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(7 votes, average 3.86 out of 5)
Posted Friday, November 18, 2011, 3:30pm
Updated 4pm November 18, 2011
Appraisal Records Hidden From Public View

Agencies Suppressing Online Records
the Law Doesn’t Deem Confidential

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Billionaire Michael Dell does it. Actress Sandra Bullock does it. U.S. Senator John Cornyn does it. And so do a large number of high-wealth individuals, trust funds, and ordinary homeowners. Even Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears does it.

These individuals—plus some two-dozen business organizations—have taken advantage of a standing offer available to any Travis County property owner to have their appraisal records removed from the Travis Central Appraisal District’s online searchable appraisal roll.Actually, the standing offer, posted in the agency’s Frequently Asked Questions, offers only to remove the names of property owners. But in actual practice the entire record is removed.

While Texas Law provides confidentiality of the home addresses for specified individuals, none of these suppressed records fit the criteria. These public records are being hidden, without legal justification, from a public online database. (This paragraph added at 4pm November 18.)

Nearly 1,400 records of properties located in Travis County have been purged from the website for owners who do not qualify for confidentiality. While the numbers of records being suppressed now make up only a tiny fraction of the records maintained by the agency, the numbers would no doubt be far higher if more property owners were aware of this option.

Were enough people to opt for the same privilege, it would seriously undermine the usefulness of the appraisal district’s website.

The searchable records on appraisal district websites are critical resources for property owners to use in finding comparable properties when protesting the valuations set by appraisal districts. The work of fee appraisers, mortgage companies, real estate companies, and tax agents is also impeded when public records are suppressed.

Dan Birchman, owner and senior appraiser for BAS/Austin Appraiser, said he has been doing appraisals in Austin since 1983. The company provides a variety of appraisal services in seven Central Texas counties.

“Everyone doing appraisals has learned pretty much to use Travis Central Appraisal District or other appraisal district websites to confirm the owner, legal description and address, and determine which lot it is. I do that online. I use it as a preliminary source of data to start the research,” Birchman said.

“I happen to value privacy from a personal standpoint,” he said, “but we would prefer to have easier and more accurate access to information.”

Michael DellMichael DellDell Inc. Chairman and CEO Michael Dell, who clocks in as the 18th richest American on the Forbes 400 list, and wife Susan Dell have 18 properties valued at a total of $29.5 million that do not appear on the TCAD website.

6D Ranch Ltd., a Dell-controlled entity, owns another eight properties valued at a total of $81.5 million, that are not listed on the searchable appraisal roll.

Sandra BullockSandra BullockActress Bullock has starred in dozens of movies including the popular Speed and Miss Congeniality series, The Proposal, and the locally shot Hope Floats. She won a Best-Actress Oscar in 2010 for her performance in The Blind Side. Bullock owns a $1.67 million home located on Spyglass Drive, near the Barton Creek Greenbelt Trail.

John CornynJohn CornynSenator Cornyn, when not attending to the demanding duties of a high official in the nation’s capital, and here enjoying a respite in our own state capital, can stay in a cozy condominium that he owns in the upscale Austonian high-rise at Second and Congress. You won’t find that property listed on the TCAD website.

There is no provision in law for confidentiality of appraisal records based on holding elective office. The appraisal records for most every other public official checked in this project, except for Spears, were available online.

Nelda SpearsNelda SpearsLongtime Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Spears, who also happens to be a member of the Board of Directors of the Travis Central Appraisal District, owns a house on Amaranth Lane in northeast Austin that is not listed on the publicly accessible website.

In fact, the appraisal records for 34 commercial properties have been purged from the website, including apartments, industrial property, offices, and retail properties. Eleven of those properties are owned by businesses, three are held by trustees, the rest are owned by individuals.

Dozens of doctors, lawyers, and investors, as well as many hundreds of other property owners, also have their appraisal records suppressed on the TCAD website.
The Austin Bulldog obtained a spreadsheet listing all appraisal records suppressed by TCAD through an open records request. To access a spreadsheet listing these suppressed properties:

Sorted by owner’s names, click here.

