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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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(26 votes, average 3.23 out of 5)
Chavez Targets Spelman in Council Contest

First-time Candidate Sued City of Austin Over
Tax Abatements for Historical Preservation

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Wednesday, March 7, 2012 7:04 pm

Dominic ChavezDominic ChavezWhen arriving at Austin City Council candidate Dominic Chavez’s campaign kickoff at the Rattle Inn Tuesday evening, one could not help but notice the road construction occurring just outside the 610 Nueces Street bar.

“It’s fitting seeing these guys working,” Chavez said to The Austin Bulldog, amid the sounds of heavy machinery. “In Austin I think we’ve forgotten about the people who built this city, who work here everyday. Austin is much more difficult for these folks to live in now than ever before.”

Chavez, an Iraq War veteran and senior director for external relations at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, officially launched his campaign for Austin City Council in front of about 50 supporters, saying he hopes to make Austin a more affordable place to live.

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(4 votes, average 4.25 out of 5)
Leffingwell Draws a Big Crowd

Free Beer, Free Eats, and Free Music
Makes a Speech Go Down Real Easy

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Monday, February 27, 2012, 6:56pm

Lee Leffingwell addresses the crowdLee Leffingwell addresses the crowdAt a campaign event Saturday, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell touted what he considers several of his greatest accomplishments over the past two and a half years: helping create jobs amid a shaky economy, building collaborative agreements with Austin ISD, and garnering support for a $90 million transportation bond voters approved in November 2010.

But there’s still work to be done, Leffingwell said, and he hopes Austin residents will elect him to a second mayoral term May 12.  

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress over the last two and a half years on a lot of different things, but the job is not finished,” Leffingwell said. “My goal has always been and remains today to leave Austin a better place than we found it.”

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(10 votes, average 4.70 out of 5)
Background Investigation: Mike Martinez

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


by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Saturday, February 25, 2012 2:36pm
Updated May 30, 2012 12:59pm

Mike MartinezMike MartinezWhen Mike Martinez announced he would seek a third term on the Austin City Council, The Austin Bulldog went to work researching Martinez’s personal and political background.

As with prior investigations of Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, we used an organized plan to find, copy, and publish every public record we could find in an effort to educate citizens about their elected officials in the months leading to the May 2012 election.

We also read and compiled past news articles from The Austin Bulldog and other publications, and fact-checked statements elected officials made about their backgrounds. 

Our research into Martinez painted a picture of an outspoken politician financially backed by well-connected donors who has gained a loyal following over the past six years and a vocal group of critics.

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(18 votes, average 3.50 out of 5)
Cannon Misfires on Traffic Offenses

Council Candidate Drew Five
Arrest Warrants in Five Years

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Thursday, February 23, 2012 8:11pm

Tina CannonTina CannonLess than a week after entrepreneur Tina Cannon officially launched her campaign for City Council, The Austin Bulldog found that Cannon was issued five arrest warrants over the past five years for unpaid traffic tickets and failure to show proof of vehicle insurance.

Also, a company she co-founded was sued for trademark infringement last year. The lawsuit has since been dropped, and Cannon has paid all fines related to the traffic tickets.

Cannon is running against incumbent Bill Spelman, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas, and Dominic Chavez, an Army veteran and senior director for external relations at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, for the Place 5 spot.

“I am not a perfect human being and not a perfect driver, but I try hard at both,” Cannon said. I have “no excuses on missing the initial payment and proof-of-coverage deadlines, all of which I have taken care of a good while ago.”

Warrants for unpaid traffic tickets
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(9 votes, average 4.11 out of 5)
Tina Cannon Challenges Bill Spelman

Austin Entrepreneur Seeks to Bring a
Small Business Owner’s Voice to City Hall

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted 5:56pm Monday, February 20, 2012

Tina Cannon kicks off her city council campaignTina Cannon kicks off her city council campaignTina Cannon emphasized her slogan, “fostering entrepreneurship in Austin,” last Friday, when she officially launched her campaign against incumbent Bill Spelman for the Place 5 Austin City Council seat.

Despite chilly winds and rainfall, about 30 supporters huddled under a covered patio outside Pour House Pub in North Austin as Cannon discussed her desire to bring a small business owner’s perspective to City Hall.

“I want us to put Austin back on the map as a leader in innovation and economic development and growth, and bring back transparency in city government that has been so absent at our City Hall,” said Cannon, noting that her friends and family have encouraged her to run for office over the years. “I’m really trying to lean on my background in business and entrepreneurship … and be a completely new voice.”

