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In Fact Daily is celebrating the MLK birthday holiday

Monday, January 19, 2004 by

Here are the stories from January 16, 2004:

Garcia declines to join District 10 race

Former Mayor will put his family first

Citing family and personal obligations, former Mayor Gus Garcia announced yesterday that he would not be a candidate for Congressional District 10. The new district stretches from Northeast Austin to the Republican suburbs north of Houston. Congressman Lloyd Doggett has held the seat for the past 10 years but is now running to represent District 25, which takes in parts of East Austin and stretches to the Mexican border. He will face former Judge Leticia Hinojosa of Hidalgo County.

Garcia thanked those who had encouraged him to run, adding, “I firmly believe that the Republican controlled Congress and the Bush administration is taking this country in the wrong direction, and my hope is that the Democratic Party Presidential slate wins in November. What the Democratic Party stands for in the areas of education, health care, equity, environmental protection and other critical quality of life issues are what has made this country great and I will continue working to revive these principles in Texas and in America.”

Garcia began his elective career in 1972 when he joined the AISD Board of Trustees. He was elected to the City Council in 1991 and retired in 1998. He came out of retirement to serve as Mayor from November 2001 to June 2003. He is working as a business consultant and as Senior Vice President of CAS Consulting and Services, Inc.

At mid-afternoon, no Democrat had filed for the District 10 race, while five Republicans had filed for the seat. Local favorite Michael McCaul, an attorney, joined Pat Elliott of Brenham, John Kelley of Houston, Dave Phillips of Cypress and Ben Streusand of Spring in seeking the nomination. The Republican nominee is expected to win the conservative district.

Republican Congressman Lamar Smith, whose district takes in most of western Travis County, had no opponent as of late yesterday. Smith’s District 21 also includes Blanco, most of Hays and Comal Counties, and northern Bexar County, where Smith lives.

Today is the final day for congressional candidates to file under the court-approved map. Democratic plaintiffs in lawsuits to overturn legislative redistricting have asked the US Supreme Court to block use of the new map until the court has made a decision on the constitutionality of the plan. Some Democrats remain hopeful that the court will act, but that seems unlikely to happen.

Municipal judges get three-week reprieve

Trio still hoping to keep their jobs

After about two hours of meeting in executive session, the City Council yesterday postponed a vote on whether to reappoint three Municipal Court judges or replace them. Associate Judges Celia Castro, John Vasquez and Mitchell Solomon had been told that Mayor Will Wynn, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Brewster McCracken, the three-member judicial subcommittee of the Council, were not recommending them for reappointment. Four other associate judges apparently will keep their jobs.

All three expressed shock at the recommendation. Solomon, who has been a Municipal Court judge for the past 10 years, said, “I really didn’t have a clue this was coming. I always worked hard and did the best I could. I get along with everybody.” He added that Presiding Judge Evelyn McKee had given him a good evaluation, which McKee confirmed. “I never heard anything negative from any of the attorneys,” who work at the court, he said. He said he had received a number of encouraging emails from former Municipal Court prosecutors.

Attorney Alberto Garcia, a member of the Travis County Bar committee which evaluated new applicants but not sitting judges, said this is the first time the Travis County Bar has done an online survey and “there were a lot of problems.” The survey was intended for attorneys who use Municipal Court. Members of the Criminal Law section of the bar association and members of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association were supposed to have access to the web site, he said. “The problem was getting into the web site because of the way you had to log in. Only 20-25 lawyers voted,” although as many as 100 might be expected to register their opinions.

Garcia estimated that 200-250 defense attorneys appear in front of the court’s judges. The majority of those see the judges as magistrates, who make decisions on the sufficiency of affidavits for arrest and search warrants, set bonds, grant or deny personal bond and advise prisoners of their rights. Although more people may see individual judges in connection with traffic tickets or other Class C misdemeanors, the same judges make decisions that can mean the difference between staying in jail for 12 hours or for months awaiting trial on charges ranging from Class B misdemeanors—slightly more serious than traffic tickets or public intoxication—all the way up to murder.

