Follows county attorney’s investigation of City Council open meetings violations
Updated Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 3:27pm
The City of Austin is taking a giant step into the sunshine by hosting its first-ever Open Government Symposium April 17, an all-day event featuring six panel discussions.
The symposium comes six months after the county attorney concluded a 21-month investigation of the mayor and council members, in which he “found probable cause to believe that multiple violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act had occurred,” according to the Travis County Attorney David Escamilla’s Press Release of October 24, 2012.
That investigation—triggered by The Austin Bulldog’s investigative report of January 25, 2011 and a formal complaint filed by civic activist Brian Rodgers—resulted in these elected officials (excluding Kathie Tovo, who was not on the council at the time of the violations) signing deferred prosecution agreements, also called compliance agreements.
In a Monday interview, Escamilla said of the symposium, “I’m happy to see the city move forward in this direction. I think it’s a needed initiative given that during our investigation we identified a lack of understanding and education in this area.”
The open government symposium comes two years after The Austin Bulldog sued the City of Austin over its refusal to release e-mails about city business that the mayor and council members exchanged on private accounts.
That lawsuit, The Austin Bulldog v. Lee Leffingwell, mayor, et al filed March 1, 2011—five weeks after the county attorney launched his investigation—not only triggered release of those e-mails about city business exchanged on private accounts but led to new policies for how the City Council, city employees, and board and commission members handle electronic communication in accordance with the Texas Public Information Act.
City’s efforts aim to boost openness
The symposium was organized by Assistant City Attorney Sabine Romero. She leads an Ethics and Compliance Team that was formed during the county attorney’s open meetings investigation as part of a reorganization that moved the city’s Integrity Officer from the city manager’s office to the Law Department.
“The City of Austin’s commitment to open government reflects its commitment to transparency in every aspect of City service,” Romero said in a press release. “This symposium is an opportunity to focus on these issues and better serve the public.”
In an interview Monday, asked if the symposium was required by the county attorney’s investigation, Romero said, “No. The only formal agreements with Escamilla are between the council members and him. We are voluntarily doing this symposium. It is not required.”
Attorney Joseph Larsen, special counsel to Sedgwick LLP in Houston and a Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas board member, offered high praise for the city’s open government initiative.
“It’s really great to see Austin leading on this issue,” Larsen said in an e-mail. “I don’t know of a city holding a symposium like this before, but it is a great idea for many reasons.
“Symposiums can actually be useful for helping both requestors and governmental bodies to deal with the day-to-day practicalities of open government, as well as recalling to us all the privileges and duties of a representative democracy,” Larsen said
Wide-ranging program scheduled
The all-day Open Government Symposium includes opening remarks by Mayor Lee Leffingwell followed by a half-dozen panel discussions. To see the agenda, which names the panel and speakers, click here.
An RSVP is required via e-mail to [email protected], specifying which panels you would like to attend. Romero said that additional speakers may be added to the program as preparations continue.
Panelists will discuss interaction and compliance, legislative developments, a corporate perspective on building an effective compliance program, social media and trends, and open government beyond the city.
The broad scope of the symposium is further exemplified by the fact that one of the scheduled panel discussions titled “Open Government Litigation Developments” features two attorneys who have fought to limit access to what open government advocates say are public records and to decriminalize conduct prohibited under state law.
San Antonio-based attorney Mick McKamie of McKamie Krueger LLP (with offices in Austin, Dallas, and Laredo), said he is lead counsel with Craig Enoch of Austin-based Enoch Kever PLLC, and assisted by Houston-based Dick DeGuerin of DeGuerin & Dickson, on a case currently pending the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on whether to hear it. (Updated Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 3:27pm to clarify the attorneys involved.)
Asgeirsson et al v. Abbott (No. 11-50441) is being appealed to the high court after losing its appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit. The case involves 15 elected officials who contend the Texas Open Meetings Act’s criminal penalties established in Government Code Section 551.144 (for knowingly participating in a closed meeting that is not permitted) violate the officials’ First Amendment rights.
In addition, McKamie said, “I did an amicus brief for 50 cities (for public officials not from Dallas) and for Dallas Mayor Laura Miller on the Blackberry case (No. 05-07-01736-CV). The court held that e-mails on her Blackberry were not public information. That’s what the law is right now.”
Scheduled to be on the same panel with McKamie is Austin-based attorney George Hyde of Denton Navarro Rocha & Bernal PC, who represents Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson.
The lawsuit, Adkisson v. Abbott, No. 03-12-00535-CV, “challenges an attorney general letter ruling (OR2010-08701) that e-mails from his private e-mail account relating to county business are public information. The trial court agreed. The case is on appeal at the Austin Court of Appeals,” according to information on the Texas Municipal League’s website.
City expanding focus
To improve transparency and raise standards, the city is doing more than hosting this symposium.
Romero said her Ethics and Compliance Team, which now consists of herself and ethics trainer Alicia Olmstead, will be expanded.
“We’re definitely hiring,” she said, including two attorneys, an additional trainer, and an administrative assistant.
The team may also get additional help from the Law Department, if required, she said.
Romero said the team’s work will extend beyond open government, to include ethics (doing the right thing) and compliance (following the letter of the law) with City Code and state law.
More open government symposia likely
Romero said the panel discussions will be captured on video, some of which may be telecast live on Channel 6, and all will be uploaded for later viewing on demand.
“I think it’s going to be fun,” Romero said. “I had the flexibility to decide what the panels would be and put in not just the city perspective but state, federal and corporate. Next year maybe we will do a different perspective.”
So there will be more of these symposiums in the future?
“I don’t see why not,” Romero said.
This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help to sustain The Austin Bulldog’s coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.
Related Bulldog coverage: This is the 37th story covering the City of Austin’s problems and progress in dealing with open government issues.