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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Big Brother’s Still Watching

But mass surveillance is being reined in a bit,
technology companies are fighting for our privacy

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday, October 5, 2015 3:13pm

It happened yet again. This time hackers accessed the computer system of credit reporting agency Experian and stole personal information about some 15 million T-Mobile wireless customers and potential customers, The New York Times reported October 1. The information stolen from Experian servers included social security numbers, home addresses, birthdates and more.

As if to underline the topic’s importance, news of this latest data breach broke the day after the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas hosted its Privacy and Technology Conference at The University of Texas at Austin. The conference featured ACLU experts from Washington, D.C., and New York City, faculty from UT San Antonio and Texas A&M, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition, and private companies engaged in providing encryption (Merlin Cryption) and preventing computer fraud (ZapFraud).

While some of the speakers talked about our vulnerability to nefarious parties who seek to wreak havoc or make money by hacking the kind of personal information lost in the Experian breach, others talked about another kind of vulnerability: the loss of privacy through mass surveillance conducted by our own government.

The shift to mass surveillance

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Ethics Reforms an Ongoing Struggle

Win some, lose some in the sausage
making of the Texas Legislature

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted September 22, 2015 2:49pm

The TV cameras and press coverage of presentations at the annual conference hosted by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas September 17 focused heavily on a session featuring Wallace L. Hall Jr., the embattled regent of the University of Texas System, who was interviewed by Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune.

Hall is big news, after all. His open-records crusade to investigate the flagship UT Austin campus triggered Travis County grand jury proceedings against him as well as attempts to impeach, neither of which were successful.

The other important discussions at the conference drew no coverage, as they involved no flashy controversial issues that dominate headlines. Instead they centered on more mundane but vital ongoing struggles to improve ethics and financial disclosures by public officials—meat and potatoes issues fundamental to open government.

Emily RamshawEmily RamshawAn important panel discussion among two members of the Texas Ethics Commission board and a state representative who pushed the Commission’s legislative agenda in the last session was moderated by Texas Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw. The discussion covered the Commission’s weak enforcement powers, improved registration and reporting by state lobbyists paid to influence legislation and regulations, and the unhappy influence of so-called “dark money” spent to tilt election outcomes without reporting who contributed the funding.

Jim ClancyJim ClancyAttorney Jim Clancy, president of the Corpus Christi-based law firm Branscomb PC, is a former chairman and still a board member of the Commission. He was appointed by then Governor Rick Perry.

Clancy said lawmakers considering proposed ethics legislation “are not looking at what the public needs but what your next opponent will do.”

He advocates overhauling the state-mandated Personal Financial Statements required of state and local officeholders (and the Austin city manager and city attorney) by Local Government Code Chapter 145. “The reason why we disclose personal assets is to identify conflicts of interest.”

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Top Gun to Defend City Charter

City of Austin has hired attorney Renea Hicks to
defeat Council Member Zimmerman’s challenge

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Thursday August 27, 2015 2:35pm

Anne MorganAnne MorganRenea HicksRenea HicksInterim City Attorney Anne Morgan has hired veteran attorney Max Renea Hicks, a sole practitioner based in Austin, to defend the city in the federal lawsuit brought by District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman. Via a letter dated August 13, 2015, the City has agreed to pay him $350 an hour and a total amount not to exceed $55,000.

As previously reported by The Austin Bulldog (see links to stories, below) Zimmerman’s lawsuit seeks to overturn numerous provisions of Article III, Section 8 of the Austin City Charter to allow him to immediately start raising money for his reelection bid in 2016 and accept money from anywhere in the country. The Charter allows money to be solicited or accepted only within 180 days of the election and limits the amounts that may be accepted from sources outside the City of Austin.

The lawsuit also challenges limits on individual campaign contributions, currently $350, and would if successful allow incumbents to raise money year-round and build unlimited campaign war chests—in essence, giving the mayor and council members the same kind of incumbent protection enjoyed by state and federal lawmakers.

Hiring Hicks is somewhat ironic because in 1997 he defended the City of Austin in a federal suit brought by the group that won voter approval for the very restrictions that Zimmerman is challenging.

