Ruling allows immediate fundraising for 2024 elections

The City Council is scheduled to get a closed-door executive session briefing from the Law Department September 14th to discuss legal fallout from Judge...

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...

Austin’s got a $2 million mayor

This story was updated at 4:14pm January 26th to correct the statement made about Jennifer Virden’s total spending. The $220,000 she repaid to herself...

Brigid Shea Exploring Run for Mayor

Posted Tuesday, December 6, 2011 6pm
Brigid Shea Exploring Run for Mayor

Cites Differences in Vision and Leadership
But No Specifics While Mulling Her Candidacy

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Brigid SheaBrigid Shea served a tumultuous three years on the Austin City Council ending in June 1996, a period marked by Mayor Bruce Todd’s push to sell the city’s electric utility amid the nascent legislative restructuring of the electric industry in Texas and the birth of her first son, Eamon Brennan Umphress, on December 18, 1995, when Shea was 41.

Now Shea is considering challenging Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who announced his reelection bid November 16.

“I’m telling people this is a discussion worth having,” Shea told The Austin Bulldog. “The community is capable of having competing visions and that’s what I’m exploring.”

Leffingwell campaign spokesman Mark Littlefield said, “I think Brigid Shea’s been a stellar advocate and stakeholder and we look forward to hearing from her on the campaign trail.”

Shea declined to get into specifics about her differences with Mayor Leffingwell, saying, “I don’t want to get into the campaign until I've made a decision, but there’s a very sharp contrast in our leadership and vision.”

Shea filed a statement with the city clerk’s office late yesterday to appoint Danette Chimenti as her treasurer. Chimenti supported Kathie Tovo’s campaign that unseated Council Member Randi Shade this year, as well as the re-election campaign of Council Member Laura Morrison.

The Austin Chronicle posted a report online this afternoon about a poll conducted last night that included questions asking respondents to compare Shea, Leffingwell, and Council Members Bill Spelman and Sheryl Cole. The latter two were at one time considered possible mayoral candidates but they have since declined to run for mayor and are running for reelection.

Shea told The Austin Bulldog that she was “not confirming or denying” that she commissioned the poll.

Pollster Jeff Smith, owner of Opinion Analysts, said his company conducted the poll but he was not at liberty to disclose who paid for without permission, and he had not obtained it yet.

Shea’s treasurer, Chimenti, cofounded Logical Information Machines Inc., a company that grew out  of the Austin Technology Incubator initiative of the University of Texas. The company was to be sold to Morningstar Inc., a leading provider of independent investment research, for a reported $51.5 million, according to a PRNewswire report of December 11, 2009. At the time of the sale the company’s largest office was in Austin and employed about 80 people, the article stated, with locations in Austin, Houston, Chicago, New York and London.

Chimenti is past president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and has served on the city’s Parks and Recreation Board. She is currently a member of the city’s Planning Commission, to which she was appointed by Council Member Bill Spelman in July 2009.

Shea, who turns 57 on January 9, won her political spurs as founding director of the Save Our Springs Coalition formed in 1991. The Coalition successfully petitioned to get the SOS Ordinance on the ballot and won voter approval in 1992 by a two-to-one margin.

During the run-up to the SOS Ordinance election in 1992 Shea often traded barbs with Freeport-McMoRan Inc. CEO Jim Bob Moffett, who was threatening to bankrupt the city with litigation of the SOS Ordinance passed.

She also crossed swords with Circle C developer Gary Bradley during the SOS Ordinance campaign. One memorable videotape of Shea and Bradley in a cramped radio studio showed an obviously angry Bradley trying to debate the proposed ordinance. The Austin American-Statesman published a lengthy feature article October 23 noting that Shea and Bradley had quit fighting, something emblematic of the maturing of both these individuals and the environmental movement.

Shea won her council seat in 1993 in a runoff election against incumbent Bob Larson, who had been part of the narrow 4-3 council majority that opposed the SOS Ordinance.

Lee LeffingwellMayor Leffingwell has environmental credentials, too, having served on the city’s environmental board for five years before being elected to the city council in 2005. He served as a council member till he was elected mayor in 2009.

But the mayor has angered many in the environmental community for pushing construction of half-billion-dollar Water Treatment Plant 4 that the SOS Alliance and others said was unnecessary, and for supporting the Formula One race track.

To see The Austin Bulldog’s background investigation on Leffingwell published December 2, click here.

Shea’s council term and later work

Background Investigation: Mayor Lee Leffingwell

Posted Friday, December 2, 2011 12:48pm
Updated Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at 10:45am to include military service records
Background Investigation: Mayor Lee Leffingwell

Here’s What the Public Records Say
About the City’s Highest Elected Official

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Lee LeffingwellOn the morning of September 19, 2009, an Austin police officer pulled over Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell on a state highway and issued him a speeding ticket. Leffingwell later pled no contest, paid a $110 fee, and completed a driving safety course.

The traffic citation, listed on the city’s municipal court database, is indicative of Leffingwell’s otherwise squeaky-clean background—just one of many areas The Austin Bulldog researched as a part of a series of background investigations on the mayor and city council members.

In an effort to educate Austin residents about their elected officials in the months leading to the May 2012 election, The Austin Bulldog searched public databases, filed open records requests, and scanned news archives to uncover business, real estate and court documents, voting records and criminal history.

The results will be published individually for each officeholder with the goal of making these documents easily accessible to the public.

