Lawsuit seeks to halt tax dollars for luxury development
Council not anxious to publish financial disclosures
The wrong side of town
City council members file mid-year financials
Big Gains in Financial Assets
May Have Failed to Report Major
Investments in Last Annual Report
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011
The most significant changes reflected in the latest mid-year Statements of Financial Information submitted by Austin City Council members appeared in the statement submitted by Council Member Mike Martinez. He listed the names of 49 entities in which he and his wife, Lara Wendler, held, owned, acquired, or sold stock, or any other equity ownership having a value of $5,000 or more.
These holdings appear to represent an investment of at least $245,000, if each of the 49 stocks were valued at the minimum $5,000. These stocks cover a wide range of investment funds. None involve local companies.
Martinez did not report these investments in his last annual report.
Seeking clarification, The Austin Bulldog e-mailed Martinez August 8 to ask if he owned these stocks during 2010—and failed to report them in his last annual report—or acquired them since January 1.
Martinez replied August 10: “After consulting with counsel, my wife and I have expanded the mid-year PFS (personal financial statement) to provide more information. The mid-year PFS accurately reflects our current situation.”
Martinez did not respond to a follow-up query to again ask if he had owned those investments last year and failed to report them.
Martinez currently has a new home under construction at 2314 E. 11th St., in Central East Austin near Boggy Creek Park. The 11,641-square-foot lot was purchased October 29, according to the Warranty Deed, and the building permit was issued May 31. The three-story, single-family residence being built by Olson Defendorf Custom Homes has 5,289 square feet, with 4.5 bathrooms and two garages, according to building permits downloaded from the city’s website.
Martinez’ financial statement indicates that he paid off three loans and took out three new loans. He also joined the board of directors of three organizations that benefit youth and social justice: Police Activity League, Community Shares of Texas, and Christopher Guild.
Other financial changes
At-Large Elections Favor Anglo Choices
Forty Years of Election History
Expose Extent of Disparities
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011
It should come as no surprise that the greatest political power is exercised by those whose wealth, influence, and avid participation enable them to move the levers of democracy in their favor.
The extent to which this is true in Austin is laid bare by maps constructed by The Austin Bulldog that pinpoint the residential location of every mayor and council member elected over the last four decades.
The unalterable fact that emerges is that large parts of Austin are not represented—or are grossly underrepresented—because of the at-large system of elections established by the Austin City Charter.
This is not a new revelation. Attempts to gain voter approval for some form of council districts that would provide for equitable geographic representation have been put on the ballot six times, beginning in 1973, and six times failed to win majority support.
The ship of democracy continues to sail in the direction ordered by the majority. Which is how democracy is supposed to work.
But at what cost to those who feel disenfranchised by Austin’s at-large election system? The at-large system effectively means that all citizens—all 800,000 of us—are represented by every member of the city council. This system fails to make any one council member responsible for our concerns, or those of our neighbors. When every council member is responsible to every citizen, by definition, no one council member is responsible to a particular citizen.
The Austin City Council and a growing coalition of citizens are separately working on two different plans to give voters another opportunity in 2012 to approve a City Charter change to require the majority of city council members to be elected from geographic districts.
Based on what’s been discussed so far, these two initiatives differ significantly regarding how many council districts would be proposed, what procedure would be used for drawing district lines, the length of council terms, and whether terms would be staggered.
Both initiatives are still in the formative stages.
The City Council is scheduled to approve a resolution today (Item 28 on the agenda) to establish a 2012 Charter Revision Committee composed of 15 members who shall be appointed no later than August 25. The committee’s recommendations for charter amendments, and a map that includes any combination of at-large and geographic representation, are due by January 31.
The city’s plan or the grass-roots plan, or both, could wind up on the ballot next year.
But it should be noted that this appears to be the first time that a broad coalition of community organizations have launched a serious effort to formulate a plan that is independent of whatever proposal the city council puts forward, according to those involved in previous election campaigns for council districts.