Activists happy Hicks will defend charter

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(4 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)

 Zimmerman Lawsuit Not First Challenge

City has a mixed record of defending attacks on
City Charter’s restrictions for campaign finance

© The Austin Bulldog 2015
by Ken Martin
Posted Friday August 14, 2015 2:11pm

In 1998 with more than $672 million in bond propositions at stake in an upcoming election, The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and Texas Society of Association Executives wanted to leave nothing to chance. They sued the City and won, overturning City Charter restrictions on the $100 limit for contributions to support or oppose ballot measures.

Marc KatzMarc KatzIn 2003 mayoral candidate Marc Katz, owner of the now-defunct Katz’s Deli, figured he needed to raise $300,000 for a strong campaign and then do it again if he got into a runoff. He sued the City to challenge the City Charter’s $100 limit on how much an individual could contribute to a candidate’s campaign. He lost the lawsuit and placed a distant third to then-Council Member Will Wynn, who won without a runoff.

Don ZimmermanDon ZimmermanNow comes District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman, who sued July 27 to challenge not only contribution limits (currently $350) but several other restrictions on campaign finance. We are far from knowing whether he will succeed in overturning City Charter restrictions twice approved by Austin voters.

The Zimmerman suit against the City of Austin seeks to overturn multiple aspects of the Austin City Charter with the explicit goal of building his campaign war chest and boosting his odds for reelection in November 2016.

The Charter restrictions attacked

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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Mayor Moves to Downtown Austin

Mid-year reports must show changes in
‘substantial interests’ for first half 2015

by Ken Martin
Posted August 7, 2015 Friday 10:09am

Steve AdlerSteve AdlerMayor Steve Adler no longer has an interest in or draws income from the Barron & Adler LLP law firm, Council Member Greg Casar now has a domestic partner, and Council Member Don Zimmerman did not timely file the required mid-year report—despite reminders of July 17 and July 29 sent by the City Clerk’s office.

The Austin Bulldog notified Zimmerman August 5 that his report was overdue and Austin City Code Section 2-7-99 provides that failure to file financial statements “shall be punished by a fine in an amount not exceeding $500.” Zimmerman filed his update August 6, six days late.

The mayor reported that he sold his homestead in West Austin and now resides in two condominiums he already owned in the W Hotel, across Second Street from City Hall. The Travis Central Appraisal District website lists the combined values of these two units at $3.5 million, but does not indicate that he has claimed a homestead exemption. Adler in a sense follows in the footsteps of another mayor, Will Wynn, who lived in West Austin when first elected and later moved downtown.

These are a few of the highlights gleaned from a review of the mid-year updates to sworn Statements of Financial Information (SFI) that Austin’s elected officials are required to file per Austin City Code Section 2-7-72(A). (Copies of these reports are linked at the bottom of this article.)

Out of sight, out of mind

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Council Member Zimmerman Sues City

Wants to overturn campaign finance restrictions
and could gain himself a direct personal benefit

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Wednesday July 29, 2015 2:02am
Updated Wednesday August 5, 2015 10:46am (Houston court’s injunction was temporary, not permanent)

District 6 Council Member Don ZimmermanDistrict 6 Council Member Don ZimmermanDon Zimmerman had a long history of filing lawsuits even before he won election to the District 6 seat on the Austin City Council last December.

In fact, while a candidate he sued The Austin Bulldog for defamation last October, lost the case in early January, and still owes $10,000 in attorney’s fees and sanctions for filing a baseless lawsuit. More than six months later he has not paid the debt despite efforts to collect.

Now he’s filed a federal lawsuit to overturn several aspects of the rules under which he ran for and won office. In his latest lawsuit filed July 27, 2015, Zimmerman seeks to eliminate or modify restrictions on political fundraising found in Article III Section 8 of the Austin City Charter.

The lawsuit explicitly states that Zimmerman seeks to eliminate these restrictions to prepare for his campaign for reelection in November 2016.

Jerad NajvarJerad Najvar“Political speech is the very core of the First Amendment, but Austin’s campaign finance system seeks to control debate by controlling fundraising and spending,” said attorney Jerad Najvar of the Houston-based Najvar Law Firm, in a prepared statement. He represents Zimmerman in this lawsuit. “The result is that everybody in the world is free to speak, except for City candidates themselves.”

