A fusion of competition, mystery and travel, Competitours adds a new twist to touring Europe and, potentially, the rest of the world.

According to the Competitours’ Web site, National Geographic Traveler calls it “The Amazing Race for regular people.”

“This is basically your vacation as a travel contest,” president and creator of Competitours Steve Belkin said.

“You and your partner will join a group of teams, [but] you won’t know where you’re going ‘til you get there.”
According to the Competitours Web site, all “destinations [throughout the trip] will be a secret, revealed with just a suspenseful half-day’s notice. Teams will make snap decisions about customizing their own daily challenge itineraries.”

Each day, “you get a menu of different [competition] itineraries to choose from,” Belkin said.
Finally, the winning team gets “a travel spree to any of 115 Starwood™ hotels spanning 51 exotic and intriguing countries,” according to the Competitours Web site.

While it is compared to “The Amazing Race” by National Geographic Traveler, Belkin believes this experience to be quite different.
“Instead of eating worms [on The Amazing Race], we’ll ask you to convince a twentieth century family why they should take a cruise on an ancient Viking ship,” Belkin said.

“It is about how creative you can be and letting your personality shine through.”

Kent Wien, an American Airlines pilot and soon-to-be participant in the first trial of Competitours, said he and his wife are huge fans of “The Amazing Race” and that he liked the unknown portion of the vacation.
As a pilot, Wien is a frequent traveler. “I went to Paris 17 times last year,” he said.

When asked why he did not decide to tour Europe on his own, Wien said, “typically you get over there [Europe] and you don’t really know what to do.”

In addition to the luxury of guidance given by Competitours, Wien said that he is participating in the competition to write about it in his blog, Cockpit Chronicles, on http://www.gadling.com.

He found out about Competitours because “Steve Belkin offered [Competitours] to [www.gadling.com] to write about,” Wien said.

Caroline McCabe, an avid traveler and another soon-to-be participant, said that she also found out about Competitours through a different travel blog, http://www.flyertalk.com.

“The whole concept of being in and amongst the people is a much more rewarding way to travel,” McCabe said.

“I have been to more than 40 countries [and] I believe in travel as one of the most valuable educations that anybody can receive,” she said.

McCabe said that the prices are incredibly reasonable for all that is provided with the trip.

On the Competitours Web site, prices are listed as $2,950 for the two-week trip and $1,995 for the eight-day trip.

“If we had this conversation a year ago, I would say this is definitely geared toward college students because it is a totally new niche experience to travel to Europe,” Belkin said. “But with what’s gone on in the economy, we have tried to broaden the appeal to people other than college students.”

Concerning college student involvement, Belkin said “that the college market makes a lot of sense because kids like freedom, they like to compete, they like to travel.”

“That sounds like fun, but I just don’t have the money for something like that,” UVM sophomore David Swift said.

Concerning payment for Competitours, “three days after the trip is over, the credit card company will charge your card,” instead of before the trip, Belkin said.

Even in this economic climate, McCabe said she is excited for “the adventure and the competition.”

Published by The Vermont Cynic on 03/23/2009. Read it here.


In the new season of “The Next Food Network Star,” UVM alum Melissa Donovan d’Arabian reveals her cooking prowess and aims to past it on to women across the country.

From her sorority girlfriends at UVM to her French husband and four daughters, d’Arabian found ample support and mouths for her cooking, practice needed to potentially become a Food Network personality.

Now living in Keller, Texas, just outside Dallas/Fortworth, d’Arabian prepares for the first airing of the competition on June 7 and the nation’s response to her style of cooking.

If d’Arabian succeeds in the competition, she will win her own show on the Food Network, according to the Food Network Web site.

In an interview with The Vermont Cynic, d’Arabian discusses the competition, her inspiration and her goal to make cooking easy, fun and fruitful for women no matter where they are in life.

The Vermont Cynic: How did you get selected to be on “The Next Food Network Star?” Did you have to apply?

Melissa Donovan d’Arabian: You can either go through one of the casting calls or go through the Internet by uploading a video. I uploaded a video.

One of the things that I do is speak to women and moms around the Dallas area about making homemade baby food and yogurt.

I get many requests from people wanting to know how to make yogurt without a machine, so I made a video to e-mail out to people who wanted to know how to make my yogurt without any equipment.

That is the video I submitted to the Food Network, so I killed two birds with one stone.

