Fire in San Marcos apartments offers lessons for homeowners

Emergency personnel continue search and recovery efforts at the Iconic Village apartments, where a fire broke out early Friday, in San Marcos, Texas, on July 20, 2018.
LYNDA M. GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

In researching an editorial about the fire that tore through two apartment complexes in San Marcos recently, I spoke to safety experts who scared me straight about fire safety – and not just in multifamily residences and college dorms, but in my own home.

With busy lifestyles, fire safety typically isn’t high on our radars. It should be. Protecting one’s home requires more than installing a few fire alarms. Along with alarms, homeowners should have other devices on hand, such as fire extinguishers and fire escape ladders. Also, homeowners should have an exit plan.

“People underestimate how fast and how hot fires grow,” said Jeffrey Shapiro, a fire engineering consultant who lives in Austin.”

“Then you see something like this.”

Shapiro was referring to the fire that broke out at the Iconic Village and Village Pads apartments in San Marcos on July 20.

READ EDITORIAL: San Marcos fire raises questions about safety of renters

Five people were killed in the blaze that spread through three buildings in the complex. To escape the fire, some residents said they jumped out apartment windows. Survivors said they didn’t hear fire alarms go off. Instead they said they got notice their building was burning from others who knocked on their doors at 4:30 a.m.

San Marcos authorities are investigating the cause of the fire and whether smoke alarms in apartments malfunctioned.

Automatic sprinkler systems are the most effective protection against fires in apartments because they limit the spread of fire until firefighters arrive. Sprinkler systems save lives, studies show. But those apartments were built in 1970 before sprinkler systems were required for multifamily residences. State law requires that all multifamily residences have fire alarms. Tenants are responsible for replacing the batteries.

Certainly, I have installed fire alarms in my home that detect smoke, the ones that use nine-volt batteries. What I didn’t know was that those fire alarms should be put in every bedroom – if not every room – along with installing one in the kitchen. And there are better models on the market that don’t require regular replacement of batteries.

“Fire alarms activate only where smoke is,” Shapiro said, adding that if the alarm is in the kitchen and a person is asleep in the bedroom when a fire erupts, then he or she “might not get an early warning.”

Aside from placing them in each room of the house, homeowners should consider upgrading to tamper-resistant fire alarms powered by lithium batteries that last for 10 years. The sealed versions can’t be easily opened without breaking the units, said Andy Teas, vice president for public affairs for the Houston apartment Association. At less than $30 each, they are affordable.

Another option are wireless smoke alarms that create an interconnected system so that when one alarm is triggered, all alarms in the home sound off.

RELATED: Ex-residents at San Marcos apartments recall faulty smoke detectors

Fire extinguishers especially crafted for home use also are a good investment, Teas said, because they can suppress a fire if used timely until firefighters arrive. Placing extinguishers in a kitchen and a bedroom makes sense because kitchens are where grease fires break out. But be careful not to place too close to an over or stove. An extinguisher used effectively can put out a small fire or buy time to escape. They range in price from about $20 to $80.

Shapiro mentioned something I had not heard of, a fire escape ladder, for people who live in two-story homes. They are portable, roll-up ladders that mount to walls or windows and can be a way out when doorways are blocked by fire. They should be kept in bedrooms near windows, he said. I found them online, ranging from $25 to $160.

Think ahead so you don’t get trapped in your home if a fire breaks out, Shapiro and Teas said. That means knowing different ways to exit a home. It might mean going out a window if there is no way to make it to the first floor, or out a back door, or even off a roof.

“We’ve gotten used to not having fires, so we are not thinking about fire safety in our homes,” said David Mintz, vice president of government affairs for the Texas Apartment Association. “We’ve got to be thinking about these things.”

He is right. Fire safety in our homes must be a priority.

Community event offers free wellness knowledge, and BBQ, too

 

As a longtime church music minister and funeral director in East Austin and Manor, Barry J.W. Franklin has stood at the intersection of some of the most vexing challenges confronting African Americans: Health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease, and financial illiteracy.

Those challenges, he says, have diminished the quality of life for so many people he regularly interacts with in church pews and funeral homes – folks who have lost their inheritance, homes and health, essentially because they lacked the knowledge and savvy to address those issues timely.

On Saturday, Franklin is doing something about it by bringing experts, ranging from doctors and nurses to financial planners and insurance professionals to East Austin’s Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex — which by the way, should be renamed for the late Eric Mitchell, who as a council member in the 1990s secured the federal HUD dollars to build it.

READ: Fiery one-term council member was part of pro-business minority, rattled status quo

That’s a story for another column. Back to Saturday’s event, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the entertainment complex, 1156 Hargrave St.

Thanks to a host of volunteers and Franklin, who is paying for the venue, barbecue and fixings, the event is free. All are welcome.

“African Americans need to be educated on important issues while they are living so they can improve their health, survive old-age with dignity and hold on to their homes and inheritance,” Franklin said, explaining why he is hosting what he calls “A Community Celebration of Health and Wealth.”

Franklin says the event will feature information and screenings regarding diabetes, heart disease, high and low blood pressure and cancer – several of the chronic illnesses that disproportionately afflict black Americans.