Campaign finance experts—and even seasoned political consultants who run Austin mayoral and city council elections—say rolling back the restrictions that Austin voters overwhelmingly approved in two City Charter elections would be a disaster for democracy at the local level. (More about that later.)

Zimmerman, a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative has in effect sued his employer, the City of Austin, which will have to spend money to defend the City Charter.

What the lawsuit seeks

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Daugherty Wins SOS Round One

Judge Yelonosky rules mostly in favor of county
commissioner but leaves room for further action

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday July 27, 2015 4:20pm

Stephen YelonoskyStephen YelonoskyIn the public information lawsuit the Save Our Springs Alliance initiated against Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, which was argued in court July 13, District Judge Stephen Yelonosky denied most of what the plaintiff sought.

But the judge left the door open as to whether the SOS Alliance could persuade the court to order Commissioner Daugherty or Travis County, or both, to change recently enacted policies regarding retention of and access to public records.

“There remains a question of the court's jurisdiction, as a pure question of law, over a Declaratory Judgment Action seeking to enforce the Public Information Act. The parties have not adequately briefed this, so the court must defer a ruling on the plea to the jurisdiction in this regard until they have,” the ruling states.

Although the lawsuit is technically about whether Daugherty has properly complied with the Texas Public Information Act by providing all records requested by the SOS Alliance May 31, 2013, the larger issue is whether SOS can find ammunition in those records for slowing or halting plans to build State Highway 45 Southwest over the sensitive Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer.

SOS may seek to settle out of court

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 SOS v Daugherty Pending Decision

Travis County seeks dismissal of lawsuit against
county commissioner, SOS wants more records

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Tuesday July 21, 2015 12:58pm
Updated Tuesday, July 21, 2015 5:03pm (to include a link to the SOS Alliance’s original petition)

In an ongoing battle over whether State Highway 45 Southwest will be built over the environmentally sensitive Barton Springs portion of the Edward Aquifer, the Save Our Springs Alliance is waging a two-pronged attack, through both a civil lawsuit and a criminal complaint, on Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, the leading proponent of the project.

Both actions claim that Daugherty violated the Texas Public Information Act, which provides both civil and criminal penalties for violations.

Stephen YelonoskyStephen YelonoskyThe criminal case is being held in abeyance until the lawsuit is resolved. To that end, a nearly three-hour hearing was held July 13 before Judge Stephen Yelenosky of the 345th Judicial District Court.

Tony Nelson and Gerald DaughertyTony Nelson and Gerald DaughertyAssistant County Attorney Tony Nelson, who represents Daugherty, contends the lawsuit should be dismissed.

Nelson filed a Plea to Jurisdiction April 8, 2015, meant to refute claims made by SOS in the lawsuit and request dismissal because Daugherty and Travis County have exhausted all means of finding and providing the records that SOS requested in its public information request.

The SOS request was for any e-mails, memoranda, and attachments sent or received by Daugherty or his executive assistants that referenced the proposed SH45 SW that were sent or received between January 1, 2013, and the date of the request, May 10, 2013. The request covered the beginning months of Daugherty’s current term in office.

Issues before the court

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 City to Rodgers’ Lawsuit: Fuhgeddaboudit

City of Austin’s answer claims suit is moot
as it has provided all responsive records

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday July 6, 2015 4:04pm

Brian RodgersBrian RodgersThe City of Austin is in effect thumbing its nose at the lawsuit filed by longtime civic activist Brian Rodgers concerning alleged failure to supply records he had requested about a trio of controversial projects.

The City claims the suit is moot because it’s already produced all the public records responsive to Rodgers’ public information requests.

Bill AleshireBill Aleshire“This is incredible,” said attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, who represents Rodgers in this legal action and filed the lawsuit June 11.

The lawsuit claims the city failed to comply with the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) in responding to several requests in which Rodgers asked for records involving:

• Correspondence between City officials and the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) while plans for a light rail election were being devised,

• Records about how the plan was formulated to allow some 700 acres of Walter E. Long parkland to be turned over to a for-profit developer without getting voter approval as required by the Austin City Charter.

• Records about the city’s failure to timely respond to notice from the Texas Department of Transportation and losing the opportunity to purchase surplus property on Bull Creek Road that could have been developed as a park but instead went to a private for-profit developer.