Sorted by property type, click here.

Sorted by market value, click here.

Patrick BrownPatrick BrownIn a phone interview yesterday, TCAD Chief Appraiser Patrick Brown said the policy of suppressing appraisal records was established by his predecessor, Art Cory. Brown, who started as chief appraiser January 1, 2008, and who will be leaving the job in mid-January, said he has not been intimately involved in carrying out the policy of suppressing appraisal records on the TCAD website. He said he has talked to only one property owner who wanted to have this done.

“My only interaction with this in last four years was a gentlemen who came in and asked that his property be withheld from the Internet. I wasn't aware of our policy. ... He said he had served a prison term and he was concerned. That's been my only interaction. I did not suppress his records.”

Brown said he has not talked with any tax agents or other property owners who wanted to withhold records from the website. The suppression process is normally initiated when property owners submit a request that goes to the agency’s records management officer. An e-mail link and mailing address are provided in the website’s Frequently Asked Questions (See: “How do I remove my name from the TCAD website?)

What happens if TCAD receives hundreds, or even thousands, more requests to suppress records on the website? “I think ultimately in the big scheme of almost 400,000 parcels, we would have to look into it,” Brown said.

Asked why website records are being suppressed for commercial properties and for other properties owned by businesses, Brown said, “I cannot answer that. In my opinion that doesn't make any sense. It would be my recommendation to the board that we not do that.”

Brown agreed it would be helpful for TCAD to post a disclaimer on the TCAD website’s searchable appraisal roll to state the reasons that the records listed there are not complete.

Brown noted that some rural appraisal districts do not have websites and added, “I would remind you that that a public information request for the appraisal roll, or access to the records of the appraisal district, is still available. To my knowledge, we are not in violation of the Public Information Act but there is a question of what one can expect to get on our website.

“We want to be transparent and provide as much information as we can, so we need to look at our policy on publishing information on our website, and I thank you for bringing it to my attention.”

As a result of the interview, Brown said he will post an agenda item for Monday’s TCAD Board of Director’s meeting to discuss whether the policy of suppressing records on the website needs to be changed.

Some appraisal districts suppress records ...
 
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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Thursday, November 3, 2011 1:40pm
Council Confirms November 2012
Election Date for Charter Amendments


Resolution Ensures Citizens Initiative
Won’t Force May 2012 Charter Election


by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Laura MorrisonLaura Morrison“It’s a kumbaya moment to celebrate,” Council Member Laura Morrison told The Austin Bulldog shortly before a press conference this morning at City Hall. “Usually we just talk about things we disagree on.”

Morrison, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, and Council Member Mike Martinez sponsored a council resolution on today’s agenda to confirm that the council intends to hold an election to amend the Austin City Charter in November 2012.

That assurance was sought by Austinites for Geographic Representation, which since late February has been building a broad citizens coalition to initiate a petition drive for a charter change that would 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. The petition drive launched with a rally October 22 that drew about a hundred people.

Striking an agreement on the charter election date was essential. If the petition drive were to trigger a May 2012 charter election, the City Council would have been forced to either put its own charter amendments on the May ballot, or be frozen out for two years if the citizens initiative got voter approval. Article XI, Section 5 of the Texas Constitution states that “no city charter shall be altered, amended or repealed oftener than every two years.”

The press conference was attended by Morrison and Cole, as well as NAACP Austin President Nelson Linder and Austinites for Geographic Representation members Roger Borgelt, Charlie Jackson, and Daniel Llanes.

Sheryl ColeSheryl ColeIn separately answering The Austin Bulldog’s question, both Morrison and Cole said that sponsoring the resolution for a November 2012 charter election was designed to reassure the citizens group and should not be viewed as an endorsement of the plan being pushed by Austinites for Geographic Representation. “I’m waiting to see what the Charter Revision Committee recommends,” Cole said.

