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(7 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
City Manager Faces Crucial Annual Review

Bulldog Background Investigation Comes as
Marc Ott’s Performance Gets Council Scrutiny

by Ken Martin and Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Wednesday August 1, 2012, 12:15am
Updated Thursday, August 9, 2012 1:11pm

Marc OttMarc Ott

Austin City Manager Marc Ott is scheduled to walk into a closed-door meeting on Thursday, August 2, with a City Council that can praise him, raise his pay, or invite him to find another job.

If he’s shown the door, Ott will walk away with a little more than $430,000, based on the compensation and benefits package council members approved last August.

However Ott fares in his annual job evaluation, there will never be a discoverable written record of it. The Austin Bulldog submitted an open records request for copies of Ott’s performance reviews conducted in previous years. The city of Austin responded that all evaluations are conducted verbally in closed session, and no written job evaluations exist.

Written job evaluations of public employees are often included in the employee’s personnel file, which is considered public record under the Texas Public Information Act.

Council Member Bill Spelman—as well as former Mayor Gus Garcia and former Council Member Brewster McCracken, who between the three of them served for more than two decades on the council—confirmed that city council members do not conduct written evaluations of any employees who report to the council.

So in order to educate the public on Marc Ott’s professional background and his more than four years as Austin’s top manager, The Austin Bulldog gathered available public records on Ott—including his written evaluations from previous jobs—and interviewed community leaders about their thoughts on his performance.

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

8-2-1 Plan Near-Certain to Go on Ballot

City Council Votes on Second Reading
to Put Competing Election Plan on Ballot

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted July 31, 2012 2:35pm

The Austin City Council in today’s work session voted 5-2 (Council Members Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman opposed) to put the 8-2-1 plan for electing council members on the November ballot.

Sheryl ColeSheryl ColeA five-vote majority is sufficient to pass any measure on the council’s agenda on all three readings for final approval, and dispense with further consideration. Today, at Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole’s request, the vote was limited to second reading only.

It now appears to be a foregone conclusion that at least four votes in favor of the 8-2-1 plan will be cast on third reading, which Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he anticipated would be scheduled for an August 7 work session.

That will set up head-to-head competition on the November ballot between the 8-2-1 plan and the 10-1 plan, which already garnered sufficient signatures to go on the ballot.

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
10-1 Plan Qualifies for November Ballot

Consultant Estimates That 22,435 Signatures Are Valid;
Austinites for Geographic Representation Readies for Battle

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, July 26, 2012 11:35pm

Shirley GentryShirley GentryCity Clerk Shirley Gentry e-mailed a statement late this afternoon to announce that the plan petitioned for by Austinites for Geographic Representation is qualified to put the proposition before voters in November. The plan calls for election of council members from 10 districts, a mayor elected at-large, and an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw district boundaries the council would have no choice but to approve.

The City Council voted 5-2 on June 28 to put the same plan on the ballot but the petitioners chose to complete the work and get the measure on the ballot to make it the “people’s plan” and not something the council was offering.

When the petition approval was announced at tonight’s meeting of Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR), the crowd of some 30 members broke out into a loud and sustained applause and cheers. As well they might after completing the petitioning that began last October and planning that started in February 2011.

But AGR is wasting no time and is gearing up for two immediate chores:

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Petition Drive Completed for 10-1 Council Districts

Austinites for Geographic Representation Claims 33,000
Signatures, of Which About 22,800 Are Considered Valid

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Monday, July 16, 2012 10:57pm
Updated August 7, 2012 2pm

City Clerk Shirley Gentry (right) accepts petitions from Linda CurtisCity Clerk Shirley Gentry (right) accepts petitions from Linda CurtisDuring the June 28 meeting in which the City Council voted to put more City Charter propositions on the ballot for voters to consider in November, Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR) stacked up seven white boxes next to the podium when AGR volunteer political consultant Peck Young addressed the council.

After holding a press conference at City Hall today, AGR petition coordinator Linda Curtis presented two purple plastic boxes of signed petitions to City Clerk Shirley Gentry. At 3:32pm Gentry date-time-stamped a copy of the cover page of a petition and gave it to Curtis as a receipt.

