City Council

Council not anxious to publish financial disclosures

City officials’ personal financial disclosures are meant to reveal whether they have substantial conflicts of interest in policy matters that they handle, such as a...

The wrong side of town

Almost two years after Winter Storm Uri crippled the unprepared Texas electric system and knocked out power to 40 percent of buildings, Winter Storm...

Charter proposal would discourage grassroots democracy

Council Member Ryan Alter has proposed appointing a 2024 Charter Review Commission to study the signature threshold to get something on the ballot by...

Expired: Bulldog’s Offer to Settle City Lawsuit

Posted Friday, March 18, 2011 6:14pm
Expired: The Austin Bulldog’s Offer to Settle Its
Lawsuit with City, Mayor and Council Members

Does This Mean These Elected Officials
Want to Continue to Violate State Laws?

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

As reported March 2, The Austin Bulldog filed a lawsuit against the mayor, each city council member, and the City of Austin over the city’s decision to withhold certain government records—including records involving public business that were created or received on the mayor or council members’ cell phones or personal computers or the city’s Spark chat system.

The lawsuit claims that council members have violated records management laws by not turning these records over to the city so that the city can comply with the Texas Public Information Act.

Bill AleshireJim CousarOn March 4, The Austin Bulldog’s attorney, Bill Aleshire of Riggs Aleshire & Ray PC, submitted a settlement offer to the attorney handling the lawsuit for the city, James E. “Jim” Cousar of Thompson & Knight LLP.

The Austin Bulldog seeks to help the City of Austin become the shining beacon of open government in Texas,” the settlement offer states. “An important first step in that process is for Austin officials to stop communicating about city business in ways that avoid application of the Texas Public Information Act to such correspondence.”

The settlement offer expired at 5pm today. No defendant accepted the proposed terms. Fifteen minutes before the offer expired, Cousar spoke with Aleshire on the telephone.

“He (Cousar) told me that six of the seven members of the council and the City of Austin respectfully decline the offer to settle,” Aleshire said. “I told him we would respectfully proceed with the lawsuit.”

Settlement offer conditions

Spelman’s City E-mails on UT Account Will Not Be Provided

Posted Friday, March 18, 2011 11:21am
Council Member Spelman’s City E-mails
on UT Account Will Not Be Provided

University of Texas Will Seek Opinion
From Texas Attorney General to Withhold

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Bill SpelmanProfessor William “Bill” Spelman of the LBJ School of the University of Texas at Austin, today told The Austin Bulldog that he “occasionally” uses his university e-mail account for sending and receiving messages that involve his duties as an Austin City Council member.

The Austin Bulldog filed an open records request with UT Austin yesterday to obtain copies of Spelman’s e-mails from his university account that involve his work as a city council member.

Those records will not be made available. The university will instead seek an opinion from the Texas Attorney General, said open records coordinator Annela Lopez, who works in the office of Kevin Hegarty, vice president and chief financial officer of UT, who is the university’s custodian of records. Based on previous requests for e-mails created or received by faculty members that do not involve their duties as university employees, it’s unlikely that the attorney general will order Spelman’s e-mails involving city business to be released.

“We need to let this play out through the attorney general,” Lopez said.

The City of Austin previously declined to provide copies of e-mails the mayor and council members sent or received about city business on their personal computers or cell phones. UT’s policy adds to the problem of obtaining records under the Texas Public Information Act that are created or received on other than City of Austin accounts.

What we have here is not a “failure to communicate,” as the Captain tells Luke and other road-gang prisoners in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, but a failure by the City of Austin to ensure that communication created or received by city officials—which by definition are “local government records”—are stored and maintained in accordance with the Local Government Records Act so those records will be available upon request under the Texas Public Information Act, Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code. That's the law that gives everyone—not just journalists—the right to find out about the workings of government.


Petition Imminent for Geographic Representation

Posted Monday March 7, 2011 10:28pm
Petition Launch Imminent to Force Election
for Geographic Representation in City Elections

Austinites for Fair Geographic Representation
to Promote 10-2-1 Plan for Council Elections

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Lee LeffingwellMayor Lee Leffingwell announced in his State of the City speech on February 25 that he wants to see a plan for increasing the size and geographic representation of the city council on the ballot in a November 2012 election.

The mayor’s proposal was only a day old when a group of Austin citizens—including liberals, conservatives and minorities—gathered at Huston-Tillotson University (HTU) to discuss forming a coalition to push its own plan through a petition drive that could get on the ballot this November.