NAACP Austin President Linder, a member of the 2012 Charter Revision Committee that is studying what form of geographic representation to recommend to the City Council, told The Austin Bulldog he favors the citizens initiative. “I think it’s the best plan out there,” he said.

The need for geographic representation was laid bare by maps constructed by The Austin Bulldog and published August 4 that pinpoint the residential location of every mayor and council member elected over the last four decades. The unalterable fact that emerges is that large parts of Austin are not represented—or are grossly underrepresented—because of the at-large system of elections established by the Austin City Charter.

Seven charter recommendations, so far

 
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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Thursday, October 27, 2011 7:03pm
City of Austin Moving, Slowly, Toward Greater
Transparency in Electronic Communication

New System for Board and Commission
Members Targeted for First Quarter 2012


By Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Maybe you're a neighborhood resident trying to figure out what developers are telling board and commission members outside open meetings via e-mail. Or perhaps you’re a developer trying to figure out what the neighborhood representatives are saying about your project in e-mails to board and commission members. If so, you would like to think you can get those e-mails by filing an open records request.

Maybe you can, maybe not.

While many of the boards and commissions are only advisory and perform due diligence to assist the City Council’s decision-making, 15 of them are “sovereign” bodies that can take an official government action, such as issuing a permit or granting a variance, even if that action can be appealed

Some sovereign boards have the power to issue subpoenas and compel testimony. Decisions made by many of the sovereign bodies can be appealed to the City Council, while decisions made by some sovereign boards and commissions may only be appealed through the courts, according to City Code Chapter 2-1.

At present, the city’s web pages for boards and commissions lists each appointed member’s personal e-mail address. The city is therefore actively encouraging communication about city business through a system that may not be fully responsive to open records requests filed under the Texas Public Information Act.

Shirley GentryShirley GentryThe City Council directed the City Clerk to make recommendations about how to correct this situation as part of an April 7 resolution. City Clerk Shirley Gentry responded in a May 16 e-mail with three options and recommended one of them. The council has not acted on that information.

Gentry and the city’s Communications and Technology Management staff have continued to refine the earlier recommendations. On Tuesday, Gentry and Teri Pennington, deputy chief information officer for Communications and Technology Management, briefed the city council’s Audit and Finance Committee members in a meeting at City Hall.

Committee Chair Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Members Laura Morrison, Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo were present and participated in the briefing.

If approved by the City Council when final recommendations are made, when implemented in the first quarter of 2012 as projected, the proposed system would assign city e-mail addresses to the 350 citizen volunteers who are appointed by the city council to serve on the city’s 55 boards and commissions.

The new system is designed to ensure that the city could find and provide e-mail messages that are responsive to open records requests, as required by the Texas Public Information Act.

The new system also envisions using technological methods that would prevent board and commission members from inadvertently violating the Texas Open Meetings Act by engaging in a discussion of city business among a quorum of members.

The planned system would enable anyone wishing to communicate with board or commission members about city business to send e-mails via the Internet to all members of a board or commission or to individual members. It would work the same way that e-mails may be sent to the entire City Council or to individual members via the city’s website at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/site/city_hall_portal.htm.

Board and commission members would be licensed to use Microsoft’s Outlook Web App to access these messages via the Internet by logging in and using their personal communications devices, Pennington said. To see an illustration showing how this system would function, click here.

Gentry said the system would allow replies to be sent only to the sender and would prevent replying in such a manner that other board or commission members are brought into the dialogue. 

All e-mails sent or received using this system would be captured on city servers. “If there was a public information request, we could just pull the e-mails out like we normally do," Pennington told the committee.

Required to stop using personal accounts

 
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(4 votes, average 4.00 out of 5)
Posted Tuesday, October 18, 2011 9am
Coalition Launching Petition Drive to
Get on Ballot for May 2012 Election

Austinites for Geographic Representation
Needs 20,000 Signatures by Mid-January

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

What we want? Council districts!

When do we want them? Now!

How will we get them? Petition!

When do we start? Now!

Such might be the chants of members of Austinites for Geographic Representation if they were to take to the streets like the protestors of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Austin.