Asked later to explain how the seven boxes shown to the City Council shrunk to two today, Young told The Austin Bulldog, “I’m a professional politician.” Were those seven boxes brimming full when shown to the City Council on June 28? “I didn’t say that,” Young replied.

Political showmanship aside, at today’s press conference AGR members held up placards indicating the group had collected 33,000 signatures.

After submitting the petitions to the City Clerk, Curtis told The Austin Bulldog that the petitions submitted to Gentry contain 22,800 some-odd signatures considered to be valid.

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Austinites for Geographic Representation to Submit Petitions

Strategy Is To Maintain Ownership of the 10-1 Plan
with Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, July 5, 2012 11:42am
Corrected Friday, July 6, 2012 9:52pm

Austinites for Geographic Representation rallied at City Hall June 28Austinites for Geographic Representation rallied at City Hall June 28

More than two dozen members of Austinites for Geographic Representation (AGR) attended a meeting Monday night and voted unanimously to continue the petition drive to get its plan on the ballot in November.

The plan calls for 10 council members to be elected from geographic districts, only the mayor to be elected at-large, and a nonpartisan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw a council districting plan that the council would have no choice but to accept.

Because Texas is one of the states subject to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, any districting plan would have to gain approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before implementation.

Linda CurtisLinda CurtisAGR has until July 16 to submit petitions with at least 20,000 valid signatures of registered City of Austin voters. At Monday night’s meeting, petition coordinator Linda Curtis said the group had about 20,600 valid signatures. Nearly every member volunteered to petition during the numerous 4th of July events scheduled around town, from neighborhood parades scheduled during the day to the big fireworks show in the evening.

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(5 votes, average 3.40 out of 5)
Council Puts 10-1 Election Plan on November Ballot

Votes 5-2 on Three Readings to Adopt Petition Language,
Votes 4-3 on First Reading to Also Put 8-2-1 on Ballot

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog
Posted Friday, June 29, 2012 3:33am
Corrected Friday, June 29, 2012 11:34am
Corrected Friday, June 29, 2012 1:54pm

At 12:10am this morning, after taking nearly three hours of public testimony, the Austin City Council voted 5-2 (Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Bill Spelman opposed) to put on the ballot the exact plan long advocated by Austinites for Geographic Representation. The five votes in favor meant the motion made by Council Member Mike Martinez and seconded by Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole passed on all three readings.

The proposal calls for 10 council members to be elected from geographic districts, only the mayor to be elected at large, and an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw a council districtricting plan that the council would have no choice but to adopt.

At 12:17am the council voted 4-3 (Cole, Martinez and Spelman opposed) to also put on the ballot the 8-2-1 plan. But because the motion did not get five votes, it only passed on first reading and will have to come back to the council—which doesn't meet again until August 2—for further consideration.

The 8-2-1 plan, sponsored by the mayor and Council Member Chris Riley, would have the mayor and two council members to be elected at-large and eight council members to be elected from geographic districts. This proposal does not include an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. Instead, according to the draft ordinance for this agenda item, “The boundaries of geographical single-member council districts shall be drawn by ordinance from time to time.”  Meaning the council districts could be drawn in such a way that the City Council would decide the boundaries.

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
How Rich Are Austin’s Mayor and Council Members?

Most Are Pretty Well Off By Local Standards, With
Extensive Holdings in Real Estate and Investments

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Wednesday, June 27, 2012 6:48pm

Strong financial solvency is a trait shared by the mayor and other members of the Austin City Council. But properly reporting their income and assets proved to be a problem for some of the council members.

Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole failed to report her husband’s sources of income, clients, and board positions as required by City Code in her sworn financial statement filed March 12. 

She also did not include in the document four out of the eight properties she owns.

The Austin Bulldog discovered these, and several other, flaws in its review of the mayor and council members’ financial statements covering the 2011 calendar year.

The reports help citizens monitor possible conflicts of interest in government decisions by outlining elected officials’ sources of occupational income, gifts from non-relatives, board positions, business and real estate interests, and other personal financial information.