The good news for African Americans is that their death rate has decreased by 25 percent from 1999 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bad news is that African Americans, ages 18-49, are two times as likely to die from heart disease than whites; and they are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than whites, according to the CDC.

RELATED: African American health

Another overlooked health issue is oral care for children and adults. Franklin’s got that covered with dentists and other specialists who will be on hand to provide information about that. He wants to increase awareness of oral cancer and gum disease.

Franklin says he didn’t limit the health and wellness fair to health issues because finances also play an important role in a person’s quality of life.

“I’ve seen many people pass away and leave their estates to family members and others who aren’t equipped to handle those assets, back taxes and related matters,” Franklin said. “That lack of knowledge has contributed to people losing their homes in East Austin and putting folks in debt.”

Aside from financial and estate planning, experts will be on hand to discuss wills, trusts, reverse mortgages, social security and veteran benefits and various kinds of insurance.

Among those supporting Franklin’s event is the Rev. Henrietta Sullivan Mkwanazi, co-pastor for historic Metropolitan AME Church in East Austin.

“Even those of us with college degrees have a hard time distinguishing between whole life insurance and term life insurance,” she said. “This is three packed hours of knowledge on that and many other topics.”

Mkwanazi continued: “There is an old saying that ‘knowledge is power’ and people suffering from a lack of knowledge don’t know how to tap into the things that need to be done to improve their health and welfare.”

On Saturday, the public can tap in to what Mkwanazi called “free knowledge” at the community celebration.

Phillips: Why Criner has all-white jury in UT murder case, and not jury of peers

 

Potential jurors are sworn in before jury selection in the capital murder case of Meechaiel Criner, the transient man accused of killing University of Texas student Haruka Weiser in April 2016, in District Judge David Wahlberg’s 167th district court Monday July 9, 2018.
RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Travis County prosecutor Rickey Jones concedes an all-white jury is far from ideal in a case in which the defendant is an African American, who would be sentenced to life without parole if he is found guilty of the capital murder charge he faces.

“It doesn’t look like a jury of one’s peers,” he told me. “People – especially African Americans — notice those things and raise questions.”

Those are the very questions Jones wants to avoid, not just in the current high-profile case in which Meechaiel Criner is on trial for killing and sexually assaulting University of Texas student Haruka Weiser, but in felony criminal cases that involve lengthy prison sentences.

Criner, 20, has pleaded not guilty to the 2016 crime on UT’s campus. He would spend the rest of his life in prison if the all-white jury finds him guilty.

Jury selection in the case brought into focus the deep distrust people of color harbor about the criminal justice system. Along with other challenges (such as concerns about missing time from work or not having child care) that affect most people’s ability to serve on juries, the belief that the criminal justice system discriminates against African American and Latinos makes it tough to seat them on juries, Jones said.

READ: Meechaiel Criner trial: Race at issue in second day of jury selection

That kind of revelation coming from a prosecutor is uncommon. But Jones, assistant director of the trial division for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, knows something of the difficulties in seating blacks on a jury. He worked as a criminal defense lawyer for 23 years before joining the DA’s Office. From that perch, Jones got an up-close look at the jury-selection system.

In many cases, including Criner’s, Jones said it was not mostly prosecutors striking blacks from the jury, but blacks taking themselves out of jury selection because they don’t trust the criminal justice system can be fair to African Americans. While jurors publicly uttering those beliefs during jury selection can be rehabilitated by a defense lawyer, prosecutor or judge, it’s the next step that disqualifies so many African Americans, he said.

“If they have this belief (about the criminal justice system), I can put that aside if they say they can be fair in this case,” Jones explained.

“If they say, ‘no,’ they can’t be fair in this case, then that is the end of it because that is the law.”

Jones said that is the step that eliminates minority jurors. He has witnessed many African Americans come right out and say that they would be unable to be impartial in assessing evidence and deciding sentencing of a black defendant charged with a serious felony.

“That is where we lose our black jurors,” he said. “We can’t rehabilitate them after that.”

Jones doesn’t deny that African Americans have good reason to believe the deck is stacked against them when it comes to the criminal justice system. The many exonerations by juries of police officers for shooting and killing unarmed African Americans under questionable circumstances are a case in point.

Then there are the patterns and practices of too many prosecutors who have been known to strike African Americans from juries because of their race, particularly in serious felony or death penalty cases involving black defendants. Such practices spurred the U.S. Supreme court to bar racial discrimination in the selection of juries.

In Texas, such practices were unearthed in 1986 by The Dallas Morning News which cited a 1963 internal memo in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office directing prosecutors when picking juries not to take “Jews, Negroes, Dagos, Mexicans or a member of any minority race on a jury, no matter how rich or how well educated.”

Such behavior by Dallas prosecutors continued, according to an analysis by the Morning News that showed as recently as 2002, Dallas County prosecutors were excluding eligible black prospects from juries at more than twice the rate they excluded whites.

RELATED: Study: Blacks routinely excluded from juries

A study reported by NPR in 2010 showed ongoing discriminatory tactics by prosecutors.

Bryan Stevenson’s nonprofit group Equal Justice Initiative detailed widespread discrimination in the selection of jurors across the Deep South. One of the most troubling reasons prosecutors cited for dismissing black jurors, Stevenson said, were assertions about their intelligence, even though many of those potential jurors were college graduates.