VC: How was the application process?

MDD: The deadline for submissions was the last week of November and I was contacted pretty quickly after that telling me I had been accepted for the next round.

I submitted more applications with information about me, my family and my culinary interests. Soon after that, I was contacted to go the Semi-final contest.

I flew up to New York to do a live camera audition and found out that I was in the competition.

I applied a bit late, so the process only took about a month.

VC: What are you feeling going into this competition?

MDD: I’m feeling very excited because winning would be a fantastic extension of what my life is about — providing ideas and solutions to women not only all over Dallas but women all across America. And yea, I’m nervous.

[I] hope that things don’t go wrong, but I’m here to win it.

VC: What are you planning on making?

MDD: On June 7 when the show runs, I’m going to make one of my favorite recipes that my kids love: an apple tart.

I spent a semester abroad and spent a year over in France working for Euro Disney. That is were I met my husband who is French, and my French mother-in-law helped me perfect my apple tart.

On the June 7 airing, we are charged with catering the party for the 16th anniversary of the Food Network.

We [the contestants] have between 75 and 100 people to cook for.

You can imagine what it is going to be like. We are going to be cooking for all the big names: Bobby Flay, [Masaharu] Morimoto, Alton Brown, Giada and Alex Guarneschelli, the executive chef at Butter.

VC: Are you going to include some Texas-style cooking?

MDD: My mom was in the navy, so I grew up in a number of places.

I’ve actually only been in Texas for a couple of years because we moved up for my husband’s job, although I have learned a lot from cooks down there.
I know how to do a good barbeque.

VC: How has your family reacted to you involvement in this competition?

MDD: My husband is my number one fan.

He’s gotta be if he has to manage all four girls while I’m in New York.

My girls have started seeing the commercials. They get so excited when they see mommy on TV, but I don’t think they really know what it all means.

For now, they just see the commercial and know that’s why I’m in New York. That is enough of a reason for them.

VC: Did any of your experiences at UVM contribute to your entry on this show or your love of cooking?

MDD: UVM has played a role in my culinary development.
I was a big fan of my sorority, which is Alpha Chi.

When my mom died, I wound up moving back into my [sorority] house, and my girlfriends were my network and my rock. My mom taught me that cooking was the way of loving somebody.

UVM helped me in a sense that here I fell in love with having girlfriends and that is who I am as a human being and as a cook — I was raised by a woman, my mom, and since my mom’s death when I was 20, my family was my girlfriends.

That is where I learned as a cook: I cooked with my girlfriends and for my girlfriends.

I learned how to build my family with my girlfriends around me. We create our families, and that’s what I did.

They are a big part of who I am and a big part of me in loving and honoring the girlfriends in my life.

My connection to my girlfriends is also why I want to help women around Dallas.

Also, through UVM, I studied abroad and learned French which is why Disney sent me overseas where I met my husband and lived in France.

Living in France chanced the way I cooked all over again. They have such an emphasis on the best and freshest ingredients.

That is a big part of who I am as well.

VC: How much did you cook while you went to UVM? Did you ever live off campus?

MDD: My first year on campus in Hamilton Hall was the lost cost housing option. There was no janitorial service – the discounted housing. There was one kitchen down at the bottom of the dorm, and I did cook there for my girlfriends.

My second and third year, I lived in the sorority house, and in sororities there was a live in cook that had dinner on the table at a certain time every night, so I didn’t get a chance to cook as much during that time.

But my last year I lived off campus, and I would cook so many recipes. Then, I would drive around and deliver it to all my friends who lived off campus. I just wanted to cook.

Later, when I got my MBA at Georgetown, I leveraged my experience cooking [at UVM] to get a live-in position with a large family in Georgetown as their personal cook, since I had cooked for so many people before.

VC: If you win this competition and get your own show on the Food Network, what kind of cuisine will you focus on?

MDD: I absolutely represent home cooking at its finest.
Sometimes that is the quick meal on the table, food to feed my babies or the feast that every one sits down to, relaxing after a long day at work. But every day you still just have to get the meal on the table.

I only serve one meal in my house. I am not a short order chef and it would get too confusing making everyone a different meal.

In my show, certainly people could look to see meals that are healthy and tasty for the kids and yummy enough for the parents.

The definite thrust is to give people take home solutions so life in the kitchen can be for all different types of women.