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(9 votes, average 4.22 out of 5)
Here’s How the Mayor and Council Spent

Council Budgets Pay for Trips Here and Abroad,
Even a $40,000 Transfer to Help the City Library

Investigative Report by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012
Posted Sunday, February 5, 2012 7:55pm

The City of Austin’s approved budget for the offices of the mayor and council members for the previous fiscal year totaled $2,251,768. That money was appropriated to pay the salaries of 30 full-time employees—seven elected officials and 23 staff members—and cover a host of other expenses, most of which were discretionary.

Aside from the salaries, what did the mayor and council offices spend? And how did Austin taxpayers benefit from these expenditures? These are the questions we set out to explore.

Lee LeffingwellLee LeffingwellOn June 12, 2010, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and his then-communications director Matt Curtis flew to Oklahoma City for the 78th annual U.S. Conference of Mayors convention. The agenda included a full day of forums on subjects ranging from energy efficiency to the high school dropout crisis, followed by a hoedown with live music, barbecue and line dancing, and an after-party at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

Leffingwell and Curtis caught a plane back to Austin at 4:20pm the next day, missing the convention’s planned “psychedelic multimedia extravaganza” with rock band The Flaming Lips and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, and a party hosted by former University of Oklahoma and NFL coach Barry Switzer.

The two-day trip cost $3,264 in city funds.

This trip, among others, was detailed in public records obtained by The Austin Bulldog that shed light on where elected officials have traveled and how they’ve spent the money allocated to their offices in the past two fiscal years.

In mid-October of last year, The Austin Bulldog filed the first of several requests under the Texas Public Information Act for records of expenditures incurred for trips taken by Austin City Council members at the city’s expense, and records of equipment or services the City of Austin purchased for any city council members or their offices during fiscal years 2010 and 2011. (Fiscal years begin October 1 and end September 30.) The last of the applicable records were received last week.

Cole packs her bags for South Africa

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(6 votes, average 3.67 out of 5)
Posted Friday, February 3, 2012 4:05pm
Hard Fought, Heartfelt Charter Decision

Charter Revision Committee Votes 8-7
to Back 10-1 Plan for Council Elections

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012

Supporters of the 10-1 council election plan won a narrow victorySupporters of the 10-1 council election plan won a narrow victoryFormer State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos knew things might get dicey at the final scheduled meeting of the 2012 Charter Revision Committee he chairs.

He brought in retired Travis County District Judge Bob Perkins, who sat on the 331st District Court bench for nearly three decades, to referee as parliamentarian, if need be.

It was a guaranteed evening of high drama given the scheduled final vote to decide what form of electoral system the committee would recommend to the Austin City Council. That vote culminated five months of public meetings in which the committee members listened to hundreds of citizens and heard the advice of several attorneys well versed in election law and compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.

After voting 12-2 to recommend that a measure be put on the ballot to have an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission draw council district lines should voters should approve some form of geographic representation—something voters nixed six times before between 1973 and 2002—the committee was at last ready to deal with what form of geographic representation to recommend.

During a sometimes heated and often passionate discussion that lasted nearly an hour, the deeply split committee was unable to reach a compromise.

The final vote was to recommend the 10-1 plan—in which 10 council members would be elected from geographic districts and only the mayor elected by all voters—passed 8-7.

The vote on a previous motion to recommend a 10-2-1 plan, where the mayor and two council members would be elected at large, failed 7-8.

There were calls for compromise that would unite the group and strengthen its recommendation for what the City Council should put on the ballot in November but in the end that was fruitless.

Committee members budged not one inch from the positions they had announced in previous public meetings.

Intense debate, no surrender

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(9 votes, average 3.78 out of 5)
Posted Thursday, February 2, 2012 5:15pm
Brigid Shea Supporters Loud and Proud

Former Council Member Packs Threadgill’s
For Rousing Mayoral Campaign Kickoff


by Ken Martin
 © The Austin Bulldog 2012

Brigid Shea surrounded by supportersBrigid Shea surrounded by supportersThe big crowd that came to hear Brigid Shea announce she will run for mayor showed she has a strong core of supporters willing to help her try to unseat incumbent Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

She has 100 days before the May 12 election to expand her support and build a winning campaign against a well-funded, deeply entrenched incumbent who has won three previous elections and been on the city council for seven years.

While time is short for Shea to rally a winning campaign, Kathie Tovo got an even later start last year by not appointing a treasurer—a prerequisite to soliciting campaign contributions—until April 1 for a May 14 election. Yet Tovo bested incumbent Council Member Randi Shade 46-33 percent in the May general election and then won a thumping 56-44 percent victory in the runoff.

