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.

Sorry, city employees. Your second job is our business.

I hate to say it, but if you’re a stickler for privacy, a government job isn’t for you.

For starters, your salary is a matter of public record. In fact, most people could find it with just a few keystrokes if you’re among the hundreds of thousands of public employees in the Texas Tribune’s Government Salaries Explorer.

Your annual performance reviews? Public record.

Your emails and text messages, even from your personal email account and personal cell phone? Also public records, if the communication pertains to work.

And that embarrassing reprimand for filing work orders with fake names like “Dick Hertz” and “Ima Dumas” is not only a public record, but it’s likely to earn you some media attention.

Point is, when you work in the public sector, you work for the public. Whether you’re fielding complaints about soaring water bills or scrutinizing rezoning applications, you’re handling matters of public interest. We have a right to see what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

Above all, we expect your actions serve the public good, not a personal agenda.

So I was disappointed to learn the city employees’ union is pushing against a long-overdue effort to require Austin employees to disclose their second jobs. The city’s human resources director originally promised such a policy last fall, but opposition from the local AFSCME has stymied the effort.

ALSO READ: Late-night council meetings hurt the cause of open government

“As long as employees who work for the city of Austin show up for work on time and are doing their job, we feel like what they do on their off hours is their business,” Carol Guthrie, the local AFSCME ’s business manager, recently told Statesman reporter Elizabeth Findell. “Many employees have to have two, sometimes three, jobs to make ends meet. They’re proud people who don’t want people to know they subsidize their family that way.”

OK, first of all, there’s no shame in picking up extra work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates one in 20 workers has a second job, with dual-earners evenly dispersed among age groups and over-represented among college grads. Findell’s previous reporting shows some city workers are making extra bucks as pilates instructors, barbers, H-E-B baggers, ride-hailing drivers and real estate agents, among other professions.

I bet the vast majority of these second jobs pose no conflict with workers’ duties at City Hall. But the only way to know is to have full transparency. A librarian who moonlights as a Realtor probably isn’t a problem, but a Development Services worker dabbling in private real estate raises ethical issues.

These self-dealing concerns are not hypothetical. Last year an auditor’s office investigation found an Austin Energy employee responsible for approving developers’ electric service plans was also working as a consultant for some of those projects. Another investigation found an Austin Water employee approved an online marketing campaign with the same firm that gave him a free website for his side hustle in real estate.

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As Findell has reported, only a third of Austin’s 36 departments require employees to notify a supervisor about their outside employment, and not all of them keep the information in a centralized, easily accessible format for the public to see. That’s unacceptable in a city that prides itself on transparent government. It’s also out of step with other Texas cities.

Houston requires its city workers fill out a form and get the approval of their department director for any outside gig. Fort Worth has a similar form, and San Antonio, El Paso and Arlington likewise require workers to get their department head’s approval in writing before starting a second job.

Not only does this disclosure provide transparency, but it ensures there’s a conversation between worker and boss about any potential conflicts of interest.

That’s a better safeguard than Austin’s current policy, which simply prohibits employees from taking a second job that poses a conflict of interest or interferes with their city duties — and largely leaves that call up to the employee, except in specific departments that require notification. Even the proposed policy being drafted by Austin’s HR director doesn’t go far enough: Employees’ second-job disclosures would be noted in their personnel file, but there would be no centralized place for the public to look up that information, rendering this open-government gesture largely hollow.

I don’t begrudge city workers earning extra money on the side; in fact, I applaud their talents and drive. I do think a full disclosure policy, commonplace in other large Texas cities, protects employees as well as the city. It puts everything on the table, so there aren’t surprises down the line about whether an employee’s second job poses a problem.

Austin and its workers should embrace this kind of transparency, in full view of the public. When you work for the government, it’s just part of doing business.

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.

 

 

 

Yes, we speak English in America – and 350 other languages too

Lawyer Aaron Schlossberg, center, who ranted against people speaking Spanish in a Midtown restaurant, takes a cellphone video of reporters taking his video as he leaves his home in New York on May 17. (Anthony DelMundo/New York Daily News/TNS)

Speaking Spanish – something 40 million Americans do – is all over the news.

When a Manhattan man went on a racially charged rant last week after hearing restaurant employees speaking Spanish, he said repeatedly, “It’s America.”

You get the message — ‘This is America, we speak English here.’

He’s right, of course, we do speak English in America, but that’s not all — we also speak over 350 different languages at home, according to a census report. Indeed, more than 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 5 speak a language other than English at home, the 2015 report found.

We are a nation of immigrants, after all.

True, most Americans speak only English at home or a few other languages like Spanish or Chinese or Vietnamese. Still, the data reveals the breathtaking range of language diversity in the U.S., the census said.