I’ve been a career women working on how to get the dinner party on the table that you thought was good idea, I’ve been the mom with a bunch of kids trying to get food on the table, I’ve been the cook for the Thanksgiving meal.

All those events to me encompass home cooking.

VC: How would winning the show affect your life? Do you think it will affect the time you can spend with your family?

MDD: My kids and my family are always going to be the most important thing to me.
I’ve learned early on that family and relationships come before everything else. I wouldn’t be here if this didn’t make sense for my whole family.

Being able to share ideas and help families across America fits into my life.

Winning the show absolutely fits in with my family’s goals and mission, and if it didn’t fit with my family, I would not be here.

Will there be days were I don’t spend as much time with my kids as when I was a stay at home mom? Absolutely.

Will there be a span of four months were I don’t see my kids or know what is going on at their preschool? Never.

Published online by The Vermont Cynic on 05/03/2009. Read it here.

UVM clubs are getting naked to earn some extra cash for the second year in a row.

It is definitely not for an X-rated film, but for the 2010 edition of the UVM Prudent student calendar.

Born in a Boulder Society meeting, the idea for the calendar was brought to fruition by 2009 graduates and boulder society members Jamie Seiffer and Evan Walden.

“We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” Seiffer said. “We organized everything, [and] we learned about the printing and proofing process.”

In 2009, the calendar was printed by Fed-Ex and Kinkos, but “there were a few hiccups. They were kind of last minute about getting things to us,” Seiffer said. “It ended up working out in the end.”

For this next undressing session, Seiffer said Nittany Valley Offset, an eco-friendly printing company that frequently works with Campus Recreation, is compliing and printing the calendar.

Each club pays $500 dollars up front which gets the club 100 calendars to sell around campus. Each calendar cost $10, five of which go towards the club’s bank accounts.

With a temptation of extra funding and nakedness, “We had to turn away at least 8 clubs,” Seiffer said.

The fencing, mock trial and water polo clubs are among the many signed up for calendar pages in the 2010 edition, according to the UVM Prudent Student calendar facebook page.

Even BORED is on board. They will be mention briefly throughout the calendar, although they will probably not have a full calendar photo, Seiffer said. “It all depends on the layout.”

Stephen Hausman, a 2009 UVM graduate and past Cynic editor, modeled for the calendar last year.  He did not feel uncomfortable with the shoot, “but I have done nude modeling in past to pay my pub bills while I was abroad in England,”

Not everyone is so comfortable. “No, I would not have done it,” UVM junior Colin Francis said. “I am not going naked on that calendar for everybody to see.”

Despite the potential for discomfort, Hausman said “it was an absolute blast and if I could I would do it all over again, I would.”

Published online by The Vermont Cynic on 10/22/2009. Read it here.

After stopping by the Pearl Brewery Farmers Market, I took a morning stroll down the riverwalk extension with my organic coffee in tow. Sadly, most of this was spent sweating and hiding under a shady overpass alongside fellow San Antonians. While beads of sweat fell into my eyes, I looked out at the plants stuck on the scorching hillside and realized in horror that the plants could never join me in the shade. Drought resistance only takes you so far.

Thankfully seven years of tedious effort, planning, and design created the Museum Reach riverwalk extension. “The project itself stared as a vision as far back as 1998. The San Antonio River Authority, the City of San Antonio, and Bexar County created the San Antonio River Oversight Committee [the citizens’ stakeholder group],” Steven Schauer, manager of external communications for SARA, says. When the design and construction phases of the project began, Ford, Powell, and Carson (an architectural firm) designed the extension, and Zachry Construction Corporation implemented FPC’s design – a plan that took our rain-filled Texas weather (just kidding) into account.

“[The landscape] was always meant to be irrigated, but even with a lot of irrigation, you still have to have plants that can stand full sun. They tried to select a lot of plants that were colorful and drought resistance because that’s what you want to see,” says Mark Sorenson, SARA’s project manager for the San Antonio river museum reach urban segment.

Although right now drought resistance seems the only important feature, other important elements are the plant’s aesthetics and their ability to prevent erosion, according to Cullen Coltrane, the landscape architect employed by FPC. No one wants to see an ugly garden, especially one that cost 61.1 million dollars. “As you move further toward Pearl Brewery, you get less tropical and more hill country in style,” Coltrane says.

Yet keeping that lovely hill country garden alive is another story.