The Austin Bulldog opted to publish Austin City Council members’ state and City Code financial statements in this article to provide greater transparency and allow increased scrutiny of these elected officials.

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(6 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Citizens Group To Make Final Petition Push

Austinites for Geographic Representation Claims to
Have 17,000 Signatures, and Shoots for 13,000 More

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Monday, June 4, 2012 11:01pm

It's been 15 months since Austinites for Geographic Representation held its first meeting in February 2011 at Huston-Tillotson University and the group has been steadily building a coalition of supporters and rounding up endorsements ever since.

The group's proposal to have 10 council members elected from geographic districts and only the mayor elected at large, and to have geographic districts drawn by an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, has gotten a lot of traction—including endorsements from a range of groups including the League of Women Voters of the Austin Area, Austin Neighborhoods Council, the and the Travis County Republican Party. (To see the full list of organizations and individuals endorsing the plan, click here.)

Even the council-appointed 2012 Charter Revision Committee backed the 10-1 plan with an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, though by a narrow 8-7 vote that triggered work by some on the losing end to continue lobbying for a hybrid plan that includes a couple of at-large council seats in addition to the mayor.

What the 10-1 plan has not gotten so far is broad public support from members of the Austin City Council. To date, only Council Member Mike Martinez has voiced unequivocal support for the plan.

Hence the grassroots effort by Austinites for Geographic Representation continues to gather the signatures of 20,000 registered city voters.

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(7 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)
Anonymous Website Touts Short-term Rentals

Site Owner Responds to Request and Fixes
Problems with

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Wednesday, May 30, 2012 8:47pm
Updated Friday, June 1, 2012 5:02pm

The long-running struggle to find balance between owners who want to rent their property for short periods and neighbors who object to the problems caused by some short-term rentals continues.

The Austin American-Statesman’s story Monday summed up the situation in which the Planning Commission’s efforts to find an acceptable middle-ground have been unsuccessful, and both sides vow to continue the battle.

Amid this ongoing controversy, on May 21 an Austin-based company established a website that provides a way for people who support short-term rentals to e-mail a form letter to City Council members en masse.

The site was initially anonymous but The Austin Bulldog’s check into the website, VisitorsBenefitAustin, determined that it is being paid for by HomeAway, an Austin-based company with worldwide reach promoting short-term rentals.

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(7 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Review of Austin Energy’s Spending

Public Utility Spending on Employee Outings and Travel
Scrutinized Amid Ongoing Rate-Hike Debate

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, May 24, 2012 10:57am

A private movie screening at Alamo Drafthouse, an end-of-the-year celebration at Dave and Busters, and an outing at Main Event Entertainment to bowl and eat barbecue are among the publicly funded events held to recognize Austin Energy employees over the past two and a half years.

As City Council members grapple with a proposed electric rate increase for Austin Energy customers, The Austin Bulldog paid $281 to obtain hundreds of documents through open records requests submitted in March outlining how the city-owned electric utility company manages spending for employee parties, business dinners, and travel.

The records indicate that Austin Energy spent at least $123,065 related to holiday, retirement and employee appreciation events from October 1, 2009 to February 29, 2012.

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(6 votes, average 4.83 out of 5)
Background Investigation: Dominic Chavez

Here's What the Public Records Say
About the City Council Candidate

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Wednesday, May 9, 2012 8:13pm

Dominic ChavezDominic ChavezThroughout his campaign for Austin City Council, Dominic Chavez said some have characterized him as a conservative, developer-backed candidate vying for a seat on a Democrat-dominated council.

After all, Chavez is a former spokesperson for the Real Estate Council of Austin, voted in five Republican races—and one Democratic primary—and nearly half of his campaign contributions come from people indicating they work in real estate or development.

But in an interview with The Austin Bulldog Thursday, Chavez, who is challenging incumbent Bill Spelman for the Place 5 seat, said he is not the “caricature” some people and media outlets have painted him to be.