The Austin Bulldog’s investigation into Mayor Leffingwell, who announced his bid for re-election November 16, confirmed much of what has already been reported about the retired pilot and long-time Austin resident. Not surprisingly, Travis County voting records show he is a loyal Democrat, having voted in Democratic primaries dating back to 1992.

Leffingwell has no searchable criminal or bankruptcy history in Texas and does not owe overdue property taxes in Travis County. Based on searches of Travis County and district court records, he has only been sued in his capacity as a city official.

Our research found a complaint was filed with the Texas Ethics Commission alleging that Leffingwell violated the Texas election code by accepting corporate contributions and failing to properly report political contributions and expenditures in multiple campaign finance reports.

A July 4 article in the Austin American-Statesman said six Houston-area Tea Party members filed the complaints against Leffingwell and each council member after the Austin council decided to end city business with Arizona, in protest of the state’s controversial immigration law.

The commission cleared the mayor of many of the allegations August 11, but determined Leffingwell did not sufficiently disclose the names of two contributors donating a total of $700 to his May 2009 campaign. He also failed to disclose in other documents the full names of 11 supporters who donated $1,570 as well as the payee for $16,000 worth of campaign expenses. The commission ordered Leffingwell, who has filed corrected reports, to pay a $500 civil penalty.

Strong financials bode ill for challengers

Council Sets Charter Election Date

Posted Thursday, November 3, 2011 1:40pm
Council Confirms November 2012
Election Date for Charter Amendments

Resolution Ensures Citizens Initiative
Won’t Force May 2012 Charter Election

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Laura Morrison“It’s a kumbaya moment to celebrate,” Council Member Laura Morrison told The Austin Bulldog shortly before a press conference this morning at City Hall. “Usually we just talk about things we disagree on.”

Morrison, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, and Council Member Mike Martinez sponsored a council resolution on today’s agenda to confirm that the council intends to hold an election to amend the Austin City Charter in November 2012.

That assurance was sought by Austinites for Geographic Representation, which since late February has been building a broad citizens coalition to initiate a petition drive for a charter change that would establish a nonpartisan Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission that would draw 10 council districts that the Austin City Council would have no choice but to adopt. The group’s plan calls for only the mayor to continue being elected at-large. The petition drive launched with a rally October 22 that drew about a hundred people.

Striking an agreement on the charter election date was essential. If the petition drive were to trigger a May 2012 charter election, the City Council would have been forced to either put its own charter amendments on the May ballot, or be frozen out for two years if the citizens initiative got voter approval. Article XI, Section 5 of the Texas Constitution states that “no city charter shall be altered, amended or repealed oftener than every two years.”

The press conference was attended by Morrison and Cole, as well as NAACP Austin President Nelson Linder and Austinites for Geographic Representation members Roger Borgelt, Charlie Jackson, and Daniel Llanes.

Sheryl ColeIn separately answering The Austin Bulldog’s question, both Morrison and Cole said that sponsoring the resolution for a November 2012 charter election was designed to reassure the citizens group and should not be viewed as an endorsement of the plan being pushed by Austinites for Geographic Representation. “I’m waiting to see what the Charter Revision Committee recommends,” Cole said.

NAACP Austin President Linder, a member of the 2012 Charter Revision Committee that is studying what form of geographic representation to recommend to the City Council, told The Austin Bulldog he favors the citizens initiative. “I think it’s the best plan out there,” he said.

The need for geographic representationwas laid bare by maps constructed by The Austin Bulldog and published August 4 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.

Seven charter recommendations, so far

At-Large Elections Favor Anglo Choices

Posted Thursday, August 4, 2011 2:00pm
Maps Prove a Select Few Govern Austin

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.

Electee Residences Map 1971-2011 (Click to see live maps)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?

Brian Rodgers for Council?

Posted Wednesday January 12, 2011 2:39pm

Civic Activist Brian Rodgers
Mulling Run for Austin City Council

Would File Against Incumbent
County Member Randi Shade

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Brian RodgersBrian Rodgers has long been critical of the way the City of Austin manages taxpayers’ money. He has agitated for changes on a wide range of issues, including equity in property taxes, limiting campaign contributions, and repealing tax subsidies for high-end retail development.

Now he’s deciding whether he should run for a seat on the Austin City Council, where he would have a far greater ability to influence city policies and spending.

He’s especially eager to find ways to quit subsidizing growth that he contends does not pay for itself. That’s a theme that’s been running for years on the website of an organization he co-founded in December 2008, ChangeAustin. There’s even a Voter Pledge form on the website, that says, “I plan to vote for candidates in the May 2011 Austin City Council election who will fight to make Austin’s growth pay for itself and to halt the long-standing practice of special interests (large-scale developers and land speculators in particular) off-loading their costs onto current residents. Enough already.”

If he runs, Rodgers says he will oppose Council Member Randi Shade, who is seeking her second term. She hosted her campaign kickoff at Mercury Hall last night and drew an energized crowd. Her campaign website lists more than 150 supporters. Campaign finance reports are not due until January 15. Shade carried over $2,105 from previous reports.

In telephone interviews Rodgers said he’s undecided whether to seek election—mainly because he’s not sure he can run his real estate business and serve on the council at the same time.

The filing period for this election opens February 12 and closes March 14. The election is May 14.

“I’m still mulling it,” he says.

  Why run against Shade?

“The cost of living is killing us,” he says. “I think Randi Shade is tone-deaf to what regular citizens are facing.”