Section 9.004 of the Texas Local Government Code sets the bar: the petition must be “signed by a number of qualified voters of the municipality equal to at least five percent of the number of qualified voters of the municipality or 20,000, whichever number is the smaller.”

A “test” petition drive is scheduled for this Saturday, March 12, from 12-2pm on the south steps of the State Capitol, during an expected big rally to protest the proposed budget cuts in state funding for education.

At the HTU meeting, the group adopted the name Austinites for Geographic Representation, and hopes to recruit volunteers to gather enough signatures to force the City Council to schedule the election.

If the proposition were to get on the ballot and be approved, it would change the electoral system specified in the City Charter. Article II, Section 1 of the Charter states:  The council shall be composed of seven council members who shall ... be elected from the city at large.

Linda CurtisThe meeting at HTU was organized by Linda Curtis, co-founder of ChangeAustin.org. She has led numerous petition drives to get measures on the ballot.

The program was moderated by Professor Michael Hirsch, PhD, chair of Social and Behavioral Sciences in HTU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Only about 15 people attended the Saturday meeting, something Curtis said was intentional, so those who attended “could have a conversation.”

Attendees included Peck Young, director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College, and a former political consultant for some four decades; Steve Aleman, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, a coalition of neighborhood groups; Steve Speir, a longtime Democratic activist and board member of the Better Austin Today Political Action Committee; Stacy Suits, deputy constable for Travis County Precinct 3; Roger Borgelt, vice president of the Travis County Republican Party; Roscoe Overton, an African American citizen with longtime interest in civil rights; and two candidates for Austin City Council: Chris Nielsen, who is running for Place 3 against incumbent Randi Shade, and Josiah James Ingalls, who’s running for Place 1 against incumbent Chris Riley.

What was discussed

Aide’s Smoking Gun E-mail

Posted Tuesday, March 1, 2011 9:55pm
Smoking Gun E-mail Shows Council Aide
Advocated Evasion of Public Information Act

Provided Detailed Guide to Allow Chats with
Council Members on Dais But Leave No Trace

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

The Austin Bulldog has received copies of e-mails sent by Glen Coleman, policy aide to Council Member Randi Shade, that tells all the other council members’ executive assistants specifically how to disable the chat system’s ability to track the history of communications and sidestep the requirements of the Texas Public Information Act.

“In the heat of a council meeting, you may wish to communicate sensitive information that would not be appropriate for all of us to read in the (Austin American-) Statesman the next day,” Coleman stated in an e-mail at 9:22am July 8, 2009, addressed to all council executive assistants.

“For these situations, we use a chatting application called ‘Spark.’

“To set up Spark on your and your Council Member’s computers, please contact.... Once installed, be sure to disable the ‘chat history’ function.”

Coleman’s e-mail then informs the other aides how to disable Spark chat history—and delete all previous chat conversations—complete with screen shots and a step-by-step instructions.


Bulldog Files Lawsuit to Compel Compliance

Posted Wednesday, March 2, 2011 5:20pm
The Austin Bulldog Files Lawsuit to
Compel Compliance with the Law

Mayor and City Council Members Not in Compliance
with Statutes for Public Information, Records Retention

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

The Austin Bulldog electronically filed a lawsuit in state district court last night to sue the mayor and each council member in their individual capacity, and the City of Austin, for failure to promptly and fully respond to The Austin Bulldog’s requests filed under the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA), Chapter 552 of the Government Code.

The city’s decision to withhold certain government records—including records involving public business that were created or received on the mayor and council members’ cell phones or personal computers—lays bare a major problem preventing citizens from obtaining complete information about the affairs of government: To withhold records created or received on officeholders personal computers and cell phones is to effectively gut the Texas Public Information Act. To allow this to stand would amount to an open invitation for city officials and employees to conduct business in the shadows.

Withholding these public records from disclosure as requested by The Austin Bulldog on January 19, 2011, and January 27, 2011—and doing so without seeking an Attorney General’s opinion—only adds to the city’s previously reported problems in governmental transparency, evidenced by The Austin Bulldog’s story published January 25, which exposed the ongoing violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, Chapter 551 of the Government Code.

Further, The Austin Bulldog’s lawsuit asserts there is evidence that one or more Austin officials deliberately use their private e-mail accounts to try to keep substantive communications about city business from being available through the city’s computer servers.

In one case, a council member asked a constituent to switch over to the council member’s personal e-mail address to continue discussing the controversial topic of tax subsidies for The Domain shopping center. This e-mail discussion obviously concerns important public business, as those subsidies amounted to anywhere from $25 million to more than $60 million, depending on whose figures you believe.

Records retention paramount