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(6 votes, average 3.67 out of 5)

Background Investigation: Laura Pressley

Here’s What the Public Records Say
About the City Council Candidate

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Monday, April 30, 2012 1:59pm

Laura PressleyLaura PressleyWith less than two weeks before election day May 12, Laura Pressley faces an uphill battle to unseat two-term incumbent Mike Martinez in the Place 2 Austin City Council race. Early voting for the mayoral and council election started today. For a list of early voting locations, click here.

Pressley lags her opponent in campaign donations and has been confronted with concerns about her political affiliations and lack of city policy experience.

She is also running for the council seat unofficially reserved for a Hispanic member.

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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
City Council Tackles Charter Recommendations

Redistricting Expert, Charter Revision Committee Members,
and Grass-roots Group Critical of Task Force Plan

By Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog
Posted Thursday, April 26, 2012, 9:30 pm

Although the City Council could wait until August to set the ballot for the City Charter revisions to be put before voters in November, action is already moving forward.

Seven items were on the April 26 council meeting agenda that dealt with recommendations offered by the 2012 Charter Revision Committee. Four were passed, two were postponed, and one was withdrawn in the face of strong opposition and advice from outside counsel.

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(6 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Background Investigation: Brigid Shea

Here's What the Public Records Say About
the Former Council Member Running for Mayor

by Rebecca LaFlureMa
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Tuesday, April 10, 2012 10:10am
Updated Monday, April 16, 11:19am

Brigid SheaBrigid SheaAfter a nearly 16-year hiatus from public office, environmentalist and former Council Member Brigid Shea is challenging incumbent Mayor Lee Leffingwell for the city’s top spot on election day May 12.

Known largely for her public feuds with high-power developers in the early ’90s, Shea said she hopes to bring a fresh leadership approach to City Hall.

“There’s nothing personal in this,” Shea said. “I’ve known Lee Leffingwell a long time. We’ve worked on projects together. But City Hall needs a new direction.”

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
The Austin Bulldog’s Reporting Produces Results

Our High-Impact Reporting Was Made
Possible by Strong Community Support

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Tuesday April 3, 2012, 2:05pm

Like baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean said, “It ain't bragging if you done it.”

The Austin Bulldog has been able to hold elected officials and governmental bodies accountable, thanks in large part to nearly 200 people who have contributed money to finance our work over the past two years. Our investigative reporting has resulted in numerous reforms to provide more open and transparent government to the citizens of Austin and Travis County.

Individual donations in 2011 to support this important work totaled $33,045. The Kirk Mitchell Public Interest Investigative Reporting Fund donated $15,000 through December, for total funding of $48,045.

Our expenses totaled $39,242. For details on how we used this crucial funding, you can review our Profit and Loss Statement for 2011.

Marking our second anniversary is a good time to report to those whose financial backing made this work possible, as well as other readers, and take a quick look at some of our major accomplishments.

Brief overview of what public support made possible

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Background Investigation: Bill Spelman

Here’s What the Public Records Say About
the Council Member Running for Re-election

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2012 1:35pm
Updated Thursday, May 3, 2012 11:05am
(Updated 12:05pm, Monday, May 7, 2012.)

Bill SpelmanBill SpelmanCampaign season is in full swing for candidates vying for a seat on the Austin City Council, and Council Member Bill Spelman faces more opposition than any of his fellow incumbents.

Six citizens—all first-time City Council candidates—have signed up to challenge Spelman for Place 5, a seat the University of Texas at Austin professor has held since June 2009.

As the May 12 election approaches, The Austin Bulldog went to work researching Spelman’s personal and political background in an effort to educate Austin residents about their City Council candidates. We used an organized plan to find, copy, and publish every public record we found, and compiled news articles from The Austin Bulldog and other publications.

We invite readers to study the documents and let us know if there are any important details we overlooked, or areas that warrant further investigation.

Campaign donations exceed $31,000

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(5 votes, average 4.20 out of 5)
Shea Wants More Contribution Limits and Disclosures

Those Affected Say Shea’s Proposals Would
Further Undermine Candidates’ Campaigns

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog
Posted Tuesday, March 20, 2012 8:22pm

Brigid SheaBrigid SheaFormer City Council member and current mayoral candidate Brigid Shea says she wants more limits on—and more disclosure of—contributions made to City Council incumbents and challengers.