“The factual allegations in the lawsuit are still true,” Aleshire said. “We have received nothing from the city in response for the request for the City Council communication with DAA. Even after I warned them, pre-suit, that we had received nothing on that request, I’ve received no response.”

Next move will be discovery

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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Kennard Resigns City Lobbying Job

Former city attorney quitting rather than continue
in a position as the City of Austin’s chief lobbyist

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Tuesday June 30, 2015 4:16pm
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)

Marc OttMarc OttAustin 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.”

Karen KennardKaren KennardKennard, 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.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireAttorney 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

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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)

 An Economically Diverse City Council

City no longer governed only
by very well-to-do citizens

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday June 15, 2015 2:32pm
Updated Tuesday June 16, 2015 12:23pm (regarding retirement, not resignations, of Rod Ellis and John Hrncir)
Updated Thursday June 18, 2015 1:12pm (regarding Karen Kennard’s connection to Scott Joslove)
Updated Friday June 26, 2015 2:45pm (regarding Delia Garza’s law school)
Updated Monday June 29, 2015 2:52pm (to publish Personal Financial Statements for Mayor Steve Adler, Council Member Gregorio Casar, and Interim City Attorney Anne Morgan)
Updated Wednesday July 2, 2015 12:18pm (to publish the Personal Financial Statement for Council Member Ann Kitchen)

Two years ago the headline for the story about our annual analysis of financial statements filed by officeholders was “Austin Governed by the Well-to-Do.” That broad generality can no longer be applied to the members of the Austin City Council.

Of the many changes wrought by electing council members from 10 geographic districts, it is significant that Austin has achieved not only a geographic balance and a more representative ethnic and racial balance of power, but also installed a governing body that includes members who had modest incomes.

This is the fifth year The Austin Bulldog has obtained, by filing public information requests, the sworn financial statements filed by the mayor and council members, reported on them, and published source documents. This year the city manager and city attorney’s statements have been added. (Links to previous coverage are at the bottom of this story.)

The Austin Bulldog publishes financial statements to provide greater transparency and allow increased scrutiny of these officials for possible conflicts of interest. Aside from publishing these statements for public inspection, The Austin Bulldog reviews each one, does additional research, and questions the filing officials when errors or omiissions are found.

A detailed spreadsheet, 2014 Personal Financial Activity of Mayor, City Council Members, City Manager & City Attorney, provides a comprehensive overview of each official’s finances. The financial statements themselves are linked at the bottom of this story.

The mayor and City Council members—in addition to scores of salaried city officials—are required by City Code to file a Statement of Financial Information (SFI) and swear that it “is in all things true and correct and fully shows all information required to be reported pursuant to Section 2-7-72 City Code for the reporting period indicated.”

The council members, city manager and city attorney also must file Personal Financial Statements (PFS) that require the filer to “swear or affirm, under penalty of perjury, that the statement “is true and correct and includes all information required to be reported by me under Chapter 572 of the Government Code.”

Out of sight, out of mind

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(5 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)


City Sued Over Public Records

Brian Rodgers lawsuit alleges failure to lawfully
respond to requests on three high-profile topics

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Friday, June 12, 2015 1:41am
Updated Saturday, June 13, 2015 2:57pm

Brian RodgersBrian RodgersLongtime civic activist Brian Rodgers filed a lawsuit late yesterday against the City of Austin over the city’s alleged failures to comply with the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) in responding to his requests for records involving several controversial matters.

The lawsuit seeks an expedited hearing on a mandamus to order the City of Austin to supply all information that Rodgers asked for in three public information requests.

Bill AleshireBill Aleshire“This lawsuit demonstrates that the claim by management of the City of Austin that it is dedicated to ‘transparency and accountability’ is a farce,” states the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Rodgers by attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC. (Brian Rodgers, Plaintiff, v. The City of Austin, Defendant, Cause No. D-1-GN-15-002291.) Aleshire represented The Austin Bulldog in two TPIA lawsuits against the City of Austin in 2011.

Rodgers’ public information requests involved:

• Correspondence between City officials and the Downtown Austin Alliance while plans for a light-rail election were being devised.

• Records about how the plan was formulated to allow some 700 acres of Walter E. Long parkland to be turned over to a for-profit developer without getting voter approval as required by the Austin City Charter.