Those dynamics continue, including in the Criner case.

One African American was struck for having a felony background, as required by law. Another was struck by a prosecutor who questioned his fitness to serve because a questionnaire he answered had many confusing answers, Jones said.

But three of the other four blacks were dismissed because they were unable to follow the law regarding impartiality and fairness because of their views regarding the criminal justice system, Jones said. The fourth was let go for similar causes because of her views that the criminal justice system treats people with mental disabilities unfairly.

Aside from losing those potential jurors, another Travis County minority resident, who said he recently became a naturalized U.S. citizen, stated that during his time living in the country he has come to believe that minorities accused of a crime do not get fair trials. He, too, was dismissed.

With that, the standard – a jury of one’s peers – fell. An all-white jury was seated.

Jones believes things must change to prevent further erosion of public trust. He is right.

That has got to start with African Americans not opting out of jury service because of their legitimate beliefs about discrimination in the criminal justice system. Having those beliefs is OK, but as jurors, they must be impartial in assessing a defendant’s guilt or innocence regardless of his or her race.

Preventing unfair or unjust verdicts and sentencing requires sacrifice in giving one’s time to jury service when called. And it requires fairness from prosecutors in not using lame excuses to strike qualified people of color to justify keeping African Americans and other minorities off juries.

 

Phillips: Without context, officer’s use of force draws scrutiny

A man pictured in a viral video being punched by an Austin police officer early Wednesday was armed with a knife and threatening staff at a downtown bar, according to court documents.
Justin Grant, 23, was charged with drug possession, resisting arrest and making a terroristic threat and was booked into the Travis County Jail after a clash with police outside the Rain bar early Wednesday that was captured on video and shared more than 5,000 times, documents and images show.

 

The video of an Austin police officer punching a man in the face as he lay restrained on the ground is disturbing. One officer grabs the man’s arms, while the other officer sits on top of his legs, delivering a series of hard blows to a seemingly defenseless suspect. A third person who is not an officer helps restrain the shirtless man.

No wonder the video went viral.

But here’s the thing: Context is important. And as Austin Police Chief Brian Manley cautions, context can’t be seen or determined from a video recording showing only part of the incident, which happened early Wednesday in downtown Austin.

Context, as Manley says, means knowing what happened in the moments before a bystander started recording the incident. That should be available from footage of body-worn cameras of two officers, who arrested the suspect. But here’s another thing: Those cameras failed.

One fell off an officer — or was knocked off — as he was trying to arrest the man, Justin Grant, 23. A second body camera worn by another officer stopped working.

“There was a lot that happened prior to the part that has been displayed in public right now,” Manley said. “I understand the community’s concern with the video as it was posted. I don’t think it was readily known that the suspect at that time was in possession of a deadly weapon.”

RELATED: Video of Austin officer punching restrained man under police review

Manley was referring to a 6-inch knife, which according to police and witnesses, was tucked in Grant’s waistband. A witness said Grant could be seen reaching for the weapon as two officers approached him on Fourth Street. Police also say Grant tried to reach for his knife during the altercation.

Officers were called to the scene because Grant reportedly was threatening staff at the Rain nightclub early Wednesday. Grant ultimately was arrested and charged with drug possession, resisting arrest and making a terroristic threat, according to court documents.

Given what’s on the video, the arrest has become controversial, raising questions about whether the officers used reasonable or excessive force.

Manley has called on his Internal Affairs division to get answers to that question. The inquiry, he said, will turn on information gathered from police, witnesses, the nightclub and viral video, among other things. The chief has asked for others who witnessed the incident to come forward with their accounts or cell phone videos.

Austin police say Justin Grant, 23, was arrested Wednesday, July 4, 2018, after threatening staff at the Rain nightclub early Wednesday.

What won’t be part of the inquiry is what would have been the most objective account of the incident because the officers’ body cameras failed. Those cameras have been successful in providing independent, factual accounts regarding APD’s use of force because they captured the entire episode.

On several occasions, officers were proved to be acting with reasonable force after supervisors reviewed the footage from body-worn cameras. Such evidence was invaluable in how those incidents were perceived by the public and handled by police brass.

This week’s controversial arrest, however, illustrates the limitations — and deficiencies — of body-worn cameras, which were supposed to be sturdy enough to endure contact between police and suspects in arrests that get physical.

What I learned, however, is that the Axon-manufactured body cameras Austin police use are attached to their shirts, using powerful magnets. While hard to pull apart, it’s not uncommon during physical contact for them to slide apart, then fall to the ground. That is apparently what happened Wednesday with the first officer’s body camera.

As for why the second officer’s body-worn camera stopped working, that still is a mystery.

Manley says there is no indication that the officer turned his camera off, and in fact the camera was recording before it suddenly stopped. He added that it didn’t capture any of the incident.

The chief said he is working with Axon to look at better ways of harnessing cameras to officers’ uniforms. As to that other camera that just stopped working, Manley said he would examine whether it is a lemon that should be replaced or whether the malfunction signals something bigger with body-worn cameras.

Do they, for instance, have a technical default that causes them to stop under certain conditions?

In the short run, it’s a problem for APD, which has come under national scrutiny for its use of excessive force. The department has not shaken the stigma of the violent arrest a few years ago of a small-framed African American schoolteacher, Breaion King, after she was stopped by an Austin officer for a traffic violation. That was caught on video, which also went viral.