Without discussion, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman made the motion that the item be postponed to Feb. 5, 2004. Wynn said those who had signed up to speak on the matter could do so next month. Prior to that, In Fact Daily asked aides how much correspondence they were getting on the subject. Council Member Danny Thomas’ assistant Sandra Frazier said her office had received about 200 emails on the subject; 81 said mayoral assistant Janice Kinchion. Gloria Aguilera, assistant to Council Member Betty Dunkerley, said her office had received about 200 emails, all in support of the three judges whose jobs are threatened.

Marta Cotera was one of those waiting to address the Council on behalf of the judges. After the decision to postpone the matter, she said the Council could still appoint one new judge, since there is a vacancy. Judge Karrie Key resigned from the court this past fall. There are a total of nine judges at present, including McKee and Community Court Judge Michael Coffey. Of the total, only two are women and two are Hispanic. The Council committee proposed to replace Solomon, Castro and Vasquez with one Hispanic, one Anglo and one African-American judge. None of the three proposed appointees is female.

Alek Leo, vice president of the Travis County Sheriff’s Officers Association, wrote a letter on behalf of Vasquez, saying he is “an experienced and skilled judge” who has been “conscientious and fair,” in his dealings. Leo also expressed the group’s disagreement with the idea that Municipal judges should have “term limits.” Leo was responding to a comment by McCracken that the judge positions were not meant to be permanent jobs.

Leo wrote, “Before term limits are implemented, we encourage you to consider the collateral impact on the Central Booking Facility. A single judge is on duty at Central Booking between 7:00am and 1:00am every day of the year. As the Municipal Judges work alone, their experience and skill level directly affects the efficiency of the Central Booking Facility. Generally, the more experienced Municipal Court judges are able to quickly read and process a mass of paperwork. Consequently, Central Booking processes prisoners more expeditiously. By comparison, less experienced judges are more likely to take a longer time to review paperwork. Prisoners cannot be brought to court until their paperwork is reviewed. Thus, the quality of the judge affects the efficiency of the Central Booking Facility and the jail population.”

Vasquez said, “If there’s any silver lining to what is a very dark cloud it is that so many lawyers and so many community groups have come out in support of my reappointment. I’ve been called by representatives of all sorts of groups that appreciate the work I’ve done on behalf of foreign nationals and children and their support means a lot to me, as does the support the bar has uniformly given me. I was gratified that several lawyers on their own came to the Council meeting to testify on our behalf. I believe that means we’re doing a good job for the people of Austin.” .

Changes to SMART housing rules approved

Discussion focuses on reduction in time for houses to remain affordable

City Council members approved some changes to the requirements of the SMART Housing program Thursday night that supporters said would enable more builders to take part in the effort to provide affordable homes within the city limits. While the new guidelines included some technical changes, the portion that drew the most debate was reduction of the minimum time that homes built under the program must remain classified as affordable.

Homes built under the SMART Housing program without any federal funding have been required to remain affordable for five years. That meant that they would have to be reserved for home buyers making no more than 80 percent of the area’s Median Family Income for that time period even if the original family chose to move out.

“The current policy unintentionally has the effect of discrimination against target buyers…those making 80 percent or less of the MFI,” said John Harris of Centex Homes, which does not currently participate in the SMART Housing program.

“These buyers, should the need arise to sell their home…are currently encumbered with a five year restriction on selling to anyone other than another targeted buyer, which is a small portion of the overall market.” That was a key factor, he told the Council, in the company’s decision not to take part in the SMART Housing program. “The five year requirement is not something we can sell.” Instead, he supported the staff recommendation that the requirement be reduced to one year. “The changes are a reflection of what works and what did not work,” he said. “The changes proposed should allow Centex Homes and other national builders of affordable entry-level housing to utilize the benefits of the program.”

That one-year time frame matches the requirements of federal loan programs utilized by many of the first-time homebuyers who take part in the SMART Housing program. “These reasonably-priced homes are financed through the VA or the FHA, and they require homeowners to stay in the home for at least one year,” said Community Development Officer Paul Hilgers. “So a one-year affordability period is not burdensome to the homeowner or the builder.” He warned that without modifying the guidelines, the city would miss out on the opportunity to make significant additions to the affordable housing stock. “Several subdivisions totaling more than two thousand single-family homes may become exclusively market-rate housing if some of these changes aren’t adopted,” he said.