• Records about the city’s failure to timely respond to notice from the Texas Department of Transportation and losing the opportunity to purchase surplus property on Bull Creek Road that could have been developed as a park but instead went to a private, for-profit developer.

Steve AdlerSteve AdlerAleshire e-mailed a copy of the lawsuit to Mayor Steve Adler late Thursday. The Austin Bulldog e-mailed a request for the mayor’s comments  Thursday evening. Adler did not immediately respond to the e-mail. or a voice mail message left for one of the mayor’s staff members.

Late Friday afternoon, an Adler staff member sent a prepared statement from Adler: “I can’t comment on pending litigation, but the City of Austin should and must comply with all provisions of the Texas Public Information Act, including the production of responsive information when sought by the general public.”

City’s inattention, inaction unlawful

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Surfing New Wave Open Government

Symposium panelist says local efforts show
potential but Austin not open government leader

by Mark Henricks
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Thursday April 23, 2015 10:44am

New technology and new ideas promise to make government more open than ever, perhaps even someday replacing politicians with direct decision-making by citizens, according to panelists in a discussion of innovation in open government held this month at Austin City Hall. At the same time attendees were warned of the risk of disenfranchising those who lack access to technology. And, while panelists lauded Austin’s image as a center of technology, the city government’s reputation for openness and transparency was said to be unremarkable.

The session took place April 9, 2015, as part of the City of Austin’s Open Government Symposium. This is the second city-sponsored symposium since 2012, when all City of Austin elected officials agreed to deferred prosecution after an Austin Bulldog investigation into their open meetings violations.

Kerry O’ConnorKerry O’Connor Kerry O'Connor, the city’s first chief innovation officer, moderated the panel. She was joined by Mary Beth Goodman, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C, think tank, Center for American Progress, and Nathaniel Heller, managing director of the Results for Development Institute, a Washington, D.C. economic development research group.

Mary Beth GoodmanMary Beth GoodmanCities like Austin are on the front line in the effort to make government more transparent, according to Goodman, who was formerly director for international economic affairs on the White House national security staff. “The more we've gotten into the process, the more we've learned that citizens want to engage first and foremost at the city level,” Goodman said.

Nathaniel HellerNathaniel HellerHeller, much of whose work has dealt with less-developed countries around the world, cited crowdsourcing as an example of openness that is well-suited for city government. “This is being experimented with nationally, but it's working better at the local level,” he said. Examples of using crowdsourcing in government include holding challenges and contests to get citizens to contribute their ideas about how to solve problems delivering needed city services.

O’Connor, who took over the city innovation office in 2014 after working for the U.S. State Department, said Austin has employed crowdsourcing-type tools with mixed success. “It is a nascent movement and takes a little practice to get it right,” she said. City efforts to encourage citizen contributions include CodeNEXT, an initiative to create a new land development code addressing affordability and other issues. The innovation office partnered with three volunteer working groups to generate recommendations for the program, but it still a work in progress.

Openness impedes efficiency?

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Ethics Bills Face Complex Dynamics

Open government legislation would move public
official investigations, open financial reports

by Mark Henricks
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Part 4 in a Series
Posted Monday April 20, 2015 2:42pm

Although some proposed legislation in the current session promises to improve public access to information, a tangled web of factors including fear of the unknown and lack of a major scandal will likely keep state legislators from enacting major open government and ethics legislation.

Denise DavisDenise DavisThat was the consensus of participants in a panel discussion on Legislative Developments held April 9, 2015, as part of the City of Austin’s Open Government Symposium. Moderator, Cary Grace, an assistant city attorney and interim deputy officer of the city’s Intergovernmental Relations Office, was joined by panelists Tim Sorrells, former general counsel of the Texas Ethics Commission, and Denise Davis, former chief of staff to Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and currently a lobbyist and partner in law firm Davis Kaufman.

Davis, who also formerly served as parliamentarian and special counsel to the Texas House of Representatives, said new members often arrive in the Capitol intending to pass ethics legislation but most waver because of worries about potential unintended consequences of new ethics laws.

