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City of Austin

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...

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

Spelman On the Record About Private Meetings

Posted Sunday, February 20, 2011 2:06pm
Council Member Bill Spelman Goes
On the Record About Private Meetings

Fifth in a Series of Recorded
Question and Answer Interviews

by The Austin Bulldog
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

As reported by The Austin Bulldog January 25, County Attorney David Escamilla is conducting an inquiry about a complaint that the Austin City Council may have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.

This is a serious matter and the city is taking it seriously. In lieu of the private meetings that for years have been held among the mayor and council members to discuss items on the Thursday council meeting agendas, the council is now holding work sessions to discuss the agenda in posted open meetings.

If the mayor and council members should be found to have in fact violated the Act, they may be subject to criminal prosecution under Section 551.143 of the Government Code, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not less than $100 or more than $500; confinement in the county jail for not less than one month or more than six months; or both the fine and confinement.

The Austin Bulldog is publishing selected text excerpts from each of the exclusive interviews conducted with the council members before breaking the story. The complete copyrighted MP3 audio file for each interview is linked at the bottom of each article for easy access. You may listen to these recordings to gain a better understanding of the published excepts within the context of the complete interview.

Bill SpelmanCouncil Member Bill Spelman was interviewed in his office at City Hall on Monday, January 24, 2011. The recording runs 38 minutes 52 seconds.

The Austin Bulldog: 
I don't want to take too much of your time so let's jump right in. As I said in my e-mail requesting an interview I'm developing story about working relationships among the mayor and the council members and understanding how these folks work together to develop public policies. One thing that stands out of my mind is the four of you are pretty transparent on how you spend your time on council duties because you publish your calendars online.

Bill Spelman:
 Right.

The Austin Bulldog: 
Do you have any ideas about why (Mayor) Lee (Leffingwell), (Mayor Pro Tem) Mike (Martinez) and (Council Member) Sheryl (Cole) don't publish their calendars?

Work Sessions Stir Concern Over Tying Up Staff

Posted Tuesday, February 15, 2011 8:15pm
Council Work Sessions Stir Concern
Over Tying Up Staff for Two Meetings

City Manager Presents Summary of
Options for Council Consideration
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Marc OttIn the wake of the Austin City Council’s first work session in recent memory, held February 9, City Manager Marc Ott told the city council he was concerned about the new policy of conducting Wednesday work sessions in advance of the regular Thursday council meetings, where decisions are made and votes are cast.

“It potentially has an adverse impact on productivity because we have so many people ... dedicated to two meetings,” KUT radio reported February 9.

The work sessions were reinstituted after Travis County Attorney David Escamilla announced on January 25 that he was conducting an inquiry in response to a complaint about possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The mayor and council members have been reluctant to publicly state that the work sessions were instituted because of Escamilla’s inquiry—in spite of the fact the private meetings among the mayor and council members were immediately cancelled and the first work session was held the day before the next city council meeting.

Bill SpelmanBut Council Member Bill Spelman conceded as much in a February 9 interview with KUT radio: “That may have been the original genesis behind it (initiating work sessions) but I think anything which allows us to talk freely with one another is a good idea and leads to better decision-making on all of our parts,” he said.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell described the work sessions like this: “It’s kind of like a pre-council meeting,” according to a February 10 report by KXAN-TV.

On February 10, the Austin American-Statesman reported that City Manager Ott asked during the work session whether the city’s department heads would have to spend every other Wednesday on call to answer council questions. Or should the council use the sessions to simply talk with one another—in lieu of the now-cancelled individual meetings.

After that meeting, Ott said he would bring his team together “and dissect what it is going to take for us to prepare ourselves for both a work session, study session, pre-Council meeting—whatever it ends up being called—as well as the regular Council meeting,” In Fact Daily reported February 10.

The council’s second work session is scheduled to begin at 1:30pm tomorrow, February 16, in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall, 301 W. Second St. The agenda includes an item for discussion and possible action on work session procedures. No action will be taken and there will be no citizen participation during the work session. Citizens will be permitted to address agenda items at the regularly scheduled City Council meeting on Thursday, February 17, 2011.