The city made a huge investment in body-worn cameras in response to King’s arrest and other incidents that involved excessive or deadly force. Those cameras are key to a healthy relationship between police and the public. They protect police and the public and help hold officers accountable. But body-worn cameras aren’t useful if they don’t function in the moments we need them most.

If context is important, then body-worn cameras need to work.

 

Precourt’s MLS stadium proposal faces new, legal hurdles

Precourt Sports Ventures wants to build a Major League Soccer stadium on this city-owned tract at McKalla Place. JAY JANNER / American-Statesman

Whatever the Austin City Council decides to do in its negotiations regarding a proposal to bring Major League Soccer to Austin, it should check two boxes: Be on firm legal ground with the letter and the spirit of state law, and fairly compensate taxpayers in the way of direct benefits akin to the arrangement the city has with the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

That is why it’s a good idea for the city to immediately clear up new questions raised by Austin lawyer Bill Aleshire about whether the proposal for a professional soccer stadium on city-owned land violates state law.

It also would be wise for Precourt to sweeten the deal for taxpayers.

In a letter sent this week to City Attorney Anne Morgan, Aleshire stated that the city cannot lease, transfer or give away McKalla Place to Precourt Sports Ventures under state law unless the city receives compensation, totaling more than $18 million, or uses the land for a purpose consistent with its owner – Austin Water.

“Based on what information has been disclosed publicly, the City of Austin is on the verge of violating laws that prohibit property acquired with water utility bonds for specific use by the utility to be leased to one who would devote the premises to an inconsistent use,” Aleshire wrote in the letter to Morgan.

“McKalla Place is an Austin Water Utility asset purchased and improved with water bonds paid by Austin water utility customers. A soccer stadium is not a water utility use.”

If that is true, it throws a curve ball (excuse the baseball metaphor) into professional soccer stadium negotiations, which already are raising concerns about whether Austin is getting a fair deal, or as Council Member Ora Houston has said, “giving away the farm.”

I contacted Morgan, the city attorney, for a response.

“We did advise our council in executive session,” she told me via email. “While I cannot disclose what we advise in executive sessions, I can tell you that if council asks the city to go forward with negotiations regarding McKalla, we will explore and address the issues raised by Mr. Aleshire.”

In a unanimous decision Friday morning, the council directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to analyze Precourt’s proposal and begin stadium negotiations. In a separate action, the council passed a resolution seeking alternative proposals for McKalla Place.

At this point, few – including myself – can determine the legitimacy of Aleshire’s assertions or whether they have any merit at all. The city is in the best position to clarify those matters and should do so publicly to limit speculation that is likely to cloud or confuse matters regarding the use of McKalla Place for professional soccer or, for that matter, other purposes, such as a mixed-use development. To allow such questions to simmer without clarification is unfair to the water utility and its users, Precourt and the public.

Aleshire asserts that state law prevents the council from selling McKalla Place to Precourt without taking competitive bids. He did say, however, the council does have authority to use the land for a purpose consistent with the water utility – a stipulation he joked isn’t satisfied with a few rain water collection barrels or low-flush toilets.

Matters might end up in court, Aleshire told Morgan, unless the city sheds light on the legal questions raised by using property owned by Austin Water for sports or entertainment purposes.

Again, this is speculation, but if Aleshire’s assertions do have merit, it would seem that the city would have methods to make the water utility whole, clearing the way for soccer or other uses of McKalla.

Aleshire’s caution should not be taken lightly. He prevailed in a previous legal skirmish with the council regarding the city’s attempt to grant water utility fee waivers to the Pilot Knob housing development, getting the council’s action reversed and declared void.

READ: Pilot Knob violated state, federal law

Those new legal questions come as Austin City Council members are in talks with Precourt about its proposal to lease the 24-acre McKalla property for $1 a year. The initial terms of the agreement would cover 20 years, but with options that permit Precourt to renew under the same terms, the contract could run 80 years.

Precourt has proposed financing the construction of a $200 million stadium on the site for its Columbus Crew, SC, which it wants to relocate to from Columbus, Ohio, by year’s end. Because the property – including the stadium — would be owned by the city of Austin, Precourt wants a deal that would exempt it from paying property taxes to the city, Travis County, Central Health, Austin Community College or financially-strapped Austin Independent School District.

Some on the council have downplayed such taxpayer subsidies, arguing that the economic and social benefits Major League Soccer would yield for the city outweigh other financial considerations.

That argument ignores the fiduciary responsibility of council members to consider the highest and best use of a public asset — prior to a decision. That doesn’t mean a soccer stadium isn’t the best use, but that can’t be determined in a vacuum.

That is especially true, given city records provided by Aleshire.

Austin Water, the city’s water utility, purchased the property in 1995 for $1.4 million, city records show. That distinction requires the city to at least recoup the utility’s $18,261,323 investment over time.

So far, Precourt’s offer, while significant in benefits to Austin’s private business community and the city’s overall economy, does not provide direct or meaningful compensation to Austin Water, those who pay fees to the utility, or city taxpayers.

As the Statesman’s editorial board has said, the proposal deprives students and families in Austin district schools and ACC of badly-needed tax revenue the city likely would realize from other private developments that paid property taxes to those jurisdictions.