Lee LeffingwellLee LeffingwellLeffingwell was first elected to the City Council in 2005 and re-elected in 2008, winning both elections without a runoff. He got 47.23 percent of the vote in his first mayoral contest in 2009 but avoided a runoff when opponent Brewster McCracken withdrew.

Like all who were serving on the City Council in January 2011, Leffingwell is being investigated by the county attorney for possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. The outcome of that investigation, now in its second year, could have an impact on Leffingwell’s re-election chances.

Some who attended Shea’s kickoff—including Shea herself—contributed money to Leffingwell’s mayoral campaign in 2009.

In her speech, Shea touted accomplishments during her three years on the Austin City Council, 1993-1996. She said she championed consumer, electoral, and environmental issues and was proud that she helped usher in a political consensus that “preserving our environment is essential to the economy and our future.” 

“I am running for mayor because we need new leadership and new direction at City Hall. This race is about the future,” Shea said. “We need leadership that’s true to Austin’s unique character and the interests of all the people who live here. We need a city government that works for all of us—not just the insiders and the influentials.”

She said as mayor she would have two main priorities: “Protecting Austin’s quality of life and keeping our city affordable, for the people who live here and pay taxes here.”

Shea said our current city leadership is falling short on both counts, focusing more on making big development deals than maintaining the quality of life and affordability of the city.

“Property taxes have increased year after year, to the top level allowed by law,” she said. “City fees have gone up. Water rates have soared. Electrical rates are rising. These increases strain our families’ budgets and are proportionately higher for average homeowners and small businesses than they are for big businesses.”

Some of these increases might be necessary, she said, but many could have been avoided through better management, better oversight, and better vision.

“The city has also been irresponsible in spending our tax dollars,” she said. “There have been too many giveaways, too many bad deals, and too much bad management.”

“We’re operating with an old-school model that gives away city assets because we think we need to pay people to come here. I’m running for mayor to put a stop to that,” Shea said, drawing strong applause.

As examples, she cited a $4 million subsidy for a high-rise hotel “the owners were going to build anyway” while the city could not afford to keep open all community swimming pools, and okaying a $250 million state subsidy for Formula One racing when our school district was considering closing some neighborhood schools.

“And now we find out that New Jersey was able to negotiate for a Formula One race without any subsidies,” she added. “It’s a sad day in Austin when we have to say, ‘Why can’t we be more like New Jersey?’”

She said Austin needs a new economic vision that “get’s it,” that protecting the city’s unique qualities is key to attracting new business.

“We need economic planning that makes Austin more prosperous but also makes new development pay for itself instead of being so heavily subsidized by current residents.”

She said that despite Austin’s rapid growth our poverty rate in increasing.

“As mayor I'll pursue a vision that keeps Austin unique, and beautiful, and shares the fruit of prosperity with all of our citizens,” she said.

Shea vowed to work closely with the Austin Independent School District to save neighborhood schools, which she said are key to healthy property values and strong neighborhoods. 

“I will organize mayors across this state to send that same message to the Legislature,” she said, “and urge full funding of our schools.”

She noted that Austin is frequently one of the most traffic-congested cities of its size in the nation and promised to find creative ways to get traffic moving—but not by adding toll lanes to the MoPac Expressway.

“I want us to be the most water-wise city in the nation,” Shea said, “and with the drought we need to be.” She promised to pursue ways to better use and conserve water and to fix the city’s leaking water lines.

As mayor Shea said she wanted to create a culture at City Hall where all citizens, regardless of their status, are welcomed and listened to, a remark alluding to the council e-mails published last year that showed some council members were not respectful of all who came to speak.

“I want to cut back the influence of lobbyists, and special-interest campaign money. It corrupts the process when those who are financing the incumbents’ campaigns are the same ones who are reaping millions in city contracts and deals. I’ll introduce true transparency and tougher contribution limits.”

She said she wanted to preserve green space, open space and neighborhoods.

“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.

“I see this election as the opportunity for an honest discussion about the future of our city.”

Shea closed with a call for support and contributions that was met with loud, sustained applause, before the crowd broke out in a chant reminiscent of what winning candidates typically hear on election night: “Bri-gid! Bri-gid! Bri-gid!”

Supporters dislike status quo

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(9 votes, average 4.11 out of 5)
Posted Friday, January 27, 2012 11:47am
Martinez’ Focus: Improving East Austin

Two-Term Incumbent Draws Strong
Support for Campaign Kickoff Event

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012

In front of an enthusiastic crowd Wednesday evening, City Council Member Mike Martinez described the side of Austin residents love to show outsiders: a lively music scene, quirky businesses, a booming high-tech industry, and beautiful parks and trails.

