including an expanded middle school curriculum covering birth control. However, amendments to include language around consent, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression were rejected by the Republican-dominated board. The new curriculum will go into effect in 2022 in those districts that choose to teach sex ed. – C.E.M.