His investigation of Austin City Council’s open meetings violations resulted in improvements
Part 2 in a Series
The 21-month investigation of violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by a previous Austin mayor and council members taught public officials some hard lessons, cost city taxpayers more than $600,000, and brought about important reforms.
At the April 9, 2015, Open Government Symposium hosted by the City of Austin, Travis County Attorney David Escamilla talked about that criminal investigation during his presentation of “Views From a County Attorney’s Office.” He praised the city’s improvements that resulted from it.
Escamilla, former president of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and currently the Texas director for the National District Attorneys Association, said one of the key changes was for the city to establish and host an online City of Austin Council Message Board. The message board allows City Council members and authorized staff to post messages about, and hold online discussions of, city business that the public can also follow on the Internet.
It was “genius” to come up with this technological solution, Escamilla said, because it offers a workable solution to the complaints that elected officials, confronted with restrictions placed on deliberations by the Texas Open Meetings Act, sometimes try to make about the need to talk to each other outside of public meetings.
“The public’s right to know outweighs efficiency,” he said.
Escamilla said only two governmental agencies in the state are using an online message board, as authorized by State Senator Kirk Watson’s SB 1297 enacted in 2013 and codified as Government Code Section 551.006.
“Now they can have those discussions on the Internet and you get to watch what happened,” he said.
While the message board permits a free flowing discussion among elected officials about public business and public policy, and allows the public to monitor the dialogue, the legislation specifically prohibits the governmental body from voting or taking any action that is required to be taken in an open meeting.
The Travis County Commissioners Court recently approved establishing a similar message board, said Escamilla, who has served in the county attorney’s office for 30 years and became county attorney in 2003. When running for reelection in 2004, 2008, and 2012, he was unopposed in both the Democratic primary and general election.
Bulldog investigation uncovered violations
The county attorney’s investigation was triggered by The Austin Bulldog’s report published January 25, 2011, detailing an institutionalized practice of holding regularly scheduled round-robin meetings before each council meeting. In effect they were conducting a conspiracy to evade compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act, which prohibits a quorum of elected officials from discussing the public’s business outside a properly posted public meeting.
Escamilla’s investigation ended in October 2012 with the city’s elected officials signing deferred prosecution agreements to avoid being changed, prosecuted, and if convicted serving up to six months in jail. (Council Member Kathie Tovo was elected after the Bulldog’s investigation was published and the practice of holding round-robin meetings had been stopped.)
The county attorney found that the practice of holding these illegal round-robin meetings stretched back more than a dozen years. In fact, as the Bulldog investigation revealed, the practice began when Kirk Watson was mayor, according to then Council Member Bill Spelman, who served with Watson on the council 1997-2000.
Escamilla said as part of the investigation he mapped out the number of one-on-one and two-on-one get-togethers by the elected officials and it “came out to 18-20 meetings before council meetings. That’s just not an accident.”
And while the institutionalized practice was “inherited,” he said that “doesn’t excuse a dark heart.”
“We needed to send a message” to other governmental entities. We’ve learned from this experience.”
“There are more meetings going on in Travis County than any other county in Texas because there are so many state agencies,” he said. “We have to be consistent. Any one action has consequences elsewhere.”
Looking back on the results of his investigation, Escamilla said, “I’m happy with the outcome. I’m very happy with the city and especially how the new 10-1 council is working with these issues.”
City paid to defend council
As The Austin Bulldog reported April 8, 2013—just days before the City of Austin’s first Open Government Symposium was held April 17 of that year—the city wound up paying $157,636 for the criminal defense attorneys who defended Mayor Lee Leffingwell and the five current and one former City Council member during Escamilla’s lengthy investigation.
Individual attorney’s fees ranged from as little as $7,525 to defend Council Member Spelman to $47,810 to defend Leffingwell.
Although the checks for these legal fees were cut in late December 2012 these payments never went to the City Council for approval and therefore were not made public until the Bulldog obtained the records through an open records request. The city manager had authority to approve expenditures of up to $56,000 and none of the payments exceeded that amount.
That sum was in addition to the $444,000 the Austin American-Statesman reported the city had spent for three law firms that provided advice on matters pertaining to complying with the Texas Open Meetings Act.
That brought the total cost to the city to more than $601,000.
Escamilla told The Austin Bulldog that the cost to his office for conducting the open meetings investigation was not separately tallied, as the work was done by in-house attorneys on the county payroll.
City of Austin Open Meetings Act Investigation contains thousands of records related to both The Austin Bulldog’s work on this project and key documents from the investigation conducted by County Attorney David Escamilla, to include the deferred prosecution agreements signed by the mayor, council members, and their attorneys.
Video: 2015 Open Government Symposium: Views From A County Attorney’s Office