None of the six failed propositions got on the ballot through a grass-roots petition drive. In the past, voters have only been able to react to whatever plan the city proposed—and the reaction has always been unfavorable.
Why geographic representation?
City Council’s Stealth Pay Raises
Fly Under the Public Radar
County Commissioners Court Raises
Require Published Notice, Signed Approval
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog
The Austin City Charter (Article 1, Section 2) establishes the city council as the city’s policy making body. But when it comes to giving themselves a pay raise, the mayor and city council members are just part of the rank and file.
When city employees get a raise, so do council members—automatically, without any public disclosure required.
The mayor and council members have obtained three such raises in the last four years. While the cumulative amount of these recent raises has been relatively small, the process is far from transparent.
From 2000 to 2010, the mayor’s salary has increased 124 percent, council members’ 109 percent.
Adding to the lack of transparency, salaries for the mayor and council members are not posted anywhere on the city’s website, a fact confirmed by the city’s public information office. Council payroll documents for the past five years were obtained by The Austin Bulldog through submission of an open records request and payment of $127 in fees to retrieve and search boxes of older records. Because of the city’s inadequate initial response to the request, incomplete records, and the city’s changing methodology for documenting council pay changes, clarity was achieved only after submitting numerous follow-up e-mails to city officials to obtain answers.
The city’s current system of pay raises for the mayor and council members was established November 16, 2006, when the council led by Mayor Will Wynn voted unanimously to pass Ordinance 20061116-081. This ordinance grants future raises to the mayor and council members “...equal to the base percentage amount established for ‘meets expectations’ compensation adjustments for non-Civil Service employees.” (Only police and firefighters are civil service employees and their pay is determined by contracts. The rest of the city’s 12,000 workers are not civil service employees.)
Tom “Smitty” Smith is director of Public Citizen Texas, a nonprofit group that addresses a broad range of public policy issues, including what it calls "clean government” by working to hold public officials accountable.
“I think Austin City Council members should be well paid, comparable to the other 20 large metropolitan cities in the United States,” Smith says, “because it’s more than a full-time job.
“But council members pay raises should not be done through subterfuge,” Smith says.
Smith says the Texas Legislature is an example of more extreme subterfuge. When our low-paid lawmakers vote to raise judicial salaries they are actually voting to raise their own retirement pay, because their retirement pay is pegged to judicial salaries.
The preferred way to address salaries for council members, Smith says, is for the city auditor or some other disinterested official to establish a citizens committee removed from council influence that would study compensation issues and make recommendations for the council to adopt.
While the City of Austin’s methodology is opaque, this below-the-radar procedure is permitted by Local Government Code Section 141.004, which states, “The governing body of a home-rule municipality may set the amount of compensation for each officer of the municipality.”
County commissioners are much more closely regulated. In fact, Local Government Code Section 152.013 requires newspaper publication of a notice of any salaries, expenses, or allowances that are proposed to be increased for all elected county or precinct officers—including the amount of proposed increases—more than 10 days before the commissioners court meets for a budget hearing and adopts the budget. To view the ad published for the current fiscal year click here.
County commissioners must publicly vote on these proposed pay increases. Then, each member of the commissioners court must personally sign the order setting salaries for elected officials, including their own. To see the order for the current fiscal year click here.
Council raises 2000 to 2010
2009 Austin City Council E-mails
Private Deliberations and Political Maneuvering
More than 2,400 Pages of 2009 E-mails
Published Here in a Searchable Format
© The Austin Bulldog 2011
The schisms within the Austin City Council that surfaced during the runoff election between incumbent Council Member Randi Shade and challenger Kathie Tovo were a revelation, as the other incumbents split evenly in lining up to support Shade or Tovo.
Such passionate and public election advocacy among sitting council members is rare, if not unprecedented. The election outcome created deep political wounds in need of healing, not only for personal relations among council members but also for making good public policy when the council’s summer hiatus is over in three weeks.