However, there is another side to Austin Martinez says people rarely talk about. The side where children go to sleep hungry, teenagers drop out of high school, and parents struggle to make ends meet on multiple minimum-wage jobs.

It’s this aspect of Austin that Martinez wants to focus on if elected to a third term to the Austin City Council, he said.

“We’re defined by our failures as much as our successes,” Martinez said. “It’s government’s job to do for those who cannot do for themselves.”

Martinez, 42, kicked off his re-election campaign at Nuevo Leon Restaurant on East Sixth Street Wednesday, saying more needs to be done to improve Austin’s east side.

Hundreds of Austin citizens—including fellow Council Members Bill Spelman, Kathie Tovo, Laura Morrison and Chris Riley—gathered to show their support as Martinez launched his re-election campaign.

Martinez did not mention his opponent, Laura Pressley, a business owner and member of Fluoride Free Austin, who announced Friday that she would challenge Martinez, the council’s only Latino, for the Place 2 spot.

Martinez said he moved to Austin in 1988 with $50 and a trumpet, hoping to make it as a musician. He eventually joined the Austin Fire Department, and worked at an East Austin fire station for 13 years. Martinez was elected president of the Austin Firefighters Association in 2003. In that position, he successfully fought to secure collective bargaining rights for firefighters, and a pay raise that made Austin firefighters among the highest paid in Texas.

Martinez was first elected to the City Council in 2006 on a platform of understanding the concerns of working-class minorities in East Austin. Martinez noted his efforts to ensure workers are paid on time and have rest breaks during the workday.

“This community has been historically underserved,” Martinez said of East Austin. “I am that champion.”

Martinez said, if elected to a third term, he would continue focusing on economic, transportation and equality issues. As chairman of the Capital Metro board, Martinez said he helped transform the agency over the past two years, noting the launch of the Red Line, a the Metrorail service that connects downtown Austin with the suburban areas including Wells Branch, Lakeline, and Leander.

He also plans to continue his support for Austin’s music community and work with musicians and neighborhood groups so that they coexist harmoniously.

Martinez alluded to his reputation as the council’s most outspoken member saying, “I don’t shy away from challenges. I take them head on. That’s my style.”

Gloria Aleman, an Austin resident and retired Travis County employee who was raised on the eastside, and Linda Ramirez, director of accounting at Rz Communications, were among those who came out to show their support for Martinez. (Andy Ramirez, CEO of Rz Communications, bundled campaign contributions for Martinez’s 2009 re-election campaign.)

“East Austin still has a lot to be done,” Aleman said. “His heart is in the right place, and I think he’s the only candidate who can make that happen. He cares about people.”

Ramirez said Martinez helped the nonprofit Bellas Artes Alliance raise money for the Pan Americana Festival—a free music festival scheduled for March 17 at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. This is just one example of how Martinez has supported Austin’s Latino community, said Ramirez. Both she and Andy Ramirez are Bellas Artes Alliance board members.

Opponent has Latino support, too

 

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(5 votes, average 4.20 out of 5)
Posted Wednesday, January 25, 2012 2:05am
Open Meetings Investigation a Year Old Today

County Attorney Says Investigation of Whether City
Council Violated Open Meetings Act Is Still Ongoing

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012

The Austin City Council of January 2011The Austin City Council of January 2011

A year ago today, The Austin Bulldog published an investigative report (“Open Meetings, Closed Minds”) about the years-long practice in which the mayor and council members held regularly scheduled, private, round-robin meetings preceding each scheduled council meeting.

David EscamillaDavid EscamillaThat same day, The Austin Bulldog reported that County Attorney David Escamilla announced that he was conducting an inquiry into a possible violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, based on a complaint filed with his office by a citizen (later identified as civic activist Brian Rodgers, a key source in The Austin Bulldog’s investigation).

Now, one year later, the county attorney has not made a public statement about whether he thinks it was legal for the Austin City Council to regularly meet one-on-one and two-on-one in secret to discuss items on the city council’s upcoming agendas.

What has become of that investigation?

The Austin Bulldog asked County Attorney Escamilla.

“The investigation is still ongoing and we hope to complete it in the near future,” Escamilla said Tuesday. He declined to elaborate further.

That’s cold comfort for the seven members who were on the City Council when the story broke. With a statute of limitations of two years on the misdemeanor offenses they may have committed, they remain in legal limbo until Escamilla wraps up his investigation and determines how he will proceed.

Randi ShadeRandi ShadeFormer Council Member Randi Shade was on the City Council from June 2008 to June 2011. She regularly participated in those private meetings with the mayor and other council members. Shade is now a homemaker and she would like to find closure.