The specter of possibly having to back-pedal on proposals or even wind up lobbying to kill their own bills generally scares them off for good, she said. “You don’t want to be the person that has killed an ethics bill,” Davis explained. “That's the kind of thing that gets you on 10 worst lists.”

Attorney Sorrells spent 12 years at the Texas Ethics Commission, which among other things advises legislators about the propriety of actions they are considering. He said that the attitude about ethical behavior among legislators is that unless something is being done secretly, it is probably acceptable. “The way it’s working in Texas is, you can do it as long as you tell somebody about it,” he said.

Legislators’ comfort with that attitude, coupled with unwillingness to initiate legislation that could require more rules, means no major change can be expected in Texas open government laws unless something happens to spur it, Sorrells said. Legislators tend to be reactive rather than proactive when it comes to ethics and open government legislation. As an example, he pointed to the 1971 Sharpstown stock fraud scandal. That episode produced federal criminal charges against the attorney general and state insurance commissioner and allegations of bribery that went all the way to the governor’s office.

Sharpstown scandal triggered reforms

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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Open Government Aids Defendants Too

Criminal cases opened through Michael Morton
Act makes big difference for prosecutors as well

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Part 3 in a Series
Posted Wednesday April 15, 2015 11:01pm

Gary Cobb, Betty Blackwell and Craig McDonaldGary Cobb, Betty Blackwell and Craig McDonald“Prosecutors could read to us what they wanted us to know,” said defense attorney Betty Blackwell in describing the old rules for discovery in criminal cases. “There were no depositions, no interrogatories, no witnesses. All we (defense attorneys) were entitled to ... was the indictment.

“It was a trial by ambush.”

Blackwell, of the Austin-based Law Office of Betty Blackwell, in 2001 served as the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association’s first female president. Last week she participated in a panel discussion on Litigation Developments at the City of Austin’s Open Government Symposium held April 9, 2015.

The discussion was moderated by Gary Cobb, who for 25 years has been with the Travis County District Attorney’s office and currently directs its Grand Jury and Intake Division. The panel also included Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, whose criminal complaints resulted in the indictments of Governor Rick Perry and then-U.S. Representative Tom DeLay.

Blackwell and Cobb talked about the impact the Michael Morton Act (SB 1611) has had on the discovery rules governing criminal cases since it was signed into law by Governor Perry in 2013. The legislation, authored by State Senators Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) and Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), was enacted in the wake of Morton’s exoneration after serving 25 years in prison for murdering his wife. Morton was convicted because prosecutors withheld key evidence. He was freed only after DNA testing pointed to another suspect.

New discovery rules boost criminal defense

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 County Attorney Reports Lessons Learned

His investigation of Austin City Council’s open
meetings violations resulted in improvements

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Part 2 in a Series
Posted Wednesday April 15, 2015 10:26am

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.

David EscamillaDavid EscamillaAt 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

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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Why Acting Ethically, Legally Matters

Many a high-profile scandal persisted for
years because nobody stepped forward

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Part 1 in a Series
Posted Tuesday April 14, 2015 9:41am

A president of the United States used his office to have sex with an intern. A Penn State assistant football coach was convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse. And a world famous comedian is a serial rapist?

Bill CosbyBill CosbyWhat Bill Clinton, Jerry Sandusky, and Bill Cosby have in common is that nobody stepped forward or spoke up to expose these men early on when they violated women and children.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist who wrote an article about Cosby published in 2008 by The Atlantic, knew about the rape allegations and barely mentioned them in what he wrote.

The year 2008 was a time when Barack Obama was running for president and Cosby was making speeches he said were “call-outs” to black men for self-reliance and striving.

The only mention of Cosby’s misdeeds with women in Coates’ 7,000-word article was literally a parenthetical remark: “(In 2006, Cosby settled a civil lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed that he had sexually assaulted her; other women have come forward with similar allegations that have not gone to court.)”

Last year, as a growing number of women were publicly telling their stories about being Cosby’s victims, Coates looked back at his failure to fully report on the rape allegations, noting he was having his first big shot at writing for a national magazine. “But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I’d ever written.

“It was not enough,” he wrote in The Atlantic of November 19, 2014.

“I don't have many writing regrets. But this is one of them,” Coates wrote. “I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away.”