Take New York City, where the xenophobic meltdown occurred and where more than 1 in 3 metro area residents speak a language other than English. More than 200 languages are spoken by the 8.6 million people who live there, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted.

“They’re all New Yorkers and they’re all welcome here,” he said.

As the nation goes, so goes Austin, where se habla Español. About 358,000 people age 5 and over – out of a total metro area population of 1.65 million — speak Spanish at home. In all, slightly more than 27 percent of Austin metro area residents spoke a language other than English. After Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese topped the list of other languages spoken here.

Spanish was tops as well among the other 350 languages spoken in the U.S., according to the census, which gleaned data collected from 2009 to 2013.

Other top languages spoken, in order of ranking, were:

Chinese

Tagalog

Vietnamese

French (including Patois and Cajun)

Korean

German

Arabic languages.

Spanish vaulted into the national consciousness again the other day when a U.S. Border Patrol agent detained two women, both U.S. citizens, in Montana simply for speaking Spanish. Caught on video, the incident went viral on social media.

“Speaking Spanish is very unheard of up here,” the agent told the women, attempting to explain why he stopped them but neglecting to state the obvious – speaking Spanish is not a crime.

He’s right that in Montana seldom is heard a Spanish word. In the entire state – its 1.05 million population is hardly bigger than the city of Austin’s — only about 1.5 percent of residents speak Spanish.

The irony? Montana is literally Spanish, coming from the word montaña, which means mountain.

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.

Why Austin isn’t getting as much affordable housing money as you might think

Facing an urgent need to fund more affordable housing in Austin, the City Council set its sights on some tax dollars it figured no one would miss.

New tax dollars.

Specifically, the shiny new tax revenue that materializes when government-owned land, which doesn’t pay property taxes, becomes private housing, commercial or mixed-use developments that do.

The City Council decided in 2000 that as city lands were sold for development, 40 percent of the city tax revenue from those sites should go into Austin’s housing trust fund.

A different council doubled down in December 2015, saying 100 percent of the city tax revenue on former city lands should go to various housing programs.

By June 2016, the council widened the net to capture all city tax revenue from the redevelopment of all government-owned sites — lands owned by state agencies, Travis County, Capital Metro, Central Health, you name it. All of those city tax dollars, the council decided, should go toward affordable housing.

“We have such a need for affordable housing in this community, and this is a very appropriate remedy,” Council Member Kathie Tovo, who championed that 2016 measure, told me this week. (In fact, she said, her 2016 measure spelled out the full extent of the policy that her council predecessors had intended in 2000.)

I recently wondered how much money these mandates are channeling toward Austin’s housing efforts. I was surprised to learn the answer was: Not all of it.

VIEWPOINTS: More study needed before Austin uses this tool for affordable housing

This year, $3.7 million in city taxes are being paid on redeveloped, ex-government lands assessed at $923.8 million. But only $2 million of that revenue went into the housing fund, city finance staff told me.

Next year, redeveloped, ex-government lands worth $1.1 billion will spin off an estimated $4.6 million in city taxes. How much will go to affordable housing? Who knows.

The City Council makes the real spending decisions each year during budget season. The resolutions that called dibs on these redevelopment dollars reflect a goal, but they’re not legally binding. And when council members are facing the city’s many budget needs, they sometimes decide they can’t put as much money as they’d hoped toward affordable housing.

“A couple of us expressed a strong desire (during last budget season) that we would be able to identify enough additional money” to put the full $3.7 million toward the housing fund, Tovo said. “In the end, we had so many needs.”

I appreciate the council’s efforts to look for affordable housing money under every couch cushion, and I don’t doubt their sincerity in wanting to see all of these new tax dollars put toward the cause. But think for a moment about some of the big-ticket developments in the works on old government lands. Is it realistic for Austin to absorb all of these residents and workers without putting at least some of their property tax revenue toward the city services they will need?

VIEWPOINTS: Are developer incentives for affordable housing working?

It’s tempting to put all of the property tax revenue from those developments toward the affordable housing Austin desperately needs. But the reality is, even if these are new tax dollars, other parts of the city budget may need them. They come from residents and commercial projects that add to the demand for city services.

Tovo remains hopeful the city could somehow set aside all of this tax revenue for the housing fund. I’m less optimistic, but I see the value in these resolutions. They set an ambitious funding goal for the council and ensure an annual reckoning at City Hall over housing needs.

“This resolution forces us to acknowledge each year what the amount (for affordable housing) should be,” Tovo said. “I hope we get to the point where it is all flowing to the affordable housing fund because it is so necessary for our city.”

 

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.