When informed of the county attorney’s statement, Shade told The Austin Bulldog, “He’s been saying the same thing for a year.”

Shade said she has been cooperating fully with the investigation and has submitted everything requested.

“They’ve gathered a ton of information. I haven’t heard anything (about the outcome of the investigation),” she said. “After a year, I don’t know how you define this as ‘speedy,’” as in speedy justice.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and the other five council members who are also being investigated—Sheryl Cole, Mike Martinez, Laura Morrison, Chris Riley, and Bill Spelman—did not respond to an e-mail inviting comments for this story.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireBill Aleshire of Austin-based Riggs Aleshire & Ray PC, is a longtime volunteer attorney for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas media hotline. In addition, he is The Austin Bulldog’s attorney in two lawsuits against the city and council members concerning lack of responsiveness to requests filed under the Texas Public Information Act. He emphasized the importance of the issues involved in the county attorney’s investigation.

“The City Council’s actions, exposed by The Austin Bulldog, threaten the foundation of open government. If an entire city council can have secret face-to-face, round-robin discussions about the upcoming meeting agenda, then the Open Meetings Act is useless, and public council meetings are nothing but rehearsed Kabuki theatre giving the pretense of government operating in the sunshine.”

Joseph LarsenJoseph LarsenOne of the most respected attorneys in Texas on the subject of the Open Meetings Act is Joe Larsen, special counsel in the Houston office of the international law firm Sedgwick LLP. The nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas in 2010 awarded Larsen its prestigious James Madison Award, named for the fourth president of the United States and author of the Bill of Rights.

“I think it’s important that the investigation be completed as soon as reasonably possible so as to make a public record of the findings,” Larsen said, adding, “Far be it from me to say what resources are available” for the investigation.

“If a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act is found and publicized, it will act as a deterrent for all governmental bodies that might consider doing something similar,” he said.

Larsen noted that the city council has stopped holding the private meetings and said, “However bad this practice was, one should really commend the governmental body for doing the right thing.”

Council members still at risk of prosecution

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(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)

Posted Sunday, January 22, 2012  9:30pm
Updated Friday, January 27, 2012 3:20pm

New Restrictions Proposed for Lobbyist Fundraising

Lobbyists Can Only Give Candidates $25 But
Can Collect Unlimited Contributions for Them

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012

Why would city regulations prohibit a registered city lobbyist from contributing more than $25 to an officeholder or candidate for mayor or city council, but allow a lobbyist to solicit and bundle unlimited contributions on behalf of officeholders and candidates?

That was a question the 2012 Charter Revision Committee dealt with in its meeting last Thursday.

Based on the case presented by its five-member working group, the Committee voted 12-1 (with David Butts and Kathleen Vale absent) to approve a recommended change that would limit the amount of bundled contributions by registered city lobbyists to a maximum of $1,750 per candidate per election cycle for individual bundlers and $3,500 per candidate per election cycle for firms that bundle. This restriction would not apply to anyone who is not a registered city lobbyist.

This restriction would put a severe crimp in the kind of fundraising that some registered city lobbyists are doing for current officeholders.

The Austin Bulldog’s analysis of the most recent contribution reports filed by the four members of the City Council running for re-election—Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, and Council Members Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole—indicates that two registered city lobbyists bundled a total of $33,500 $44,470 in single reporting period for Leffingwell, Martinez, and Spelman. (Added Spelman’s bundled contributions to previous total January 27, 2012.)

In reality they bundled even more than that, but the contribution reports report filed by Cole and Spelman list lists only the names of bundlers and do does not identify the specific contributions these lobbyists solicited on their her behalf.

David ArmbrustDavid ArmbrustLawyer-lobbyist David Armbrust of Armbrust & Brown PLLC bundled 24 contributions totaling $8,400 for Leffingwell, and 29 contributions totaling $10,150 for Martinez, and 36 contributions totaling $11,200 for Spelman. According to the lobbyist registration information posted on the city’s website, Armbrust has 17 clients involved in building, real estate and real estate development, financial services, hotels, property management, energy, and waste disposal.

Michael WhellanMichael WhellanLawyer-lobbyist Michael Whellan of Graves Dougherty Hearon and Moody bundled 26 contributions totaling $8,050 for Leffingwell and 20 contributions totaling $6,900 for Martinez. City lobbyist registration records indicate Whellan has 13 clients, including property owners, real estate developers, taxi cabs, healthcare provider, and music.

