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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Austin’s Failing Public Information System

Well-intentioned reforms were made during county attorney’s
investigation but the City’s TPIA compliance is still shaky

© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Investigative Report by Ken Martin
Part 1 in a Series
Posted Monday November 23, 2015 1:40pm

Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees....” —Texas Public Information Act

Major flaws in the City of Austin’s response to public information requests were exposed in The Austin Bulldog’s stories about the experiences of requestor Brian Rodgers in his lawsuit, Brian Rodgers v. City of Austin.

The City not only failed to provide the information but ignored complaints from Rodgers’ attorney, Bill Aleshire—even his final warning that litigation would ensue if the information were not provided. Then when the lawsuit did hit, the City heedlessly claimed in its original answer that the information had already been provided. During discovery that claim was proven to be patently false.

The lawsuit was settled with the City agreeing to pay Rodgers $5,000 for its poor handling of his several information requests and to avoid a motion for sanctions for its inept response to the lawsuit. That’s only about half the amount he spent to force the City to pay attention.

This article will detail how and why the City’s system for processing public information requests became what it is today. Later articles will show that what happened to Rodgers was not an isolated incident but rather an indication of systemic problems.

Big changes made but flaws remain

These problems have persisted despite numerous major initiatives.

The City created a team of senior advisors to review its practices and make recommendations to enhance compliance and oversight, and streamline the process for public information requests.

The City moved responsibility for processing public information requests to the Law Department and established within it a Public Information Request (PIR) Team whose salaries now total more than $300,000 a year.

The City committed more than $360,000 to contract for a PIR software system and provided training on the new software to more than a hundred PIR Team and departmental employees who process requests.

Despite these efforts the city has not maintained complete and consistent compliance with the TPIA and the statutory requirements and deadlines it imposes.

To appreciate the City’s current system for responding to PIRs it is necessary to first understand in more detail the major changes that have been made and the forces that necessitated these efforts.

One thing is certain: these changes were not made as a result of some entrepreneurial spirit rising up spontaneously within the City bureaucracy. They were not prompted by an elected leadership that suddenly chose to seek the Holy Grail of transparency and open government.

These changes were made to amend for criminal conduct that could have landed the entire governing body in jail. In fact the City spent more than $600,000 on outside attorneys to fend off prosecution for criminal violations that led to these reforms and provide advice about how to achieve better compliance. These reforms were initiated while being investigated to convince prosecutors that the City was serious about doing better.

Turning over a new leaf

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(3 votes, average 3.67 out of 5)

 Experts Discuss Money in Politics

Diverse views on the effects of campaign finance,
the current state of regulation, and action needed

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Tuesday, November 17, 2015 10:04am

“The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that the methods of financing political campaigns should ensure the public's right to know, combat corruption and undue influence, enable candidates to compete more equitably for public office and allow maximum citizen participation in the political process....”

—League of Women Voters National Board

Panelists Kurt Hildebrand, Michael Schneider, Craig McDonald, Sara Smith, and Roger BorgeltPanelists Kurt Hildebrand, Michael Schneider, Craig McDonald, Sara Smith, and Roger BorgeltThe League of Women Voters Austin Area brought the League’s national study on Money in Politics into local focus with a Sunday afternoon panel discussion. A more politically diverse panel of five speakers would be difficult to imagine. The audience of nearly 50 people paid close attention and posed a number of questions for the panelists.

Kurt Hildebrand, chair of the Libertarian Party of Texas, said his party has taken no position on campaign finance or on money in politics, as the views of Libertarians encompass a broad range. Some believe there should be tight regulations and some believe there should be no regulation at all, he said.

“We want people to be as free as they possibly can be with equality, justice, and equal protection under the law.”

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Depositions Expose Public Information Flaws

An assistant city manager who doesn’t like to write,
a public information manager who is inexperienced

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday November 9, 2015 3:44pm

“The City of Austin is committed to an open and transparent government. I believe this is an integral part of maintaining a vital and robust democracy.” — City Manager Marc Ott

Marc OttMarc OttOtt published this oft-repeated pledge in an April 8, 2015, memo titled “City of Austin Open Data Initiative 2.0.”

Yet, the City has failed to consistently live up to that commitment. By actual performance the City has demonstrated that it receives and routes public information requests to departments or offices thought to have the applicable records but fails to follow up and ensure compliance with the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) Government Code Chapter 552.

Brian RodgersBrian RodgersA prime example of the City’s spotty performance was evidenced in the outcome of the lawsuit Brian Rodgers v. City of Austin. As reported November 2, 2015, by The Austin Bulldog, the City agreed to pay Rodgers $5,000 to settle the case and thereby avoid a motion for sanctions or a full-blown trial over its gross mishandling of his public information requests and its inept response to the lawsuit.

Rodgers, who spent about twice the amount he’s getting back in settling the lawsuit, considers the expense to be a good investment in his education as a civic activist. As the plaintiff he sat in on the two depositions taken in this case and observed firsthand how the public officials answered.