Now the extension is open to the public, and the ISS Grounds Control (employed by Zachry to maintain the landscape) works tirelessly to inch the landscape along during our painfully extended drought.

“They will actually be maintaining the whole system for a year. Zachry was required as a part of their bid to insure the entire project for a year,” says Sorenson. “At this point, ISS is taking care of plants for the year [because they were the subcontractors].”

“We have one full time gentleman that is down there every day,” says Chris Pais, ISS project manager for river extension project. “He is in charge of basically maintaining it to the owner’s standards.”

With a degree in landscaping and golf course management from Carleton State University, Timothy Devries is the on-site go-to guy. “We’ve had to pull weeds by hand because the chemicals dilute and are not effective with the way we’ve had to water,” he says. They water daily for shorter periods of time instead of four days a week for longer periods – this process lets the water sink into the ground more effectively says Devries.

For those of us who can only water our lawns once a week, don’t worry, you aren’t getting cheated. “Luckily the water that we are using is recycled water, so the water restriction doesn’t affect us until stage three,” Devries says.

“Our irrigation system has control boxes throughout the river walk . . . if it notices something is not functioning properly, and then it sends me an email,” he says. It’s something out of the Jetsons – plants that harass you when they are dehydrated.

Even with ISS’s unflagging vigilance, a few plants simply can’t take the heat. “Some things might look happy going in but they might not be as happy as they look,” says Coltrane. “You are going to have some [plant] decline from transplanting the material, and you are dealing with nature as well.”

“90 percent of it is drought tolerant,” says Pais. But drought tolerance doesn’t happen as soon as roots hit dirt. “Once it is established it needs less water, but we are still in the establishment phase.”

Around the time of the extension’s grand opening, a 50 foot stretch of Cardinal Flowers died, and Pais is uncertain of the cause. However, he wants to eliminate one possible cause for their death – Pais is waiting until the replacements are fully grown before he puts them in the ground. “We want to make sure the plants are at their proper growth period,” he says.

Overall, the plants are plucky and have stuck it out. Less than 8 percent of the plants struggled, according to Devries, and he takes heart in the irrigation, hard work, and the sky. “As long as things stay wet, we can limp it through the summer,” he says. “Let’s hope god blesses us with some water.”

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 08/05/2009. Read it here.

A friendly face

That little old man on the John the Greek salad-dressing bottle, smiling jovially from the shelf at grocery shoppers, always seems to make the dressing aisle at H-E-B more cheerful. I discovered recently that this tasty vinaigrette — made with mystery herbs, olive oil, vinegar, and garlic — originated from an eponymous local restaurant.

The day that Fast Foodie visited John the Greek, tucked in the back of the Thousand Oaks strip mall, a bird’s nest in the sign above the door and some trees off to one side of the entrance gave it a homey feel, fitting for a family-owned restaurant open since 1999. A friendly, alert server seated us almost immediately in the small dining room, which was busy but not crowded with lunch customers.

After extensive deliberation between traditional Greek dishes such as moussaka (layers of ground beef and eggplant topped with a béchamel sauce) and avgolemono soup (chicken soup Greek style, with egg and lemon), my friend ordered a gyro and a side Greek salad for $7.50. I decided to branch out and try the Arni Me Agginares ($13.99), braised lamb with artichokes and the house egg and lemon sauce. My accompanying Greek salad came with the namesake dressing, which is tangy, refreshing, and pungent, a well-balanced complement to the tomato, olives, feta, and shredded iceberg and romaine lettuces.

My friend declared the meat in her gyro very tender without any mushiness, and the toppings of tomato, onion, and tzatziki were fresh and not overdone. She proclaimed her meal “fit for a king.”

Sadly, I couldn’t say the same for my dish. The lamb, which was served in small chunks, had the consistency of cubed cheddar cheese. The artichoke hearts lacked flavor and were overwhelmed by the egg-lemon sauce. But perhaps I just had a bit of bad luck; the dishes being carried to other tables looked very appetizing, and my French fries were salivatingly crisp and minimally greasy.

With many other classic Greek dishes to try and the platters of Greek pastries at the front counter calling to us, we resolved to return. We might even get to meet the happy man on the salad-dressing bottle.

Published by the San Antonio Current on 08/05/2009


Simplification is key. If you take a complex idea and condense it into something comprehensible, everyone can move on with their lives just a bit easier. Yet in the effort to simplify the city’s convoluted tree ordinance, the main goal behind the Tree Canopy Preservation Ordinance revision, simplification could be considered a death warrant for San Antonio’s older trees.