The ambiguity of the current City Code regarding how to report bundled contributions was also addressed by the Charter Revision Committee. Members present voted unanimously to recommend more stringent and accessible disclosure of all bundled contributions.

With no discussion, the Charter Revision Committee also voted unanimously to recommend that Article X, Section 2 of the City Charter be clarified to indicate that ex-officio members of the Planning Commission are non-voting members whose attendance does not affect quorum requirements. Both the City Council and the Planning Commission had referred this matter to the Committee for consideration.

These recommendations will be forwarded to the Austin City Council, along with all the recommendations previously approved by the committee, for possible action.

What City Code requires

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(7 votes, average 4.29 out of 5)
Posted Saturday, January 21, 2012 2:45 pm
Clarification posted January 22, 2012 1:30pm
It’s Pressley vs. Martinez

First-time Council Candidate to Oppose
City Council’s Only Hispanic Incumbent

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012

Laura Pressley kicked off her campaign December 10 vowing not to let the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” that resulted in having one African American and one Latino on the council stop her from opposing a minority member of the City Council.

At Friday’s press conference she proved it. She announced she is targeting incumbent Mike Martinez, who was first elected in 2006 and is now seeking a third term.

Martinez did not return a request for comment left on his council office recorder. His campaign website provides no telephone number.

Martinez has raised $70,460 for his re-election bid and had $64,654 in the bank as of December 31. He has campaign kickoff fundraiser scheduled for Wednesday at Nuevo Leon Mexican Restaurant, 1501 E. Sixth St., starting at 5:30pm.

Pressley raised $3,100 and had $2,332 in the bank through December 31. She has not yet hired a consultant or campaign manager.

Pressley told The Austin Bulldog she had been advised she needed to raise $200,000 to $250,000 for the campaign. “That’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “We will easily have $40,000 to $50,000 by March.”

Unlike many of the winning candidates in recent council elections, she does not plan to loan her campaign money. “If people don’t support us we will not win,” Pressley said, adding, “I have a lot of donors waiting for us to declare against Martinez.”

In her press conference Pressley said there were concerns about her going against the gentlemen’s agreement from the 1970s but, “We’re not in the seventies anymore. Designating one seat (for a Latino) is a serious limitation.

“There should be two or three Latino seats if we get real geographic representation in this city. We really support the 10-1 plan.” She was referring to the proposal initiated by Austinites for Geographic Representation, a grass-roots citizens initiative to get on the ballot a proposition to establish a nonpartisan Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission that would draw 10 council districts that the Austin City Council would have no choice but to adopt. The group’s plan calls for only the mayor to continue being elected at-large.

“Over the years Mike Martinez has done very little to help the Hispanic community,” Pressley said. “We need a change at City Hall—regardless of skin color—and directly do what’s important for East Austin and all of Austin.”

About a dozen attended the press conference, many of which were Latinos. All said they’re fed up with Martinez, including long-time East Austin activists Marcelo Tafoya, Gavino Fernandez, Jose Quintero, Fidel Acevedo, and a younger Danny Perez. All professed strong support for Pressley and no concern about the fact that her victory would displace the council’s only Latino.

Interviews with some of them, before the press conference at the YMCA Learning Center at 2121 E. Sixth Street, revealed a deep resentment over what they perceive as Martinez’ lack of attention to problems.

“It doesn’t matter,” Quintero said of the idea a white woman might beat Martinez. “He’s not helping us.”

Tafoya agreed, saying, “We decided a while back to get rid of ‘Evil Knievel.’ We decided that the gentlemen’s agreement is BS. It hasn’t served the minority community at all.”

Tafoya, a former district director for District 12 of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), said the minority members of the council were “never elected by us, they never represented us, and never even considered us. They make token gestures and the council votes against us. We’re sick and tired of it.”

Pressley said she met with Latino community members in December and kept it quiet. “We would not do this without Hispanic support.”

Critical of council decisions, offers ideas

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(6 votes, average 3.67 out of 5)
Posted Thursday, January 19, 2012 3:40 pm
Bill Spelman’s Re-election Campaign
Kickoff Draws an Appreciative Crowd

University of Texas Professor, Council Member
Wants to Keep Austin Weird, and Explains Why

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2012

Bill SpelmanBill SpelmanCouncil Member Bill Spelman launched his campaign for a third term on the Austin City Council at Scholz Garten Tuesday evening to boost his campaign war chest beyond the $31,600 he had raised through December 31, according to the contribution report filed Tuesday.

Jim Wick, Spelman’s campaign manager, said in an e-mail the campaign would prefer not to give a figure of how much was raised at the event, “...but we were happy with the depth and breadth of the contributions (and contributors) we received last night and in the days since December 31.” He said 125 people attended. The audience was much smaller when Spelman spoke, as some supporters came by for brief visits and left to meet other commitments.

