Criminal Complaint Hits Commissioner Daugherty
Save Our Springs Alliance files complaint a day
before vote to fund State Highway 45 project
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2014
Posted Monday, March 17, 2014 8:29pm
The Save Our Springs Alliance filed a criminal complaint with the Travis County Attorney’s Office today, alleging that Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty had violated the Texas Public Information Act by not turning over his correspondence related to the proposed controversial State Highway 45 Southwest. (See: SOS Alliance Criminal Complaint re: Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty)
The complaint came the day before the Travis County Commissioners Court could vote to approve an initial payment of $2.5 million to help pay for design and construction of SH45 SW and to be obligated to pay an additional $12.5 million by October 30.
The SOS Alliance has long opposed the construction of SH45 SW over the sensitive recharge zone of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer. Daugherty has spearheaded efforts to get SH45 SW built.
The timing of the vote is important, given the recent Democratic Primary election. Former Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt is the Democratic nominee for county judge, and former City Council Member Brigid Shea is the party’s nominee for the Precinct 2 county commissioner’s seat that Eckhardt vacated to run for county judge. Both are unlikely to support the new highway.
County Attorney Says Investigation of Whether City
Council Violated Open Meetings Act Is Still Ongoing
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
A year ago today, The Austin Bulldog published an investigative report (“Open Meetings, Closed Minds”) about the years-long practice in which the mayor and council members held regularly scheduled, private, round-robin meetings preceding each scheduled council meeting.
That same day, The Austin Bulldog reported that County Attorney David Escamilla announced that he was conducting an inquiry into a possible violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, based on a complaint filed with his office by a citizen (later identified as civic activist Brian Rodgers, a key source in The Austin Bulldog’s investigation).
Now, one year later, the county attorney has not made a public statement about whether he thinks it was legal for the Austin City Council to regularly meet one-on-one and two-on-one in secret to discuss items on the city council’s upcoming agendas.
What has become of that investigation?
The Austin Bulldog asked County Attorney Escamilla.
“The investigation is still ongoing and we hope to complete it in the near future,” Escamilla said Tuesday. He declined to elaborate further.
That’s cold comfort for the seven members who were on the City Council when the story broke. With a statute of limitations of two years on the misdemeanor offenses they may have committed, they remain in legal limbo until Escamilla wraps up his investigation and determines how he will proceed.
Former Council Member Randi Shade was on the City Council from June 2008 to June 2011. She regularly participated in those private meetings with the mayor and other council members. Shade is now a homemaker and she would like to find closure.
When informed of the county attorney’s statement, Shade told The Austin Bulldog, “He’s been saying the same thing for a year.”
Shade said she has been cooperating fully with the investigation and has submitted everything requested.
“They’ve gathered a ton of information. I haven’t heard anything (about the outcome of the investigation),” she said. “After a year, I don’t know how you define this as ‘speedy,’” as in speedy justice.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell and the other five council members who are also being investigated—Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison, Chris Riley, and Bill Spelman—did not respond to an e-mail inviting comments for this story.
Bill Aleshire of Austin-based Riggs Aleshire & Ray PC, is a longtime volunteer attorney for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas media hotline. In addition, he is The Austin Bulldog’s attorney in two lawsuits against the city and council members concerning lack of responsiveness to requests filed under the Texas Public Information Act. He emphasized the importance of the issues involved in the county attorney’s investigation.“The City Council’s actions, exposed by The Austin Bulldog, threaten the foundation of open government. If an entire city council can have secret face-to-face, round-robin discussions about the upcoming meeting agenda, then the Open Meetings Act is useless, and public council meetings are nothing but rehearsed Kabuki theatre giving the pretense of government operating in the sunshine.”
One of the most respected attorneys in Texas on the subject of the Open Meetings Act is Joe Larsen, special counsel in the Houston office of the international law firm Sedgwick LLP. The nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in 2010 awarded Larsen its prestigious James Madison Award, named for the fourth president of the United States and author of the Bill of Rights.
“I think it’s important that the investigation be completed as soon as reasonably possible so as to make a public record of the findings,” Larsen said, adding, “Far be it from me to say what resources are available” for the investigation.
“If a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act is found and publicized, it will act as a deterrent for all governmental bodies that might consider doing something similar,” he said.
Larsen noted that the city council has stopped holding the private meetings and said, “However bad this practice was, one should really commend the governmental body for doing the right thing.”
Council members still at risk of prosecution