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City Holding Open Government Symposium

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Continuing legal education credits for lawyers and great information for advocates of open government

Posted Wednesday April 8, 2015 11:15am

The City of Austin will hold its second Open Government Symposium tomorrow, Thursday, April 9 at City Hall.

The all-day event will offer seven different presentations, some of which are running concurrently to provide options for attendees. The sessions will cover ethics, litigation developments, legislative developments, open government innovations in the state and internationally, and open government issues beyond the city.

David Escamilla
David Escamilla

Travis County Attorney David Escamilla is on the program to speak at the Symposium and is enthusiastic about the city again holding this important event.

“By holding this symposium the City of Austin is recognizing that open government and transparency are important,” Escamilla said.

Escamilla is the official who conducted a 21-month investigation of the previous Austin City Council’s longstanding practice of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, by holding regularly scheduled two-on-one and one-on-one private meetings, in effect establishing a “walking quorum” that constituted a conspiracy to evade the Act.

That investigation was triggered by the The Austin Bulldog’s investigative report that exposed the illegal practice.

Bill Aleshire
Bill Aleshire

Attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, a strong advocate for increased government accountability—and The Austin Bulldog’s attorney for two lawsuits involving the City of Austin’s refusal to comply with the Texas Public Information Act—said, “I hope the ‘New Way Forward’ (advocated by Mayor Steve Adler) will have a subtitle ‘Let’s Get Real,’ and nowhere in the City’s management is there more need to get real than in the pretense City Manager Marc Ott’s administration has given to transparency in government. 

“It will be interesting to see if what introspection may occur at this conference is anything more than the city staff contemplating their own navels,” Aleshire said.

The Austin Bulldog provided the only coverage of the first symposium, held in 2013, and published a three-part series (see links to those stories below).

For this year’s symposium, The Austin Bulldog will publish our coverage as soon as possible, but will focus on providing coverage framed within the larger context of our experience in dealing with the City of Austin over the past five years. That experience involved filing more than 150 public information requests, filing two lawsuits against the elected officials and city for failure to comply with the Texas Public Information Act in responding to our requests for records, and publishing scores of related stories about the city’s progress and problems in dealing with open government issues.

Wide variety of speakers

Steve Adler
Steve Adler

Mayor Adler will deliver opening remarks scheduled to start at 9am, followed by another half-dozen programs to be held throughout the day, including:

Why Acting Legally and Ethically Matters features speaker Paul Liebman, chief compliance officer for the University of Texas at Austin.

Litigation Developments, a panel discussion moderated by Gary Cobb, grand jury and intake director for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office.

Legislative Developments, a panel discussion moderated by Karen Kennard, interim officer for the City of Austin’s Intergovernmental Relations Office.

Innovations, a panel discussion moderated by Kerry O’Connor, innovation officer for the City of Austin’s Innovation Office.

Beyond the City, a panel discussion moderated by Justin Gordon, Open Records Division chief, Office of the Texas Attorney General.

Why Municipal Open Government Matters will feature speaker Nathaniel Heller, managing director of the Results for Development Institute.

Closing remarks will be delivered by Interim City Attorney Anne Morgan of the City of Austin’s Law Department.

The complete agenda is posted online at http://www.austintexas.gov/opengov2015.

Out from under a cloud

The 2013 symposium was held in the wake of a recently ended 21-month criminal investigation of the City Council’s violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The investigation resulted in deferred prosecution agreements (also known as compliance agreements) signed by the mayor and council members (except Kathie Tovo, who was elected after violations occurred).

These were serious criminal offenses and if charged, prosecuted, and convicted could have resulted in six months in jail, a fine of $500 or both.

The deferred prosecution agreements included a provision to waive the statute of limitations on evidence showing probable cause of numerous violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by the mayor and council members. The waiver provided that if new violation occurred within two years of executing the agreements, then the county attorney could prosecute the violators for both the new offense and the older evidence.

The probationary period ended in October 2014. Today we have an entirely new mayor and city council, none of which were subjected to that investigation.

The agreements included a requirement for the staff of each elected official to complete training courses for the Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Public Information Act.

The agreements also required the elected officials to comply with the City of Austin’s Records Retention Rules, a crucial factor, in that if records are not properly retained then they will not be available when asked for through a public informaiton request.

As a result of The Austin Bulldog’s lawsuit over the mayor and council’s refusal to release e-mails about city business conducted via private accounts, the City Council passed Resolution 20110407-014 requiring all future city business to be conducted on city e-mail accounts and to promptly forward to city accounts all electronic communications received on non-city accounts.

The resolution required similar changes in electronic communications for all city employees and the appointed members of all city boards and commissions.

Related Bulldog coverage:

Litigation Challenges Open Government Laws: Attorneys criticize criminal penalties and public access to elected officials’ private e-mail accounts, April 24, 2013

Social Media’s Impact on Open Government: Few government organizations have dealt with how Facebook, Twitter use affects compliance, April 23, 2014

City Hosts Open Government Symposium: Lawyers attending for education credits abound, much of day has little to do with city practices, April 22, 2013

City Spent $157,836 to Defend Council Violations: Payments for private lawyers for mayor, council members in criminal investigation, April 8, 2013

City Hosting Open Government Symposium: Follows county attorney’s investigation of City Council open meetings violations, March 19, 2013

Deferred Prosecution Ends Open Meetings Investigation: Mayor and five current council members sign agreements waiving the statute of limitations and requiring major reforms, October 24, 2012. Includes links to the deferred prosecution agreements.