Spelman said he recently noted the camaraderie of Travis County Democrats at a recent annual dinner and attributed that spirit of cohesiveness to having a common enemy, like Governor Rick Perry.

Although elections to fill seats on the Austin City Council are nonpartisan, Spelman said the citizens of Austin need a common enemy too. He reeled off a list of the things that make Austin unique, and said, “I’m going to argue that our real enemy, our common enemy, is all the things that threaten that.”

“Every time someone tells me, ‘Austin is the only city in the country that doesn’t have this or doesn’t do that,’ a small part of me is just a little bit giddy. So long as we’re smart enough about it, keeping Austin weird is not just a semi-cool slogan, it’s a real means of survival in a brutal, difficult, and changing world.”

In listing some of the things accomplished in his current term, Spelman mentioned:

• Launching, with Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, the Neighborhood Match Program that “gives neighborhoods a chance to decide for themselves what public works they need.”

• Pushing the Austin Water Utility to move forward as fast as possible on its water reclamation program. “In an unprecedented drought—one that climatologists tell us is going to last in some form or fashion for the rest of our lifetimes—it only makes sense to use water twice, not just once.”

• Enacting payday lending restrictions. “Congress has not yet dealt with the dramatic increase in payday lending, but 400 percent interest-rate charges pose an imminent threat to the well-being of thousands of Austinites, almost all of them of modest means. The Lege did not act. We did.”

• Regulating pregnancy counseling centers. Women “need to know there are significant limitations to the kind of help offered in the crisis pregnancy center. The State Legislature doesn't want to tell you. We did.”

• Helping Foundation Communities to open volunteer tax preparation centers that “over the past few years has put $29 million of tax refunds into the hands of poor and moderate-income Austinites.”

“All of this is really weird,” Spelman said. “Cities pick up trash, they sell potable water, and they answer 911 calls. They do not typically give neighborhoods choices, use water twice, regulate lenders and pregnancy centers, or help people save money. Some of them do. But that's what our changing world is calling for and that's what we need to do.

“Our continued ability to adapt, working within our Austin DNA, is critical to our surviving and thriving as  a city in coming years. Weird isn't just a slogan. It's a way of life.”

Running unopposed at the moment

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(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Thursday, January 12, 2012 4:25pm
Updated Friday, January 13, 2012 2:50pm

Background Investigation: Sheryl Cole

Here’s What the Public Records Say About
the Council Member Running for Reelection

by Rebecca LaFlure
© The Austin Bulldog 2012

Sheryl ColeSheryl ColeIn the nearly six years since Sheryl Cole was elected as the first African-American woman on the Austin City Council, she has championed a project aimed at spurring redevelopment along Waller Creek, advocated for increased housing options for low-income families, and voted in favor of the controversial $750,000 settlement in the police shooting death of teenager Nathaniel Sanders II.

Now, a month after Cole launched her campaign for a third term, The Austin Bulldog searched beyond the decisions made at council meetings and dug into Cole’s professional, political, and personal background.

We used an organized plan to find, copy, and publish public documents—including business, real estate, voting, criminal and court records—so citizens can form their own conclusions about their elected officials in the months leading to the May 2012 election.

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.

Strong real estate connections

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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted 4:50pm Monday, January 9, 2012 4:50pm
Correction posted Tuesday, January 10, 2012 6am
Committee Debates How to Elect Council

Charter Revision Committee Divided
Over Pure Districts vs. Hybrid System


by Ken Martin
©The Austin Bulldog 2012

Lee LeffingwellLee LeffingwellAustin Mayor Lee Leffingwell was the first of many people to address the 15-member Charter Revision Committee last Thursday, calling for unity in getting behind whatever recommendation is made concerning some form of geographic representation in the election of City Council members.

“What is important is that all of us who support geographic representation be on the same page,” Leffingwell said. “Otherwise whatever we propose will not pass.”

Leffingwell urged the committee to strike a compromise for a unified proposal that everyone who supports geographic representation could get behind and support with great enthusiasm.

“We may not get a chance to do this again for a very long time if what we put on the table fails,” he said.

It’s been a decade since the May 2002 election in which voters last rejected a proposal. Proposition 3 on that ballot was the sixth attempt to gain voter approval for some form of electing council members from districts. Like many previous attempts, the plan offered would have created eight geographic districts. But this time the measure added two council member slots to be elected at-large, along with the mayor at-large. The proposition failed 42 percent to 58 percent.