But you won’t be hearing chants from the members of this 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.

Austin is the most populous city in the United States to elect its entire city council at-large, and the only major metropolitan city in Texas to do so, according to a report produced last month by City Demographer Ryan Robinson. Austin voters, however, have voted down propositions for some form of council districts six times between 1973 and 2002.

Austinites for Geographic Representation has scheduled a press conference for noon tomorrow at City Hall and a campaign kickoff rally 3-5pm Saturday at Mexitas Restaurant, 1109 N. I-35. The group has leased an office at 7901 Cameron Road and formed a Specific Purpose Political Action Committee whose treasurer, Stacy Suits, ran two unsuccessful campaigns for geographic representation in 1985 and 1988.

Linda CurtisLinda CurtisThe petition drive is being organized by Linda Curtis of ChangeAustin.org. Curtis has previously led four successful petition drives to get measures before Austin voters. This petition campaign is not employing paid signature gatherers but instead has formed a broad coalition of community organizations that will actively circulate petitions. This initiative has been endorsed by a number of organizations including ChangeAustin.org, Del Valle Community Coalition, El Concilio, Gray Panthers of Austin, LULAC District 7, LULAC District 12, NAACP Austin, Texans for Accountable Government, Travis County Green Party, and University of Texas at Austin Student Government.The League of Women Voters Austin Area is meeting tonight to consider endorsing the initiative, said chapter president Stewart Snider. The Austin Neighborhoods Council may consider an endorsement at its October 26 meeting. (To see a complete list of organizations and individuals endorsing this initiative, click here.) The petition drive has a Facebook page and will soon publish petition forms online.

The petition drive, if successful, would force the city council to put its own proposed charter amendments on the May ballot as well. Article XI, Section 5 of the Texas Constitution states that “no city charter shall be altered, amended or repealed oftener than every two years.” To prepare for that possibility, the 2012 Charter Revision Committee has a January 31 deadline to submit its recommendations for council consideration. 

Charter committee backs seven changes

 
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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted October 4, 2011 6:54pm
Broad Community Interest Focusing on
How Mayor and Council Members Elected


Community Coalition, Austin Neighborhoods Council
and Charter Revision Committee All Working on Issues


by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

There's a showdown coming in a Austin City Council meeting scheduled for Thursday and a special-called council meeting on Friday.

The result will decide whether the next election for a mayor and three council members will be held in May or November 2012. Both options are on the table as the sole items posted for action in the Friday meeting scheduled to begin at 1:30pm.

Council proponents of the May 2012 election were ready to vote on second reading at today’s work session and third and final reading at Thursday’s regular meeting.

But discussion today reminded council members that the rules they adopted March 2 preclude taking action during a work session. That triggered the posting of a special-called meeting on Friday.

Assuming none of the four council members who previously voted for a May 12 council election changes their position (Sheryl Cole, Laura Morrison, Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo), the Friday meeting will give final approval for that date.

An item on Thursday’s council agenda would authorize $500,464 for Travis County to purchase electronic voting machines to support the May election.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell asked County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and City Clerk Shirley Gentry to provide the council with the total estimated cost to be incurred in holding a May 2012 election. He noted that whatever that cost is, it will be in addition to the cost of a November 2012 election that is likely to be held to vote on other matters.

While the next election for a mayor and three council members may be seven months away, a host of factors affecting the outcome of that election are very much in play, including a possible petition drive for a charter amendment to change the way council members are elected. 

Petition could force May charter election

 
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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Tuesday, September 20, 2011 10:00 am
Council Members Don’t Punch the Clock
But Their Calendars Tell Citizens a Lot

Or Not, in the Case of Council Member
Martinez, Who Redacts Hundreds of Entries

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

The 2011 Austin City Council: (L-R) Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Laura Morrison, Chris Riley, Bill Spelman, Mike Martinez, Sheryl Cole, Kathie Tovo The 2011 Austin City Council: (L-R) Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Laura Morrison, Chris Riley, Bill Spelman, Mike Martinez, Sheryl Cole, Kathie Tovo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elected officials do a variety of things to carry out their official duties but more than anything else they go to meetings—lots and lots of meetings.

