Georgetown City Attorney Ready for the Firing Squad
Sokolow Increasingly Viewed as a Problem to be Solved
The Roman orator and philosopher Cicero once wrote, “The good of the people is the greatest law,” and that seems to be a guiding principle in how the Georgetown City Council deals with the fate of its chief legal counsel, City Attorney Mark Sokolow.
None of the four council members interviewed would speak on the record about how they intend to vote in tonight’s council meeting, and no one but the council members can decide whether Sokolow keeps or loses a job that pays $130,000 a year.
Mayor George Garver cannot vote except to break a tie and says his focus for action this week has been to establish an orderly and discreet process for considering whether Sokolow goes or stays, and under what conditions.
Nevertheless there is a possibility that Sokolow will be terminated just over 10 months after he started work last October 19 with the responsibility to establish a new in-house legal staff.
If the council takes no action to decide Sokolow’s fate at tonight’s meeting, which starts at 6pm, it will have another opportunity on Thursday. The mayor has called a special meeting for 4pm that day, “in case the council wants to use it,” Garver says. “Otherwise there would be no council meeting in the next three weeks.”
New pressures brought to bear
Council Members Patty Eason and Gabe Sansing for months have been eager to can Sokolow for a number of reasons, and Mayor Garver felt the same.
Council Member Danny Meigs was thought to be leaning in that direction, but wasn’t committed, and he declined to comment for this story.
The third and fourth votes needed to sack Sokolow never seemed to materialize, now matter how many stories pointed to his professional shortcomings.
Insiders say a confluence of factors may have caused one or more council members to switch sides and lend support for an ouster.
One of those factors is the lobbying that went on at a big fund-raising party held Saturday for Charles Schwertner, M.D., the Republican candidate for state representative to succeed State Rep. Dan Gattis (R-Georgetown). Gattis is stepping down after eight years in the Legislature.
The party at Schwertner Ranch in far north Williamson County drew some 400 people, Mayor Garver says. He attended, as did Council Members Pat Berryman, Dale Ross, Bill Sattler, and Gabe Sansing.
Sansing says that Charles Carter, a political consultant, came to him and “asked me to get rid of (Sokolow).” Sansing says he pointed Carter to the other three council members present, Berryman, Sattler, and Ross, and said, “Those are the people to convince.”
Carter, who is traveling in South Texas today, called later to clarify what he claims he said to Sansing: “If any city employee filed a lawsuit on behalf of the city without council approval, then he needs to go.”
Observers confirmed that Carter did talk to the others. Mayor Garver says he talked to Carter as well.
Carter was a hired consultant for the 2008 election campaigns for both Garver and Ross. The Ross campaign paid Carter a consulting fee of $3,500 in June 2008, according to campaign reports filed with the city secretary. The Garver campaign made two payments totaling $3,700 for Carter’s consultating fee in May 2008, the report shows. (Carter says he got paid a total of $3,500 by Garver’s campaign.)
Council members who spoke on condition they not be quoted by name for this story say the business community has also pressured some council members to oust Sokolow, because the ongoing wave of negative publicity he’s generated is “bad for business.”
Other council members have previously told The Austin Bulldog that they are often stopped around town by citizens who generally aren’t much interested in municipal issues, but say they have grown weary of the continuing stream of news stories reporting problems within the city government, and they want the problems fixed.
Carefully orchestrated process
Mayor Garver chairs the council meetings and says that in tonight’s closed-door executive session he will give the city attorney an opportunity to address the council and explain why his actions should be seen in a different context.
“In fairness to Mr. Sokolow, he’s entitled to speak,” Garver says.
Then each council member will be able to state concerns, one by one, and discuss how to proceed.
“If the council decides to take action on Tuesday, it can, or it can take another meeting on Thursday to finalize any action,” Garver says. If a meeting is held Thursday, the only item on the posted agenda is, “Discussion and possible action relating to the performance of the City Attorney.”
A history of problems
Facilitated questionable payment—As reported May 4 by The Austin Bulldog, Sokolow facilitated the payment of $13,600 to Council Member Berryman in what appears to be a violation of the Texas Constitution.
Angered AISD trustees—On June 14, The Austin Bulldog reported Sokolow’s heavy handed tactics in negotiating to buy land for new city facilities that angered the board of trustees of the Georgetown Independent School District, embarrassed the city, and soured relations between the city and school district.
Alienated colleagues—That same June 14 report detailed several instances in which Sokolow has alienated city staff and outside attorneys by being difficult to deal with.
Bungled hiring process—On July 11, The Austin Bulldog reported that Sokolow had hired Berryman’s friend and neighbor as assistant city attorney, ignored the City Charter requirement to have the hire approved by the city council, and waived the requirement for the assistant city attorney to have municipal law experience as stated in the job posting.
Sued attorney general—On August 19, The Austin Bulldog reported that Sokolow had sued Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in an attempt to prevent the release of his performance evaluations that were requested by The Austin Bulldog—even though the attorney general had ruled these records must be released under the Public Information Act. The Austin American-Statesman also reported the lawsuit on August 19. Suing the Attorney General to keep his performance evaluations from being released may have sealed Sokolow’s fate. He made several errors in filing the lawsuit:
Not a city issue—Sokolow listed the City of Georgetown as plaintiff even though the issue at stake was purely personal, to keep anyone from seeing how the council members rated his performance.
Misunderstood the deadline—He jumped the gun to beat what he told council members in an e-mail was a 10-day deadline to file the suit, when in reality the law permits 30 days to file.
Acted without authority—Worst of all, in the eyes of council members, he sent them an e-mail about a half-hour before they were to meet on August 10, according to Council Members Eason and Ross, which neither of them had read before the meeting. He then failed to mention the lawsuit during that council meeting, which was properly posted to discuss such matters in a closed-door executive session. Filing a lawsuit without council approval exceeded his authority, outraged council members, and exposed the city to the possibility of having to pay the attorney general’s legal fees for a lawsuit that the city is virtually guaranteed to lose, given the attorney general’s staff expertise and careful vetting before issuing open records decisions. “Based on the information I have today, I would not have supported the filing of that that lawsuit,” Ross says.
The legal fallout
It’s pure speculation to consider what may happen if Sokolow is shown the door, but there are obvious problems to deal with:
Will Sokolow sue?— As reported by The Austin Bulldog on June 14, when Sokolow was fired by the City of League City in February 1996, he filed a federal lawsuit. On March 4, 1999, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Galveston Division, found Sokolow’s allegations groundless and granted the city’s motion for summary judgment. The Georgetown City Council was aware of all this when it hired Sokolow, hired him anyway, and now faces the possibility of being sued, too, so the matter will require legal finesse to gain assurance he will not sue.
What of the legal department?—If Sokolow goes, that leaves Assistant City Attorney Bridget Chapman, who had no municipal law experience before starting work on April 19, and Legal Assistant Skye Masson. The agenda for tonight’s meeting includes an executive session item, “Approval of Assistant City Attorney.” The city council could choose to abolish the legal department and return to using outside law firms to handle the city’s legal matters, as it had done for years before opting to take the services in-house, or it could hire an interim city attorney to oversee the department while recruiting for a permanent hire.
“We represent the interest of our community,” Mayor Garver says. “We want people to be proud of our city and care about the quality of governance, and if there’s a problem, we need to take care of it.”
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