Although nearly every member of the current Charter Revision Committee favors some form of geographic representation in council elections, the mayor’s lofty goal of  achieving unity in the committee’s recommendation appears difficult if not impossible to achieve.

At a three-plus-hour meeting January 5, individual committee members became more vocal than ever in taking a strong public stance about whether they favored the 10-1 proposal being petitioned for by Austinites for Geographic Representation or some hybrid plan that would allow citizens to cast ballots for some of the council members to be elected citywide in addition to establishing geographic districts.

The 10-1 plan petition includes a requirement to establish a nonpartisan Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission that would draw 10 council districts that the Austin City Council would have no choice but to adopt. Under this plan only the mayor would continue to be elected at-large.

Any other plan put on the ballot by the City Council may not have an independent districting commission. Committee Chair Gonzalo Barrientos, a former state senator, said the normal procedure is to appoint a commission that draws the lines with expert assistance from attorneys. Critics of that method say it allows the incumbents to draw boundaries that favor their reelection.

Ultimately the U.S. Department of Justice must approve any change in the election system for compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Advocates for the 10-1 plan

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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Wednesday, December 14, 2011 1:50 pm
Thirteen Charter Changes and Counting

Charter Revision Committee’s Next Job:
Tackle Plan for Geographic Representation

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

The council-appointed 2012 Charter Revision Committee has now formulated a baker’s dozen recommendations that will be forwarded to the Austin City Council for the planned November 2012 charter amendment election.

The most important task assigned to the committee—recommendingwer whether council members should be elected from geographic districts and if so under what plan—will be taken up at a meeting scheduled for January 5.

That’s when the committee will discuss the pros and cons of the current all-at-large system vis-à-vis hybrid (some geographic districts plus some council members at-large) and single-member systems (in which all but the mayor would represent geographic districts).

At that same meeting the committee will discuss the pros and cons of several different plans under consideration (a 6-2-1 plan proposed by Mayor Lee Leffingwell, an 8-4-1 plan advocated by two citizens, and a 10-1 plan advocated by Austinites for Geographic Representation, a broad coalition of organizations and individuals that is petitioning to get this plan on the ballot).

The committee will not vote on these matters until a later meeting, scheduled for January 19.

In its September 29 meeting the committee approved seven recommendations for charter changes (more about that later).

At the December 8 meeting the committee considered nine proposals and voted to recommend that the City Council put six of these on the ballot for voters to decide, as follows:

• To permit fundraising by election winners to retire campaign debt.

• To raise the maximum funds that may be held in an officeholder’s account to $40,000.

• To give the city’s Ethics Review Commission more power to address campaign finance and campaign disclosure violations.

• To require reporting of last-minute campaign contributions.

• To require electronic filing of campaign finance and lobbying reports.

• To require voter approval before issuing revenue bonds of more than $50 million.

These decisions were based on the recommendations formulated by the committee’s five-member working group. The committee discussions and recommendations are detailed below.

Responses to City Council resolutions

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(6 votes, average 4.17 out of 5)
Posted Monday, December 12, 2011 9:20pm
Updated 10:10am Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Laura Pressley’s Campaign Kicks Off

Candidate Drew Big and Loud Crowd
in Announcing Run for Austin City Council

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Laura PressleyLaura PressleyA newcomer to Austin politics got off to a noisy start at the venerable Scholz Garten on Saturday, drawing about 125 people to hear her announce her candidacy.

Laura Pressley previously gained local media exposure by crusading against the addition of fluoride in Austin’s drinking water and talking about the health dangers she says are posed by the airport security scanners. She said she is qualified to address the scientific issues involved, based on her PhD in chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. Her pleas to the Austin City Council regarding these issues went unheeded, triggering her decision to run.

Pressley won’t say which council seat she will seek. Three incumbents, in addition to Mayor Lee Leffingwell, are running for reelection: Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Members Mike Martinez and Bill Spelman.

“I’m leaving open which seat I will run for,” she told the crowd. But she vowed not to let the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement,” which sets aside seats for an African American and Latino, stand in her way. “I don’t have any trouble going into that sandbox,” she said. “I have no fear of going against that—no fear at all.”

She said she is taking feedback and will probably decide which seat to run for in late January. Candidates cannot file for a place on the ballot before February 6. The deadline to file is March 6.

Pressley said she wants to run ads on TV and do radio interviews and is a “big fan of alternative media.”

“I've spent hour after hour watching the council ignore people, not only us but their own commissioners,” Pressley said, referring to a recommendation by the Airport Advisory Commission not to install the scanners now in use at the airport.

Focusing on health

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