They attend City Council meetings. City committee meetings. Meetings with city staff. Meetings with lobbyists. Meetings with citizens. Meetings with journalists. Meetings of other government agencies where individual council members represent the City of Austin, like Capital Metro, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Clean Air Coalition, and Capital Area Council of Governments.

The mayor and all Austin City Council members except Kathie Tovo, who took office in late June, have also been involved in a number of meetings critical to their political futures, dealing with the Travis County Attorney David Escamilla’s ongoing investigation of possible open meetings violations.

These and other events are self-reported in the official calendars maintained by their council offices and, as such, are public records.

When The Austin Bulldog broke the January 25 story about Austin City Council members possibly violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, that investigative report was based, in part, on the calendars published on the city website by four council members.

Those calendars documented the fact that the mayor and each council member participated in hundreds of private meetings in calendar year 2010 to deliberate city business. The calendars showed that that a regularly scheduled series of meetings were held with each other in days preceding posted council meetings.

Today, only two council members publish their official calendars online: Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman. Council Member Randi Shade was defeated in the June 18 runoff election by Kathie Tovo. Council Member Chris Riley—who participated in 256 private meetings with other council members in 2010, as The Austin Bulldog reported January 30—no longer updates his calendar online.

There is no legal requirement for elected officials to publish their calendars online. Doing so provides a high degree of transparency and accountability.

What’s in the calendars?

 
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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Tuesday, September 13, 2011 3:31pm
Employee E-Communication Policy Drafts
Show Each Revision Weakened Rules

Policy That Was Near Fully Compliant
on First Draft Crippled by Changes

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

A policy to ensure the City of Austin’s 12,000 employees comply with state law for retention of public records went from being a fully compliant initial proposal to an implemented policy that falls woefully short of compliance, say experts in the state's open government laws.

Marc OttMarc OttThe Austin Bulldog reported August 10 on the new policy established by Austin City Manager Marc Ott to guide city employees in how to handle electronic communications about city business. The policy states if circumstances require communicating about city business on a personal communication device or account, that correspondence should be forwarded to a city account.

Flaws in the policy include not stating that the correspondence should be forwarded promptly and leaving it to the discretion of each employee to decide whether the correspondence needs to be forwarded for retention. The policy lacks any means of preventing unlawful deletion of public records or auditing compliance.

Through an open records request The Austin Bulldog obtained two draft versions of the Administrative Bulletin that was ultimately issued August 4 by the city manager. The drafts, dated June 1 and June 15, when compared to each other and the bulletin issued, show how the proposed policy was gutted.

Four experts in the state’s open government laws who are volunteer hotline attorneys with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas reviewed the two drafts and the Administrative Bulletin provided by The Austin Bulldog.

“This is a drastic watering down of a policy that was originally intended to comply with the law and provide transparency in government,” said Joel White of the Austin law firm Joel R. White and Associates. He is a past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and has represented a wide range of media clients for more than two decades.

Thomas GregorThomas GregorThomas Gregor of the Houston law firm of Ogden, Gibson, Broocks, Longoria and Hall LLP, said in an e-mail, “As originally drafted, the policy better adheres to the tenets and the spirit of open government. Unfortunately, the policy that was ultimately issued was diminished to the point that, while paying lip service to open government, does not ensure or verify the retention of any public information that is generated on a personal device.

“The end result is that there remains a significant gap in the City’s compliance with the open government laws,” Gregor said.

Joe LarsenJoe LarsenJoe Larsen, special counsel to the Houston-based international law firm of Sedgwick, Detert, Moran and Arnold LLP, said in an e-mail, “I think the policy has been significantly weakened by giving department directors complete latitude to determine how the policy is communicated and not requiring documentation that each employee has received and has access to the information in the bulletin. This will have two likely results:

“First, instead of a formal meeting where the importance of the policy is explained and underscored, any manner of delivery is envisioned. Without a formal setting, the importance of the policy will not be conveyed.