RELATED: Negotiate MLS stadium deal on Austin’s terms, not Precourt’s

Precourt seems to be getting the message. This week it announced it would build up to 130 units of affordable housing on the site with a parking garage. The details are sketchy, but that would be a solid benefit to taxpayers, helping Austin deal with its Austin’s affordability crisis.

If the sports franchise wants to win over critics, it should look to the city’s arrangement with the ACL Music Festival in which the private venture uses Zilker Park to stage its festival two weekends a year, though preparations and clean up limit park use for weeks before and after the festival.

The city gets a solid return from ACL: Since 2006, ACL has contributed over $26 million to the Austin Parks Foundation for improvements to parks, trails and green spaces – and in 2016 alone, it donated $6.3 million for maintenance and improvements to hundreds of city parks. ACL also pays for the yearly restoration of Zilker Park’s Great Lawn.

Major League Soccer might well be a Kumbaya enterprise for Austin; might boost the city’s cool factor. Even so, the council should put its game face on and get the best deal for Austin Water users and taxpayers.

 

 

 

America the beautiful, now America the ugly under Trump

 

MCALLEN, TX – JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents ask a group of Central American asylum seekers to remove hair bands and weddding rings before taking them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

 

So, this is our America.

We’re now a country that gives cover and comfort to white supremacists who publicly slur Jews, African Americans and Latinos.

We’re a nation that defends extremes in gun regulation, even as our children and families are gunned down in our classrooms and churches by persons armed with weapons of war.

We’re a government that paints Muslims with a broad – and ugly – brush.

We’re a sovereign power that wants immigrant kids who grew up in our neighborhoods, have made us proud with academic accomplishments or service in our armed forces, to be exiled to the shadows of our cities or other countries because they lack legal papers or citizenship.

And we’re a country that rips migrant children from the protective, loving arms of their parents.

This is what America has become under the leadership of President Donald Trump. And it’s an America that we the people have endorsed with our votes, legal and justice systems, apathy and void of moral clarity.

Trump might have conceived it, but we now must own it.

That hard dose of reality reverberates in the voices of crying children seized at the Mexico-United States border.

Between May 5 and June 9, more than 2,300 children were separated from parents or adults with whom they were traveling, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Family separations are the result of Trump’s new zero tolerance policy, which refers all border crossings for federal prosecution, even though many migrants crossing the border illegally, mostly from Central America, are seeking asylum.

Up to this week, the public had a limited view of the impact of forced separations on the children. That changed when the nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica published what it said was a recording made inside one of the U.S. government facilities where children taken from their parents are housed.

We heard the raw, unfiltered cries of children calling out in Spanish for “Daddy!” and “Mommy!” We heard children sobbing deeply. We heard a girl repeatedly pleading with adults to call her aunt, whose phone number she had memorized.

RELATED: Hear children recently separated from their parents

“My mommy says I’ll go with my aunt and that she’ll come to pick me up there as quickly as possible.”

ProPublica identified her as a six-year-old from El Salvador.

That was gut wrenching. But then we learned of the “tender-age” facilities across Texas set up by the federal government to house infants, toddlers and young kids.

In simple but powerful words, radio commentator Dave Ross for Seattle’s KIRO-FM brought into focus how far we’ve strayed from President Ronald Reagan’s America as a “shining city on a hill.” How far removed we are from the hope the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed in speeches that cited the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.

Ross said: “Those are American border agents, trained in America, paid by American taxpayers, following orders from an administration that ran on this policy and was elected by Americans!

“This is who we are now!

“I’m sure we very much would like to be a ‘beacon of hope to the world,’ but that brought too many strangers banging on the door. And so it appears we will snuff out that light and change the locks, at least for now.”

Though Trump officials strongly defended the policy and – unbelievably — justified it with Scripture, officials now appear to be moving away from family separations, no doubt because of rising public pressure, including from the president’s own Republican Party leaders, such as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

On Wednesday, Trump said he would sign an executive order that would end the process of separating children from families after they are detained crossing the border illegally, the Associated Press reported.

“We want to keep families together. It’s very important,” Trump told reporters during a White House meeting with members of Congress.

READ ALSO: In reversal, Trump signs order stopping family separations.

It seems the cries of children melted America’s indifference – at least for the moment.

The issue is not fully settled. Family units will be kept together, but in detention facilities. Also, there remains a serious question about whether migrants fleeing violence and political persecution in their countries will be fairly handled by our courts regarding asylum claims. Instead, we might see them, and their children, swiftly deported by Trump policies that make it tougher to win asylum.

The U.S. should have secure borders. But Trump’s (and now our) America is an eternity away from an Ellis Island that once welcomed poor immigrants from across the globe.

Some no doubt will say that America never was perfect. That is true. But the nation was continually struggling to perfect its imperfections and address past wrongs. It had thought-leaders in Susan B. Anthony, who led the movement to win the vote for women; and Eleanor Roosevelt who tackled racism by flying with black pilots at Tuskegee Institute during WWII, when the military was segregated; her husband, FDR, took on the Nazis in Germany; Thurgood Marshall, was a fearless champion for racial and social justice. There were so many Americans who stood tall for our values.