At the stakeholder committee meeting on Tuesday, July 14, no one probably intended a death warrant. People from both the developer and the conservation perspective make up this committee. According to a Development Services official who helped select the committee, Fernando De Leon, City Planning works frequently with the groups that provided the committee members: the Independent School Districts, The Citizens Tree Coalition, The Greater San Antonio Builders Association, etc. “We feel that we’ve created a balanced committee,” said De Leon. The committee’s schedule indicates that the revised ordinance should be submitted to the City Council by February of 2010.

The revision was proposed to tidy up the ordinance and preserve our tree canopy, according to Tom Carrasco, the committee’s mediator from Development Services. “There are a couple of issues. We had the tree canopy study that was completed by a private firm, American Forests. That report said San Antonio had to reach a certain canopy percentage to maintain our tree preservation,” said Carrasco. “Our current ordinance, right now, is somewhat confusing, and PDSD staff has spent a lot of time explaining what the ordinance means.”

“[Simplification] is important in that everybody needs to understand the rules, so that we can actually enforce the rules,” said Michael Nentwich, a committee member and a city forester from San Antonio Parks and Recreation. “There were some confusing components of the ordinance like sometimes the counting aspects of it. Legal terminology can be confusing.”

One central change is that the percentage of trees developers must preserve is based on the tree canopy alone. While it might not appear too dangerous at first glance, many environmentalists are wary because this adjustment potentially allows for favoring new trees over the older more beneficial trees.

Since the amount of trees preserved will be based on the tree canopy instead of tree species and trunk width, developers have the option to consider details such as the species and age of a tree if they feel the monetary savings warrant the preservation of older trees. At last Tuesday’s stakeholder meeting, only Paul Johnson, the regional urban forester from the Texas Forest Service, voiced the potential negative consequences. “Species have a lot of impact on how much that tree does for us. A big tree cleans more air, filters more water, and captures more water than even a small collection of newly planted trees,” Johnson said.

“Looking at the tree canopy is one of the things that [foresters] do as an initial stage, but what you really want to know is what size and species there are to know what action to take,” said Johnson. “You have a better idea of where a building should go if you know that on the east side of the property you have a stand of smaller shorter-lived trees and on the west side you have larger longer-lived tree species which are those that will give us the most environmental benefit.”

“The forest service has realized that kinds of trees are be important not merely canopy,” Loretta Van Coppenolle, conservation chair for the Alamo group of the Sierra Club, said.

Since specific tree measurements will not be mandatory, “It leaves it open to too many abilities to not know or not care,” Johnson said.

The cost of a lost tree can be very applicable to San Antonian’s daily life. In an article titled “Trees Can Bring Us More Rain” written by Van Coppenolle, the ability of trees to reduce pollutants is emphasized. Trees absorb particulate matter and other pollutants which decreases the formation of ground level ozone.

“Ozone is a much bigger threat to San Antonio [than other pollutants],” Brenda Williams, a projects manager who focuses on air quality for AACOG, said. “Government EPA sets standards for how much ozone is allowed into our air. For a year now we have been really close to that standard, which could mean violation,” said Williams. “So far, we’ve managed to avoid it.”

Despite the worries of environmentalists, Norman Dugas, a former Greater San Antonio Builder’s Association board member and local real estate developer, remains confident that residential builders will still try to preserve trees due to incentives and humans’ the natural desire to not cut down a tree if they have a choice. “In the residential context, we save every tree that we practically can because every tree we save makes the lot more valuable and the house easier to sell,” Dugas said.

If they preserve a heritage or champion tree, they get more canopy cover credit than if they were to plant a new tree, and preserving trees saves them money. In general, “[the revised ordinance] adds a lot of cost to every site because of the huge increase in planting requirements that are in this proposal,” said Dugas. While they used to only have to plant two trees per lot in the original ordinance, builders would now have to plant six trees per average residential lot, according to Dugas.

However, the simplification could save on housing costs. “[The original ordinance] was complex and convoluted in the process of compliance. It was very expensive to go through the process,” said Dugas. “It is important to understand the cost of all this is born by the new home buyer.”