“Second, without a roster or verification, there will be no incentive to insure that the policy is timely communicated and no way of verifying if it has. An employee is very likely to state that he/she was unaware of the policy.

“It is this very issue—claims of lack of knowledge of proper policy—that led to the implementation of required training for public information officers of governmental bodies on the Public Information Act. These officers must have a certificate indicating that they took the required training.

“By requiring employees to forward their administrative value communications to a City account, the City has effectively made each employee the public information officer for his/her personal communication device accounts, and the communication of this policy should also be in a formal setting and it should be documented.”

Strong policy draft weakened by changes
 
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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Thursday, September 1, 2011 4:15pm
Updated 9:52pm September 1, 2011
Updated 10:55am September 2, 2011, to link Plaintiff's First Supplemental Petition

The Austin Bulldog Files Second Lawsuit
Against City of Austin for Withholding Records

City Not Responsive to Open Records Request
Concerning Water Treatment Plant Construction

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today The Austin Bulldog filed its second lawsuit against the City of Austin in state district court for failure to promptly respond to The Austin Bulldog’s request filed under the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA), Chapter 552 of the Government Code.

The first lawsuit filed March 1, 2011, addressed similar issues. The Austin Bulldog today also filed a supplement to that lawsuit to address unresolved issues still pending and add related issues (more about that later).

The new lawsuit, The Austin Bulldog v. City of Austin, pertains to The Austin Bulldog’s open records request filed July 27 for copies of bids, contracts, scoring evaluations, correspondence, and invoices involving MWH Constructors, the firm hired by the city to oversee construction of Water Treatment Plant 4. Electronic copies of the records (pdf format) were requested on a computer disk.

Thirty-five days have elapsed since this request was filed and the city has provided none of the 4,700 pages of documents it estimated were responsive to this request.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue a writ of mandamus requiring the City of Austin to “promptly” provide copies of the requested records to The Austin Bulldog pursuant to the terms of the Texas Public Information Act. (A writ of mandamus is a judicial order directing a government official to perform a duty that is not subject to the official’s discretion.) The lawsuit also seeks reasonable and necessary attorney fees and cost to plaintiff.

“After many months of being under scrutiny over transparency issues and after a couple of weak attempts to deal with these issues, the Austin City government still has a fundamental problem: Austin officials have a bad attitude about letting the public see what they are doing,” said Bill Aleshire of Riggs Aleshire and Ray PC, who represents The Austin Bulldog.

Water Treatment Plant records withheld

 
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(4 votes, average 4.75 out of 5)
Posted Wednesday, August 24, 2011 4:15pm
Coalition Nearing Petition Launch
for Grass-roots Council District Plan

Council-Appointed Charter Revision
Committee’s Plan Due January 31

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

A petition drive to trigger a City Charter election for council districts will soon be launched by a growing coalition of individuals and organizations that want to promote their own grass-roots plan instead of backing whatever the City Council may put on the ballot.

Austinites for Geographic Representation voted unanimously Monday night to support a plan that would allow election of 10 council members from geographic districts. Only the mayor would continue to be elected at-large if the plan this group advocates gains voter approval.

Meanwhile the city council has initiated a process to formulate its own plan for some form of geographic representation in council elections.

The City Council passed a resolution August 4 that established a 2012 Charter Revision Committee of 15 members to be appointed by August 25. The mayor will appoint three members and each council member will appoint two members.

The resolution directs the Committee to consider the proposed maps that were presented to the council June 9 and meet at least once to consider maps submitted by the public and at least once to discuss its recommendations to the council. The Committee is also directed to seek public input.

Lee LeffingwellLee LeffingwellMayor Lee Leffingwell has long advocated a new system in which six council members would be elected from districts, and two council members and the mayor would be elected at-large. The council resolution, however, gives the Committee leeway to recommend a map that includes any combination of at-large and geographic representation. The Committee will dissolve after submitting its recommendations due by January 31.