That is the truly scary thing about today’s America in which hope is being strangled by fear, bigotry, intolerance and apathy. We are becoming desensitized to the pain and suffering of neighbors and strangers alike.

Our hope – and future – relies on rebuilding America humanely and sanely. If we do that, we rebuild ourselves.

CM Houston: Tired of being invisible

District 1 Austin City Council Member Ora Houston questions reason she was left out of key meeting regarding the Lions Municipal Golf Course.
Shelby Tauber / AMERICAN STATESMAN

 

This is one of those moments in which City Council Member Ora Houston, the lone African American on the Austin City Council, questions whether she is invisible.

Not in the superhero way, but in the manner that some social scientists say disproportionately affects black women.

“It is unfortunate that in 2018 we still operate by the same good old boy rules, practices and procedures of the past,” Houston told me. “What happens in those situations is that there are voices that are not being represented in the room.”

A case in point is the way Houston was cut out of high-level talks regarding the University of Texas’ Lions Municipal Golf Course – even though swaths of UT are in her District 1; even though she initiated meetings last year with UT President Gregory L. Fenves to discuss options for saving Muny and dealing with the expiring lease agreement between the city and UT; and even though she kept Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Alison Alter in the loop of information regarding those meetings.

Yet, when Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson called the meeting a couple of weeks ago regarding Muny, Houston was not among those invited to the table. Those who were invited and attended were: Adler, Alter, Fenves, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk.

READ: Why it’s exhausting being black in Austin

Watson says he chose the group based on their ties to Muny and ability to jump-start stalled negotiations regarding the popular golf course. Alter’s District 10 includes Muny as does Howard’s legislative district.

“I convened the meeting because I’ve become frustrated with both parties (UT-Austin and the city) and how they are approaching the matter,” he told me. “The purpose of my meeting was to light a fire.”

“I invited the mayor, city manager and council member who represents the neighborhood where the golf course is located. I’m pleased other council members are interested in this and I would encourage as that fire continues to burn, those council members need to make their interests known to the city and go for it. That is what is going to be necessary.”

Watson noted the clock is ticking on Muny’s future as an 18-hole, city-operated golf course. Under the contract, the city leases 141 acres (that include the golf course) along Lake Austin Boulevard from UT-Austin for more than $400,000 annually — a fraction of what the property would fetch on the market. That was estimated at nearly $6 million annually several years ago if leased for mixed development.

As far back as 2011, the city has known that UT’s desire was to permit the lease to expire next year as UT officials sought to monetize the entire 345-acre Brackenridge tract – which includes Muny — to generate more money for academic programs.

UT’s long-standing plans to turn the property into a mixed-use development were made more difficult, but still possible, when in 2016, the National Park Service – prompted by a group of golfers, environmentalists, Austin residents and black leaders — added Muny to the National Register of Historic Places.

Muny is recognized as one of the earliest municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated. Since that time, Watson said, negotiations between the city and UT have nearly stalled.

RELATED: Muny added to National Register of Historic Places

Houston isn’t buying explanations that the snub was an oversight. She made that clear in an email to Cronk this week. After first thanking Cronk for sharing information with the whole council about the meeting Watson called, she went on to say:

“It is, however, unfortunate that I was not included in that meeting. Not that I would have anything additional to offer. I have been meeting with the President and the Agent since last year regarding these very issues and the University is in District #1. My most recent face to face with President Fenves was May 11th to discuss an option that I suggested. How embarrassed I am to be discussing some of the same issues and be unaware of the meeting. So much for my credibility with the President.”

It was not the first time Houston has been overlooked on matters that directly affect her district. She elbowed her way into talks regarding how the public would be informed about the planned Capitol Complex construction, which would impact traffic on roads in her district.

She notes that Adler’s longer-term plan to generate money for Austin residents experiencing homelessness by leveraging taxes aimed at tourists who stay in local hotels was taken seriously, but not so with her proposal to temporarily house homeless residents in state facilities with empty beds.

Some no doubt will say the snub Houston sees in such matters is all in her head. It’s not.

READ ALSO: Are black women invisible study

The experience of going unnoticed and unheard is not unique to Houston, but a common occurrence for many black women, University of Texas professor and cultural critic Lisa B. Thompson says.

Black women, she said, are either hyper-visible, such as Oprah or Beyoncé, or they go unnoticed in matters of health and wellness, such as the lack of focus on the needs of black women in improving their outcomes in heart disease and maternal mortality rates.

For professionals, it can play out like this, Thompson said: “You (a black woman) are in a meeting and offer an idea. There’s no response. Two minutes later someone else (a white person) will say something similar and it’s a great idea.”

Yes, I know.

Bomber’s confession should be released as transcript

Chas Moore, Austin Justice Coalition; Brian Manley, interim Austin Police Chief; Emlyn Lee founder and chief Collaborator of Brave and Gilbert Rivera speak on a KUT radio panel at Carver Museum in East Austin about the deadly Austin bombings and the response by police, the media and the community. Thursday, March 29, 2018. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Nearly a month after Austin’s serial bomber took his own life by blowing himself up in his vehicle as police closed in, Austin still is in the dark about the words he spoke on a 28-minute recording he left behind.

Revelations about the Pflugerville resident’s reign of terror on Austin won’t come anytime soon because his confession is being kept secret from the public by the Austin Police Department.