At a press conference at City Hall this morning she announced proposals that are far tougher than reforms the Charter Revision Committee has recommended for the City Council to put on the November ballot, including restrictions on bundled campaign contributions.

Bundlers are individuals who solicit and obtain contributions of $200 or more from five or more individuals. The reporting of bundlers’ names in contribution reports is already required by City Code Section 2-2-22.

A chart that
served as a backdrop for the press conference was titled “Bundling Influence at City Hall.” The chart displayed the names of 13 individuals who bundled a total of $103,900 in contributions detailed in the incumbents’ January 2012 campaign finance reports. Not all of the bundlers listed are currently registered city lobbyists.

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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Texas Earns a Poor Grade for Integrity

State Government Doing a Poor Job Delivering
Transparency and Accountability to Citizens

Investigative Report by Kelley Shannon
Posted Monday, March 19, 2012 1:30pm

In Texas politics, money flows freely, lobbyists enjoy a powerful presence at the state capitol, and governors are propelled into the national spotlight.

Citizens who want to keep a close eye on these activities do have tools at their disposal. The Texas Public Information Act is relatively strong, with some exceptions. Campaign finance reports can be obtained online. Certain lobbyist activities are revealed through state-required filings. Public access to the Texas Legislature is easier than it was only a few years ago.

So, the Lone Star State—which now boasts 25.7 million residents—gets generally high marks for making information available to the public. But it has a long way to go when it comes to holding state officials fully accountable, government watchdogs say. In keeping political agendas separate from official state business at the highest levels of government, they say, Texas also falls short.

Tom SmithTom Smith“It is far worse in that regard than it’s ever been before,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office and a veteran activist at the capitol.

Public officials sometimes find ways to delay before handing over public information. Financial disclosure reports contain significant loopholes. And, in perhaps the most pronounced example of free rein for Texas elected officials, campaign contributions to candidates and political committees are unlimited, except in judicial elections.

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(6 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Why is Apple Getting Tax Incentives?

Austin Won Apple Without Competition
‘The Arizona Republic’ Reported

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Friday, March 16, 2012 5:46pm
Updated Friday, March 16, 2012 6:13pm

The Arizona Republic, that state’s largest newspaper, yesterday reported that Phoenix was never in the running to attract the Apple Inc. facility for which Texas has committed tax incentives, and both Austin and Travis County are considering doing likewise.

Governor Rick Perry is offering Apple $21 million in incentives over 10 years and the City of Austin is considering sweetening the deal with $8.6 million, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Travis County is also considering incentives.

Those incentives were based on the premise that Apple was considering Phoenix and Austin.

However, The Arizona Republic’s story published yesterday reported Phoenix “never had a chance” because the proposed site was on state land and “state trust land did not excite them” (Apple), so there was no Phoenix site reasonably in contention.”

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(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Council District Backers Want Quick Ballot Decision

Big Press Conference, Big Pressure Promised
to Get Council Decision Before Council Elections

by Ken Martin
Event photographs by Mario Cantu
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, March 8, 2012 11:06pm
Press conference draws many supportersPress conference draws many supporters

More than two-dozen backers of the proposal to change how council members are elected packed a room at City Hall today for an early morning press conference headed by former State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin).

Barrientos chaired the 2012 Charter Revision Committee appointed by the Austin City Council to recommend changes to the Austin  City Charter. The Committee met in locations all over Austin starting last September and finished February 16. The Committee made a total of 19 recommendations for charter changes that the Austin City Council could put on the November ballot.

Most prominent among the 19 recommendations is a call for a proposition that would ask voters to approve a plan calling for 10 geographic council districts to be drawn by an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. Under this plan, only the mayor would be elected at-large by all Austin voters.

The Austin City Council could delay until August to decide what propositions to put before voters in the November general election. But the Charter Revision Committee’s majority faction, as well as the grass-roots coalition Austinites for Geographic Representation, are going to apply heavy political pressure for the Council to commit to putting the 10-1 plan and Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission on the ballot in November—and publicly do so before the May 12 mayoral and council elections.

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