The thousands of e-mails written in 2010 and January 2011 obtained through open records requests and The Austin Bulldog’s lawsuit, published May 12, foreshadowed some of the differences that surfaced in this runoff election. But the e-mails exchanged by council members in 2009, published here, show the roots of dissent among council members goes back much further.
The latest batch of more than 2,400 e-mails obtained through an open records request raise new issues—not only for what these e-mails reveal, but also because of what was withheld.
Some of these records show council members communicated among themselves about city business in numbers equaling or exceeding a quorum, a possible violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Some of the council members also deliberated through their private e-mail accounts about a $250 million city project that was under consideration.
As for what was withheld, two (not four, as first reported) council members failed to provide copies of e-mails about city business conducted on their personal e-mail accounts during calendar year 2009: Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez. (Deleted Chris Riley and Randi Shade.)
To withhold private e-mails about city business flies in the face of at least four open records opinions issued by the Texas Attorney General, which state that e-mails about government business that were created or received on personal accounts are public records (OR2003-0951, OR2003-1890, OR2005-01126, OR2005-06753) and thus are subject to release under the Texas Public Information Act.
As reported March 2, The Austin Bulldog filed a lawsuit against the mayor, council members, and City of Austin because of the failure to release copies of personal e-mails about city business exchanged by the city council during calendar year 2010 and January 2011. As a result, the mayor and council members eventually relented and released at least some of those e-mails.
For e-mails sent or received in 2009, Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Laura Morrison, Chris Riley, and Randi Shade released personal e-mails about city business and Council Member Bill Spelman released city business e-mails from his University of Texas account. As in the earlier releases forced by the lawsuit, the city characterized these actions as being voluntary. (Update July 7, 2011: Click here to see the cover letter provided by the City of Austin that accompanied the 2009 e-mails released by the city.)
The bottom line is the other city council members continue to take the position that they need not turn over e-mails about city business conducted on personal accounts. This position is inconsistent with the e-mail policy the city council adopted in an April 7 resolution that applies going forward. (See The Austin Bulldog report of April 15.)
Open Government Fixes Costing Big Bucks
So Far and No End in Sight
The Austin City Council so far has authorized spending $399,000 to hire outside attorneys to provide advice to bring the city into compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act and to defend a lawsuit filed by The Austin Bulldog under the Texas Public Information Act.
More than half that amount has been spent already, most of it to deal with the ongoing investigation of possible criminal violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by Travis County District Attorney David Escamilla.
Section 551.143 of the Texas Open Meetings Act states that a member or group of members of a governmental body commits an offense if the member or group of members knowingly conspire to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations in violation of this chapter. An offense, if proven, is punishable by a fine of $100 to $500 and confinement in the county jail for one to six months, or both the fine and confinement.
The Austin City Council’s possible violations of Section 551.143 were exposed by The Austin Bulldog’s investigative report published January 25. That same day The Austin Bulldog reported that Escamilla was investigating these matters. That investigation is still ongoing.
The city’s response to these reports was swift. On January 28, the city council hired three law firms and huddled with their lawyers for two and a half hours in a closed-door executive session.
The practice of scheduled private meetings was immediately stopped. The Austin City Council held its first public work session February 9.
The investigative report exposed the longstanding practice of the mayor and council members holding a flurry of routinely scheduled private meetings that for many years had been taking place a day or two before every council meeting. These private meetings denied public access to significant deliberations about city business that are required to be conducted in the sunshine of open meetings.
The Austin Bulldog reported February 7 that the City of Austin committed $159,000 to engage three law firms to provide legal advice related to Texas Open Meetings Act: James E. “Jim” Cousar of Thompson & Knight LLP, C. Robert “Bob” Heath of Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP, and Randy T. Leavitt of the Law Office of Randy T. Leavitt.
Since then, City Attorney Karen Kennard has issued amendments that allowed other lawyers and support personnel within the three law firms to assist, and increased the total authorized expenditures to $289,000 solely to address Texas Open Meetings Act issues.
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