That doesn’t bode well for transparency on issues that pit the public’s right to know against law enforcement’s right to withhold information. And it signals a shift in the way things were handled at the police department when Art Acevedo was chief.

On a visit to Houston last week, Acevedo, who now is chief of that city’s 5,200-officer department, told me he would release a transcript of the recording with any sensitive information redacted in an effort “to balance public safety with the public’s right to know.”

That would allow people to make their own judgments about the bomber’s confession without the filter of law enforcement, Acevedo said.

Interim Police Chief Brian Manley has said the 28-minute recording won’t be released because it is part of an ongoing investigation.

“We will revisit the decision on releasing the audio once the case is closed,” Manley told me.

Texas law permits that; I respect that. But at what point does “an ongoing investigation” become an excuse to keep the recording secret?

Manley also has said that releasing it might inspire copycats or glorify a bomber who terrorized and killed without regrets. For proof, he sent me research that backs up that point, including an article that references the “contagion effect.”

As described in a March 8, 2016 Washington Post article, the “contagion effect refers to the tendency of some people to model or copy behavior or activity portrayed by news or entertainment media.”

In other words, fame, or notoriety, is a powerful incentive for would-be mass killers. And some have studied the habits of others in plotting their killing sprees, such as reported by the New York Daily News this month.

According to the article, “Nikolas Cruz studied the Columbine High School massacre ahead of his own deadly rampage in Parkland, Fla. earlier this year.”

On the social media front, ABC news reported on findings by researchers Jennifer Johnston and Andrew Joy in 2016, which examined studies on when gun massacres occur and profiles of the perpetrators. The pair looked at a 2015 study that examined 57 billion tweets. Of those 72 million used the word “shooting” and 2 million the words “mass murder” or “school shooting.”

The news report stated: “One of the most startling of Johnston and Joy’s findings is that the more tweets that occur about a mass shooting, the higher the chance of another gun massacre occurring soon after. If, after a school shooting, at least 10 out of every million tweets mentions the incident, the likelihood that there will be another school shooting increases to 50 percent within eight days after the initial violence and to 100 percent within 35 days afterward, according to the paper.”

Reading the research opened my eyes to some things journalists could do better, such as not publicizing the names of mass shooters or killers and avoid showing pictures and videos of their faces. I get that.

But researchers also noted that beyond taking steps to avoid naming serial or mass criminals or showing their images, journalists should report “every other detail so the public gains a better understanding about these tragedies.”

We can’t do that without the bomber’s confession. Give us a transcript.

Billy Harden (1953-2018) opened doors and shaped minds

Teacher Don Webb greets Dr. Billy Harden (center) then-head of Goodwill industries’ charter school, and Traci Berry, senior vice president of community engagement. Goodwill launched a pilot program with funds from the Texas Legislature to help students 19-50 receive their high school diplomas.
RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

Billy Harden’s imprint on Austin was indelible.

Not just because he was a towering figure in the African American community. But because Billy (whom I’ve known for over 25 years) was a mover and shaker in Austin’s arts and education community.

Billy died this week of colon cancer. He was 64.

Certainly, Billy was an accomplished educator, actor, musician, producer – and loving son to his mother, Ada, and siblings; Roosevelt Harden Jr., Marilyn Harden and Anita Davis.

His reach was long, from Metropolitan AME Church in Austin where he served over the years as choir and music director, to Hollywood through his life-long friendship with actor Julius Tennon and in recent years, Tennon’s wife and partner, Academy-award winning actor Viola Davis.

Billy, Roosevelt and Tennon attended junior high together and graduated from then-Johnston High School. Last year, Billy, Roosevelt and Austin friends Winston Williams and Roy Henry joined Tennon and Davis in Los Angeles to witness Davis getting her star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

With many accolades in theater, a career in education and demand for his talents, Billy was financially and professionally set. That wasn’t enough. Grabbing the baton from the late Boyd Vance, Billy opened doors for so many African American actors, dancers and singers to a local theater community that wasn’t always welcoming to black performers.

He didn’t throw bombs or call folks out. He worked behind the scenes, building relationships and partnerships that moved African Americans from their near-invisibility in Austin stage performances to pivotal roles.

Aside from knocking down barriers and stereotypes of what a lead in theater performances needed to look like, sound like, or be shaped like, Billy’s efforts went a long way in helping black performers land paying jobs in mainstream performances, so they could carve out a living locally.

“He did that in a quiet, nonconfrontational way,” Roosevelt told me. “He did it relentlessly.”

“My brother had a knack—in a nonintimidating way — of getting people to look at themselves and when they did, they saw gaps in the community that needed to be filled. Billy did everything he could do to fill them.”

In 2013, continuing to build on Vance’s legacy, Billy co-founded Spectrum, Austin’s leading African American theater company, with stage veterans Jacqui Cross, Janis Stinson and Carla Nickerson. Tennon and Davis – members of Spectrum’s advisory board — helped get it off the ground.

As a member of the group’s governing board, I worked with Billy, who was executive director. But my history with him goes back to the days when I was a single mom earning wages as a journalist that qualified my family for food stamps.

As I recalled to Roosevelt, “We were poor. I needed affordable after school childcare,” which I was fortunate to find at an Extend-A-Care program Billy ran in East Austin.