There are threats and there are benefits from both sides of the line. “No one I know wants to remove trees, however the fact is, it is a balancing of needs,” said Dugas. “The need to preserve verses the need for roads, hospitals and the benefits of urban society.” The divide might not be as severe as Dugas suggests, and as to which need is greater, the opinions vary significantly.

“It could work just fine or it could be a real disaster,” said Johnson. “We won’t know until after the changes occur and they will be extremely difficult to reverse.” What appeared simple at first could create some very complex problems.

The date of the next stakeholder meeting is still unknown because the committee asked Development Services for information concerning how the revised ordinance would affect the city of San Antonio. Until this research is finished, the meeting will be delayed.

If you want to have your voice heard, attend the next committee meeting whose date, when determined, will be posted on http://www.treecoalition.org/canopyordnce.htm.

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 07/17/2009


To the great surprise and dismay of Texas Campaign for the Environment members and the Texas House Representatives involved, Governor Rick Perry vetoed the TV TakeBack bill. However, the legislature cannot override Perry’s decision even if they wanted to.

By Texas law, if the legislature presents a bill to the governor less than 10 days prior to the close of the legislative session, the governor has 20 days to take action. A bill is considered “dead” if it is vetoed after sine die because a veto must be overridden within the same session it was created.

Officially, the 2009 TV TakeBack bill is dead, but it lies in the minds of its creators. Rep. Leibowitz has already distributed his personal response to Perry’s veto, and he plans to keep this initiative going in the next legislative session. “He intends to work with the stakeholders and the governor’s office to find new legislation that everyone can agree to and pass,” Rob Borja, Leibowitz’s Chief of Staff, said. “I assume it would be with joint and co-authors, the senate, and then the senate sponsors and co-sponsors . . . It’s just trying to find the language that everyone can agree to.” And that includes the Governor.

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 07/02/2009. Read it here.

Texas doesn’t like you to burn its flag or Uncle Sam’s — disincentives run up to $4,000 and a year in jail. But the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson ruled that if you’re lighting up Old Glory to make a statement, you’re protected by the Constitution. Well, what about foreign flags?

David Bohmfalk was cited in May 2007 for illegally burning rubbish — rubbish which just happened to be our southern neighbors’ tricolor bandera — in front of the Alamo to protest legislation that would have granted undocumented workers amnesty.

Bohmfalk was detained by police officers and, says lawyer Jason Jakob, treated poorly. “He was spit on. Some tourist made death threats, and the police did not do anything except say ‘Move along,’” Jakob said. “[The officers] stated that he violated several state and federal laws, [but] none of those charges wound up sticking.”

Bohmfalk is suing the City of San Antonio, two Park Rangers and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas for violating his First Amendment rights, claiming false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation.

“One cannot miss the irony of such an appalling lack of constitutional protection at a location so known for a person’s right to defend its land from others,” stated Bohmfalk’s original petition.

“Under the First Amendment,” Jakob said, “he had every right to burn the flag.”

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 07/01/2009. Read it here.

It’s amore

Whenever Italian food is the topic of conversation, the first thing I think of is the film Moonstruck — the mood, the moonlight, the happily-ever-after for a cynical 38-year-old. Yet walking into Joe’s Italian Grill, ready for a delicious meal, my initial reaction was skepticism, not romance.

The exterior of Joe’s Italian Grill is not the most alluring, and the entrance opens onto an extremely spacious dining room — almost too spacious for comfort. Waiting for the server, I hoped that the many excited twitterings I had heard about Joe’s pasta and glorious New York-style pizza were correct.

Ordering a glass of wine was not an option because Joe’s is still acquiring its liquor license, but customers can bring a bottle of vino, and there’s no corkage fee.

My first two courses arrived after a short wait. The garlic cheese bread ($2.95) was the perfect balance of garlic and cheese. The toasted bread was not soggy from the butter, and the taste of garlic was potent but not overpowering.

The kitchen had run out of Parmesan, so I had a Caesar salad ($5.95) minus the cheese. The salad’s croutons were the perfect cubes that one can get from a bag at the grocery store, the lettuce was torn in large chunks, and the fishy flavor of the dressing indicated the strong presence of anchovies — great if you’re a Caesar-dressing purist.

When my Florentine pizza ($20.45) arrived, any lingering misgivings were washed away. The perfectly circular pie had a thin, crispy, but not crunchy, crust in classic New York style. There was no need to blot grease — not that I ever blot grease — and the toppings were in harmony, as on the garlic cheese bread. A burst of flavor alerted me to a few basil leaves scattered over the pizza, slightly crisped and pungent.