While builders supported the changes, some East Austin residents sounded an alarm about the impact that new housing development is having in their area. Since the SMART Housing program made it easier for developers to build homes, they argued, improving the program would spur new development and further the gentrification of their area. “I think that SMART Housing is only going to gentrify our community even more and displace more people,” said Susana Almanza of PODER. Although the homes are targeted at families at 80 percent or less of the Median Family Income, Almanza told Council members that standard was too affluent compared to the incomes in parts of the city’s East side.

“We see it as a tool for further displacement for our community,” she said. Sabino Renteria, chair of the city’s Community Development Commission, agreed. The Commission endorsed the changes to the guidelines, but Renteria urged the Council to consider the rising property values in east Austin. “The way it is now, our property values increase 100 percent in East Austin. It was $20,000 and now it’s $40,000, which is really putting a squeeze on the existing homeowners in that area,” he said. “This is one of the items that we’re going to be looking at . . . are we really doing a service by in-filling with SMART Housing when it is raising the values of the existing houses in the neighborhood?”

But supporters of the SMART Housing program denied it was linked to gentrification. “Gentrification is almost always involved in taking existing housing…refurbishing that, rebuilding that, or taking existing in-fill lots and placing new housing on that,” said Harry Savio, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin. “That is not the SMART housing program. The gentrification…there are a number of options open if that becomes a policy issue for the Council. The SMART Housing program…the portion that we’re addressing…is for new housing subdivisions and does not relate to gentrification as I know it.”

Council Members Raul Alvarez, Daryl Slusher, and Jackie Goodman all had questions about the new SMART Housing guidelines, with Slusher and Goodman adding conditions and modifications from the dais. Those changes were enough to win the unanimous support of the members present. The vote was 6-0 in favor of the new rules, with Council Member Brewster McCracken off the dais.

Monday holiday . . . City of Austin offices will be closed and In Fact Daily will take the Monday off in honor of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. . . . Darwin McKee honored . . . Mayor Will Wynn and Water Utility Director Chris Lippe presented Darwin McKee a Distinguished Service Award at Thursday’s Council meeting for his years on the Water and Wastewater Commission. “Thank you for the many years of service you’ve given us, thank you for the guidance, and especially thank you for your friendship,” Lippe said. McKee resigned from the Commission in November after 11 years of service, the last nine as Chair. “It has been a pleasure to serve,” said McKee. He also offered his thanks and praise to the fellow board members he worked with over the past decade. “Think of the talent, the breadth, and the depth of people that you have looking at issues that confront the City of Austin. I’m firmly convinced that the service of people on the volunteer boards and commissions have kept bad deals from going forward and have enhanced good deals,” he said. “I have been fortunate to have served, and at some point in the future I’d like to serve again”. . . Board and commission appointments . . . The Council appointed Hector Ortiz by consensus to the Parks and Recreation Board, Theresa Jenkins to the Music Commission and Timothy Riley to the Environmental Board. Consensus reappointees include Maxine Barkan to the Arts Commission and Stephen Parks and Donato Rodriguez III to the Mexican American Cultural Center Advisory Board. Council Member Betty Dunkerley appointed Laura Dooley and Council Member Daryl Slusher reappointed David Mintz to the Library Commission. Council Member Raul Alvarez reappointed Bruce Wilson to the Construction Advisory Committee . . . Planning Commission chair to return . . . Planning Commission Chair Lydia Ortiz, who has been on maternity leave from commission duties since giving birth eight weeks ago, told In Fact Daily she plans to return to her commission chores in two weeks. Ortiz and her husband, Hector, the new appointee to the Parks Board, are the proud parents of a son, Santiago . . . Zoning cases . . . The Council postponed three possibly controversial zoning cases, including a change from general office-mixed use to the highest density multi-family residence in the UT area. A number of items were approved on consent, but there were no discussion items. .

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