Larry Schooler, the city’s community engagement consultant, said in an interview with KUT radio on February 9 that the city council had asked for a review of “best practices” in other cities and had gotten a memo from the city manager that outlines a number of different ways that other city councils elsewhere in the country discuss their agendas prior to a public vote and public comment. “This is going to have to be a work in progress,” Schooler said.

Possible meeting options

Mayor Claims Lawyers Okayed Private Meetings

Posted Sunday February 13, 2011 5:51pm
Mayor Claims Lawyers Okayed Private
Meetings But City Won’t Release Proof

City Pledges Cooperation With County Attorney’s
Inquiry But Is Withholding These Key Documents

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Lee LeffingwellAustin Mayor Lee Leffingwell has pledged on several occasions to cooperate fully with County Attorney David Escamilla’s inquiry into the Austin City Council’s possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. 

“We’ve been advised by the city attorney that meeting between individual council members do not violate the Open Meetings Act,” Leffingwell said in a statement reported by the Austin American-Statesman January 26, “but we will cooperate fully with the County Attorney’s review.”

On January 25, theStatesman’s “City and County Beat blog” reported a statement issued by Council Member Chris Riley: “We have recently been advised by the Austin City Attorney that the practice of conducting individual meetings does not constitute a violation of the Open Meetings Act.” In Fact Daily reported the same statement January 26.

The mayor repeated his pledge to cooperate with the inquiry after the city received the county attorney’s related open records requests. “We will fully comply with the public information requests, and we will cooperate fully with the county attorney’s review,” the Statesman reported February 10.

But there will be no cooperation when it comes to backing up claims made by Leffingwell and Riley that city lawyers have advised the mayor and council members that the practice of holding a series of private meetings before a council meeting is legal.

County Attorney Asks City for Records

Posted Wednesday February 9, 2011 9:27pm
County Attorney Asks City of Austin for
Records Related to Open Meetings Complaint

Former Mayor Wynn and Former
Council Member McCracken Included

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

David EscamillaCounty Attorney David Escamilla has filed 10 requests under the Texas Public Information Act to obtain records related to his inquiry about the Austin City Council’s possible violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The Austin Bulldog obtained copies of the county attorney’s requests from the city late today through an open records request.

The county attorney’s requests are addressed individually to the current mayor and city council members, and to the city manager.

Will WynnEscamilla also filed requests with the city clerk, who is the city’s corporate custodian of records, to obtain applicable records pertaining to former Mayor Will Wynn and former City Council Member Brewster McCracken.

Contacted by The Austin Bulldog this evening, County Attorney Escamilla declined to comment about his open records requests.

Wynn and McCracken left the city council in June 2009. However, a violation of the Act under Section 551.143 of the Government Code is a misdemeanor. Therefore, under Article 12.02 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, an indictment or information could be filed within two years from the date of the commission of the offense, and not later.

If an offense under Section 551.143 is proven, it would be punishable by a fine of not less than $100 or more than $500; confinement in the county jail for not less than one month or more than six months; or both the fine and confinement.

Former Mayor Wynn did not immediately respond to a message left on his cell phone. Mayor Lee Leffingwell did not respond to a message left on his home voice mail.

Brewster McCrackenMcCracken said in an interview this evening that the councils on which he served (June 2003 through June 2009) always had tightly scheduled one-on-one meetings every week.

“My one-on-ones were typically the same time every week,” McCracken said. “There was usually a standing meeting time, usually on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. We would meet even in weeks when there were no council meetings.”

“We did not meet two-on-one during my time on the council,” McCracken said.

During his six years on the city council, McCracken said that some mayors he served with required public work sessions to be held, and some did not. Mayor Kirk Watson stopped them, he said. Mayor Gus Garcia restarted work sessions that were held on Wednesday mornings preceding the Thursday council meetings, and Mayor Will Wynn discontinued them, McCracken said.

What Escamilla requested