A call for responsibility

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 City Holding Open Government Symposium

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

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
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 EscamillaDavid EscamillaTravis 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 AleshireBill AleshireAttorney 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. 

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 Part 2: The $6.3 Million Election

Winners took office carrying almost $600,000 in debt,
while 34 defeated must raise or lose nearly $500,000

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Part 2 in a Series
Posted Monday April 6, 2015 9:39am
Updated Tuesday April 7, 2015 8:56am

“Many people are in the dark when it comes to money,
and I’m going to turn on the lights. — Suze Orman

Who could have imagined that the scramble for 11 spanking new political posts to oversee a new form of governance for the City of Austin would unleash a torrent of political spending, the likes of which Austin had never seen?

Or—perhaps even more startling—that 43 of the competing candidates collectively would pour $1.3 million of their own money into the quest?

These staggering totals captured The Austin Bulldog’s attention and prompted an extensive examination. This entailed reviewing campaign finance reports filed by all 78 candidates, covering all five reporting cycles, from July 2014 through January 2015. Our examination also sorted out the full particulars for the $1.3 million that the candidates loaned to their campaigns or spent outright in hopes of reimbursement.

For you who wonder who spent how much to win or lose a place on the council dais, this one’s for you. You’re invited to follow me, the guy with the flashlight, as we jump down the rabbit hole of campaign finance as it was utilized in the one-off election of 2014.

Steve AdlerSteve AdlerYou already know Steve Adler won election in 2014 and buried chief opponent Mike Martinez with a landslide mayoral runoff margin of 67-33 percent. Adler also set all-time records by spending more than $1.5 million on his campaign, of which more than $387,000 came out of his own deep, deep pockets.

In round figures the 78 candidates, including Adler, spent $5.6 million campaigning. Political action committees (PACs) dished out $726,000 in direct expenditures to bring total spending to an astronomical, for Austin, $6.3 million. (PAC spending was detailed in Part 1 of this series published March 27.)

While money is an important tool for an otherwise viable candidate who spends it effectively, the best funded candidates did not win all the council districts. Did they misspend? Did they flub it on the campaign trail? Only the voters know for sure. But, money be damned, the fact is, four of the 10 winning district candidates were outspent by their opponents—some only by little, some by huge amounts.

These results seem to bear out an essential truth about political contests: you don’t absolutely need more money than your opponent, but you do need enough to run a viable campaign.

For those who like to swim through deeply detailed spreadsheets, take a deep breath and dive into the Campaign Finance Analiysis for 2014 Election of Mayor and Council Candidates. This compilation lays out the contributions, expenditures, loans, and cash on hand for each of the 78 candidates, through all five reporting cycles, and provides totals for each race. And for good measure the analysis delves into the loans, loans recouped, and PAC spending.

If you’re not doing the deep dive that’s fine. Just hang on, read the rest, and check out the handy charts that capture important highlights.

Campaign savvy beats cash, sometimes

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Statesman Acquires The Austin Bulldog

Surprise announcement comes on fifth
anniversary of launching the Bulldog

© The Austin Bulldog
Posted Wednesday April 1, 2015 1pm

Ken MartinKen MartinKen Martin, founder, editor and publisher of The Austin Bulldog launched its website April 1, 2010, saying, “We don’t take ourselves too seriously but we take our reporting very seriously.”

On the fifth anniversary of the organization that has relentlessly pursued investigative reporting in the public interest as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit focusing on holding local government accountable, comes the news that the Austin American-Statesman will expand its reach into local government coverage by pushing into the areas covered by the Bulldog.

Debbie HiottDebbie Hiott“We have the resources to expand the Bulldog’s focus and give local government agencies the same bruising coverage afforded to unlucky state agencies that have wandered into our crosshairs,” said Statesman Editor Debbie Hiott.

The Statesman came out on top after a bidding war broke out among the New York Times, NPR, Fox News, AlJazeera America, and The Guardian. The Chinese People’s Daily also wanted to bid but was excluded by U.S. trade regulations. “We just wanted to keep local control to the extent possible,” Martin said.

The Statesman recently swept up most of the major awards in statewide journalism competition—including on March 29 being named Newspaper of the Year for the second consecutive year. Statesman reporter J. David McSwane won the large newspaper division for Star Investigative Report of the Year.

A long strange trip

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