That was the other side of Billy: The caring educator who could with a look both discipline and encourage kids, including my boys. Always emphasizing academic achievement, Billy opened children’s minds to a world of art and music, believing the two – education and the arts – could transport any child to success.

The homework and studying got done under Billy’s watch. Hungry kids were fed. Perhaps the most exciting for the kids was the story-writing and telling Billy did with our children, using several literary genres. But there was something more: Children were shaped, meaning they came out of Billy’s program better than they went in.

With too many accomplishments to list in this space, I will mention just some: He earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Mary Hardin-Baylor University; served as a former head of school at Goodwill Industries’ charter school and assistant principal at the Austin school district’s Alternative Learning Center.

The American-Statesman’s Michael Barnes noted that Billy had attracted notice on the stage by the 1980s, often playing gruff but kindly characters. Among his most memorable performances were in multiple stagings of “I’m Not Rappaport” with fellow actor Tom Parker. Other standouts included roles in “Porgy and Bess,” “Purlie,” “Spunk,” “Our Town,” “The Gospel at Colonus,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Two Trains Running,” “The Exonerated,” “Five Guys Named Moe” and many more.

I was lucky to have seen so many of those shows. I will never forget.

No doubt some of Billy rubbed off on my sons: Billy Brooks is featured in Austin’s long-running stage performance, “Esther’s Follies.” Mehcad Brooks co-stars in the television series “Supergirl.”

I’m glad Billy’s legacy will continue through the Dr. Billy F. Harden Legacy Fund that that aims to inspire and nurture another generation of talent and support today’s local actors who strive to enlighten, entertain and challenge the Austin community through the arts. You can help. Contribute at  https://www.austincreativealliance.org/BillyHarden/#!form/BillyHarden.

 

Phillips: Adler wants city to release city manager search records

Mayor Steve Adler, after voting to conduct a secret search for Austin’s new city manager, now wants to release all records.

When the Austin City Council meets Thursday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler will recommend that the city turn over all records the Texas attorney general’s office ordered be released regarding the council’s search for a new city manager.

“I’m fine with the ruling,” Adler told me over lunch recently. “I believe in transparency.”

The mayor went on to say that in addition to releasing the records showing who applied for the city manager position, he hopes the city would not appeal the AG ruling and “resolve all issues” regarding the lawsuit.

Hallelujah. Adler has come to his senses. I hope the rest of the council does, too, when it discusses the issue in closed session on Thursday.

Frankly, the council has no legal leg on which to stand after the AG’s ruling earlier this month that the city cannot withhold records showing who applied for its city manager position by claiming the information would harm the city competitively in a search for qualified applicants.

The ruling gutted arguments by the city aimed at justifying its efforts to conduct a secret search, such as the ridiculous claim that the information is a trade secret, a matter that would harm the search firm competitively or is “highly intimate and embarrassing.”

Whether the council believed it was on solid legal ground or, as some observers say, bamboozled by a private firm that had not heretofore conducted a search for a public entity or governmental body makes little difference. The damage is done in either case.

It sends the wrong message to the public when the city’s daily newspaper had to sue the city to get records regarding the hiring of the city’s top executive position. It erodes public trust when the city uses resources of its taxpayers to hide information from them to which they are entitled legally or otherwise. It should not have taken an AG ruling, but it did.

Matthew Taylor, an assistant attorney general in the open records division, wrote the opinion, which directs the city and its executive search firm, Russell Reynolds, to turn over the bulk of the information the American-Statesman requested related to the search for a new city manager, including candidate applications. Austin may withhold only attorney-client privileged emails and some personal email addresses and cellphone numbers.

If that weren’t bad enough, the American-Statesman also had to sue the city for potentially violating the state’s open meetings law when the council publicly posted a meeting at one location, then ducked out a door to take vans to another location that had not been posted. That was done to dodge reporters who staked out the posted meeting place.

The law requires public notice of where and when meetings will be – even when the meetings are in closed session.

The public won’t soon forget council members’ unanimous vote to keep the people they represent in the dark or how the city resorted to bizarre tactics to hide the faces of candidates and evade reporters.

Bowing to public pressure, the council finally released the names of five finalists, including Spencer Cronk, who they hired. Cronk starts later this month, after Sunday’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis, where Cronk serves as city coordinator until Feb. 11, according to the Star Tribune.

In denying information about the pool of applicants seeking the city manager post, a job akin to a chief executive officer in the private sector, council members did a huge disservice to the public and to Cronk.

The public was unable to evaluate candidates and give feedback until the very end of the search for the person that oversees all city departments, 17,000 employees and a $3.9 billion budget. Cronk will be responsible for the kind of city services residents rely on daily, such as clean water, trash pickup, street repairs, recycling services, electricity and safe neighborhoods.

One of the biggest challenges Cronk will oversee almost immediately is the city’s overhaul of its land use and zoning code, called CodeNext, a political hot potato that has stirred activists to push for a citywide referendum — instead of allowing the council to decide the matter.

Thanks to the council, Cronk enters Austin’s political stage under questions of transparency. That is not the best way to start the job. The council can and should help clear the air by releasing all records and taking no more action to appeal or challenge the AG’s ruling.