“I finally get to understand how the process works—I no longer have to wonder,” Rodgers told The Austin Bulldog. “It's a lack of power by public information manager, a lack of cooperation by city staff, and no one responsible to comply with the law. So it’s set up to gum up the work of activists. Justice delayed is justice denied.

“If they intentionally wanted to thwart people from getting to the root of things before the City Council decides, this will do it,” Rodgers said. “It's easily gamed.”

Although Ott’s commitment to open government, cited above, was made within the context of expanding an existing initiative to publish more of the valuable data the City collects on the City’s website—and in the process possibly reduce the number of public information requests—the City cannot achieve openness, transparency, and accountability if the public’s right to know, which is enshrined in the TPIA, is thwarted.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireTwo sworn depositions taken by Rodgers’ attorney, Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, as part of the discovery process in the lawsuit provide significant insights about the shortcomings in the City’s public information system.

(Disclosure: Aleshire has represented The Austin Bulldog in three lawsuits, two of which were TPIA actions against the City of Austin (see links to related stories below.)

Deposition of assistant city manager

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Rodgers Settles TPIA Suit for $5,000

City’s bungled response to Rodgers’ public information
requests compounded by inept handling of lawsuit

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Monday November 2, 2015 1:34pm

Brian RodgersBrian RodgersIn a relatively rare but not unheard of result in a civil lawsuit filed under the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA), the City of Austin will pay civic activist Brian Rodgers $5,000 to settle. He filed the lawsuit June 11, 2015, after the City failed to provide public records he had requested about three high-profile matters of public interest.

From his point of view the roughly $10,000 Rodgers spent on this lawsuit was a good investment, even though he will recoup only half that amount.

“Central to my effectiveness as an activist is my ability to get information from the city, facts on how decisions are made,” Rodgers told The Austin Bulldog. “Without transparency there is no way to do it. I can't interview every staff person. The lawsuit was necessary because I had reached an impasse on getting documents. They were stalling, redacting things they shouldn't have.”

Rodgers’ public information requests sought records about how plans were formulated to lease 700 acres of land at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park in East Austin for a private, for-profit golf development; the City’s failure to procure 75 acres of surplus state land along Bull Creek Road for an inner-city park; and City officials’ communication with the Downtown Austin Alliance leading up to a light-rail election in which the organization spent $440,000 of tax funds on political advertising to back the plan.

Sue EdwardsSue EdwardsThe $5,000 payment will be made pursuant to a settlement offered by Rodgers, accepted by the city, and signed October 27 by Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards.

The settlement requires the city to pay Rodgers within 30 days, and requires Rodgers to within 10 business days of receiving payment to file a request to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning Rodgers is forbidden from filing another lawsuit based on the same grounds.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireRodgers attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC said, “The City settled the case rather than face a hearing on sanctions or a full-blown trial over the way they handled Rodgers’ public information requests in the first place, and then how they handled his lawsuit.”

Disclosure: Aleshire has represented The Austin Bulldog in three lawsuits, two of which were TPIA actions against the City of Austin (see links to related stories below).

No admission of guilt

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

 Commissioner Daugherty Won’t Be Prosecuted

Prosecutor filed motion to dismiss criminal complaint
over alleged violations of Texas Public information Act

by Ken MartIn
© The Austin Bulldog 2015
Posted Friday October 23, 2015 3:00pm

Gerald DaughertyGerald DaughertyThe special prosecutor who investigated a criminal complaint against Travis County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty told The Austin Bulldog he has presented to the presiding judge a motion to dismiss the case and a proposed order.

“There's no evidence of probable cause,” said Leslie B. Vance of Marble Falls, the former district attorney handling the complaint.

The criminal complaint filed March 17, 2014, alleged that Daugherty violated sections of the Texas Public Information Act through “willful destruction of public information and ... criminally negligent failure and refusal to give SOS Alliance, as requestor, access to public information.”

Bill BunchBill BunchBill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, who signed the criminal complaint, strongly disagrees with Vance’s decision to seek dismissal.

“Suggesting there was no violation is rather absurd in this case when Commissioner Daugherty admitted under oath that he deleted e-mails, deleted text messages, and did not produce some of the documents until months after the request because he overlooked them,” Bunch said, referring to Daugherty’s sworn deposition taken in a related civil case, which is still pending.

Vance said, “He didn’t do anything that violates the law, there’s been no crime committed by him. That’s why the civil case has all but been dismissed—and it’ll be dismissed too.”

The civil case was argued before District Judge Stephen Yelonosky July 13, as reported by The Austin Bulldog. Both Travis County and the SOS Alliance have filed additional briefs as recently as October 6 that Yelonosky will consider in deciding jurisdictional issues.

Calls seeking comment from Commissioner Daugherty and his criminal defense attorney, Randy Leavitt, were not immediately returned.

The argument for prosecution

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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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(4 votes, average 4.00 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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(3 votes, average 3.67 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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 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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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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 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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