Former city attorney quitting rather than continue in a position as the City of Austin’s chief lobbyist
Updated Tuesday June 30, 2015 5:10pm (to add Council Member Tovo’s comments)
Updated Tuesday June 30, 2015 5:27pm (to add link to the city manager’s memo)
Austin City Manager today announced that former Austin City Attorney Karen Kennard is resigning rather than stay in the job of Intergovernmental Affairs Officer permanently.
“I believe that she would have continued to deliver outstanding service in this function,” Ott stated in a memo to the mayor and city council members. “She has committed to staying with us for a few months to ensure that we can transition these important duties.”
Kennard, city attorney since March 2011, was assigned in December to head the city’s lobbying team on an interim basis during the 2015 session of the Texas Legislature, filling a critical gap left by the retirement of the city’s longtime lobbyists John Hrncir and Rod Ellis.
Kennard did not immediately return a message left on her home telephone for a comment.
Ott praised Kennard for her work during the session. “Austin faces critical issues in every session and this one was no exception,” Ott wrote. “I believe that Karen’s expertise and experience … helped Austin defend against bills that would have limited, or in some cases eliminated, your local control. She was instrumental in our support of the Council adopted agenda. As I knew she would, Karen excelled in a difficult environment.”
Kennard’s stormy tenure
The city attorney reports directly to the city manager and yet is the chief legal counsel to the City Council, a role that requires a delicate dance in avoiding the displeasure of either.
Attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, a former Travis County judge, has been a continuing critic of the way the city responds to public information requests since that function was transferred from the Public Information Office to the Law Department in the wake of the Travis County Attorney’s investigation of the city’s disturbing open government violations, exposed by The Austin Bulldog’s investigative report published January 25, 2011. (See “Open Meetings, Closed Minds.”)
Kennard was city attorney at that time and Mayor Lee Leffingwell claimed in news reports that the regularly scheduled round-robin meetings being held in circumvention of the Texas Open Meetings Act had been authorized by the city attorney. (See “Mayor Claims Lawyers Okayed Private Meetings But City Won’t Release Proof.”)
Aleshire recently filed a lawsuit against the City of Austin on behalf of client Brian Rodgers because of the city’s failure to respond to his several requests filed under the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA). (See “City Sued Over Public Records.”)
“With Kennard’s resignation, I expect the quality of legal advice to the City to be improved,” Aleshire said. “For example, I strongly suspect that had Ms. Kennard done a better job as city attorney, (1) the prior Council would not have gotten in trouble for Open Meetings violations, (2) the City’s public information system—housed in Kennard’s law department—would have performed better and avoided lawsuits, (3) financial disclosure laws would have been enforced instead of ignored, and (4) the City Parks staff and purchasing office would not be ignoring the Charter prohibition against giving up parkland to private profiteers without voter approval.
“I also recall Ms. Kennard giving outrageously wrong legal advice to the City Council telling them, that under the City Charter, the Council could not adopt a policy requiring City employees to put all e-mails about city business on the city’s computer so they were subject to disclosure under the TPIA.”
Kennard’s lobbying praised, interim successor continues
Mayor Steve Adler, reached in the London, England borough of Hackney, and himself an attorney, noted that he had not worked with Kennard while she was city attorney because she was not in that position when he and the rest of the City Council took office January 6, but added, “I think she did a really good job with the Legislature.”
The city manager’s memo stated that Anne Morgan will continue to serve as interim city attorney, “as I consider the next steps for the City Attorney’s Office.”
Mayor Adler also said he was pleased with Morgan’s work.
“I thought Anne has done a stellar job as interim city attorney, real strong. She’s done a really good job of working with me and the new City Council.”
District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, a member of the council since 2011 and the only council member to have directly experienced Kennard’s services as city attorney, e-mailed this comment between out of town airline flights: “Karen Kennard was an exemplary city employee, and the City of Austin was fortunate to have her skills and expertise in our legal department. I am sorry to see her go and wish her the best in her future endeavors. She will be an asset to any organization.”
Kennard was hired as first assistant city attorney in October 2004 after nearly 15 years with the Texas Municipal League where she was general counsel.
She continued as first assistant until May 2010 when City Attorney David Smith retired and Kennard was named acting city attorney. She continued in that role until, after a national search, she was named to head the department permanently in March 2011.
Smith was forced into retirement over the way he handled a report produced by consultant Keypoint Government Solutions Inc. concerning the fatal shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II by police officer Leonardo Quintana.
Smith had ruled that the Keypoint report was confidential and could not be publicly released. That opinion held for some eight months, despite a lawsuit filed by a civil rights group to make the report public. Then the report was released the day that Austin American-Statesman reported discrepancies about how the city handled the release of information about the Sanders shooting and another police shooting some six years earlier.
Kennard is currently drawing a city salary of $193,918.
The Austin Bulldog, in a June 15 story about the personal financial statements filed by the top city officials, called into question Kennard’s failure to report her domestic partner as required by City Code.
Structure of legal services questioned
While not criticizing Kennard, attorney Bill Bunch—executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, an organization that has been involved in numerous lawsuits involving the City of Austin in recent decades—noted there is in his view an inherent flaw in the way city legal services are rendered.
“Under the City Charter the city manager is the city attorney’s client, yet when they are in executive session the city attorney is advising the City Council as if the council is the client.
“The City Council doesn’t know if it’s getting the city attorney’s advice or its getting the city manager’s opinion dictated to the city attorney.
“It’s completely dysfunctional,” Bunch said, noting that a proposed change to the City Charter to have the city attorney serve at the pleasure of the City Council had failed, “because there was no real campaign to educate voters about the need for change.”
That proposal was on the ballot in November 6, 2012, as Proposition 6, and failed with 49.37 percent voting in favor and 50.63 percent against.
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