The pizzas might be a bit pricier than Papa John’s, but even if you don’t get Joe’s military discount, the quality is well worth the few extra dollars. And pizza is not the only item on the menu. I’ll be back soon to try the steaming bowls of baked pastas with mozzarella on top and the classic spaghetti and meatballs.

Published by the San Antonio Current on 06/10/2009. Read it here.

Since the 81st regular legislature closed up shop June 1, environmental organizations here waited to hear Governor Rick Perry say yes and officially sign HB 821, otherwise known as the TV TakeBack Bill, into law – or at least let it slide by unconfronted. The TV TakeBack Bill was based on the 2007 Computer TakeBack Bill (HB 2714), and it would have created a widespread recycling system less reliant on taxpayer dollars, according to Jeff Jacoby, Director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment’s Dallas office. Everyone was ready for the yes.

The digital transition that took place on June 12 was one motivator for the creation of this bill because consumers are expected to dump their old TVs en masse. “Ninety-nine million TVs are currently sitting in storage in the United States. If you look at the number proportionally, eight million TVs are sitting and gathering dust in Texas,” Jacoby said. “With the switch, we estimate about 3 million TVs could be sent to the landfill.” Even so, not everyone decided to dump their TV’s.

But Perry vetoed the bill, June 19. Before the TCE found out about the veto at 4 p.m. that Friday, “all indications from his staff were that he was OK with the bill,” Jacoby said.

“At the end of May, that’s when we got a very strong message that the Governor would be fine with this,” Robin Schneider, TCE Executive Director, said.

The office of Representative David Leibowitz seemed similarly confident of Perry’s support. Prior to the veto announcement, Rob Borja, Leibowitz’s Chief of Staff, noted that Perry signed the Computer TakeBack Bill, so there was a high probability he would sign this bill as well.

Rep. Leibowitz himself was stunned at the announcement. “It did nothing but help people, then out of the blue, he vetoes it. It absolutely boggles my mind,” he said. “Of all the missteps and all the screw-ups in this session, this is probably the most tragic.”

The bill’s author, Leibowitz, is taking the veto personally. “It’s as if somebody said ‘Who cares about your hundreds of man hours?’” he lamented.

Governor Perry’s statement concerning his veto was full of reasons why this bill was not beneficial for Texas – many of which are seen as contradictory by the TCE and Leibowitz’s office. “Although House Bill No. 821 attempts to make it easier for consumers to recycle old televisions, it does so at the expense of manufacturers, retailers and recyclers by imposing onerous new mandates, fees and regulations,” his statement said.

Schneider assessed the statement as “strange, because these groups worked with us [to create the bill]. The retailers were not necessarily for it, but they were not opposed.”

“The first draft of the bill that we worked off of, which was provided by the television industry, included these fees,” Borja said. “The industry said the $2,500-a-year fees were fine. It was a trade-group and TV-manufacturer proposal.”

“All the different perspectives kept meeting until we came up with a compromise everyone agreed on,” said Leibowitz. “It was very unique in the sense that all these different groups worked together . . . I know we even met with a Baptist organization.”

Schneider received no better answer when she confronted Perry the morning after the veto. “The weird thing was he said he vetoed the bill because it was an industry-backed bill. He said it was backed by GE,” she said. “What he failed to mention was that the [Computer TakeBack bill he passed] was made by computer manufacturers like Dell.”

Perry recommends “that the next legislature look at this issue and maybe look at ways to make [the TV TakeBack Bill] like the computer recycling bill,” Perry’s Press Secretary, Allison Castle, said.

Yet after looking at Perry’s statement, participants in the creation of the bill were again confused. “[Gov. Perry] put it in the veto message that the bill needed to be more like the Computer TakeBack Bill,” Borja said, “but that was the bill this was based on.”

Even with the veto, the fight is not yet over. “Well we can’t override a veto if we are not in session, and the governor has not called a special session,” Leibowitz said. He believes the Governor might have waited until the session ended on purpose, but he said “[I am] working on a response to his veto right now.”

Check out this link for a point by point rebuttal of Perry’s explanation of his reasons for the veto provided by Robin Schneider, TCE Executive Director: www.sacurrent.com/blog/hb821rebuttal.pdf

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 06/23/2009. Read it here.