If the petition drive for a City Charter amendment succeeds in garnering the signatures from at least 20,000 of the city’s qualified voters, as required by Local Government Code Section 9.004(a), the plan backed by Austinites for Geographic Representation and the city council’s plan may wind up on the same ballot for voters to decide.

Any election is not likely to occur before November 2012, due to the changes mandated by Senate Bill 100 that preclude holding a city council election in May.

SB 100 authorizes the City of Austin to move its next election to November 6, 2012, and adjust the terms of office to conform to the new election date. Further, SB 100 allows the City of Austin to opt for election of all council members at the same election, superseding City Charter requirements for council elections to be conducted in May and terms to be staggered.

Citizen plan minimizes politics

 
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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Wednesday, August 17, 2011 10:15am
Council Member Martinez Reports
Big Gains in Financial Assets

May Have Failed to Report Major
Investments in Last Annual Report

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Mike MartinezMike MartinezThe most significant changes reflected in the latest mid-year Statements of Financial Information submitted by Austin City Council members appeared in the statement submitted by Council Member Mike Martinez. He listed the names of 49 entities in which he and his wife, Lara Wendler, held, owned, acquired, or sold stock, or any other equity ownership having a value of $5,000 or more.

These holdings appear to represent an investment of at least $245,000, if each of the 49 stocks were valued at the minimum $5,000. These stocks cover a wide range of investment funds. None involve local companies. 

Martinez did not report these investments in his last annual report.

Seeking clarification, The Austin Bulldog e-mailed Martinez August 8 to ask if he owned these stocks during 2010—and failed to report them in his last annual report—or acquired them since January 1.

Martinez replied August 10: “After consulting with counsel, my wife and I have expanded the mid-year PFS (personal financial statement) to provide more information. The mid-year PFS accurately reflects our current situation.”

Martinez did not respond to a follow-up query to again ask if he had owned those investments last year and failed to report them.

Council Member Mike Martinez’ house at 2314 E. 11th St.Council Member Mike Martinez’ house at 2314 E. 11th St.Martinez currently has a new home under construction at 2314 E. 11th St., in Central East Austin near Boggy Creek Park. The 11,641-square-foot lot was purchased October 29, according to the Warranty Deed, and the building permit was issued May 31. The three-story, single-family residence being built by Olson Defendorf Custom Homes has 5,289 square feet, with 4.5 bathrooms and two garages, according to building permits downloaded from the city’s website.

Martinez’ financial statement indicates that he paid off three loans and took out three new loans. He also joined the board of directors of three organizations that benefit youth and social justice: Police Activity League, Community Shares of Texas, and Christopher Guild.

Other financial changes

 
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(1 vote, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Wednesday, August 10, 2011 7:04pm
City Manager Establishes Policy for
Employees’ Electronic Communications


Open Government Legal Experts Say Policy
Is Seriously Flawed, But It’s an Important Start

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog

Marc OttMarc OttCity Manager Marc Ott approved a policy August 4 that establishes city accounts as the primary means for the city’s 12,000 employees to electronically communicate about city business. The policy was transmitted to employees through an Administrative Bulletin drafted by the Human Resources Department.

The City Council ordered the city manager to devise a policy for employees’ electronic communications in a resolution unanimously adopted April 7. (See The Austin Bulldog’s April 15 report.) The resolution also directed the City Clerk to devise a policy for board and commission members’ electronic communications. (More about that later.)

If circumstances require communicating about city business on a personal communication device or account, that correspondence should be forwarded to a city account, the policy states.

However, the policy grants employees permission not to forward communications if they personally determine that “there is no administrative value in retaining the communication.” This determination is supposed to be made by employees after consulting the “applicable records retention schedule.”

The “Administrative Value retention period” is defined in the Bulletin as “generally associated with routine or administrative business documents. The retention period is tied to the usefulness of the records for the conduct of current or future administrative business.”

The employee communication policy applies to, but is not limited to, e-mail messages, text messages, images, and attachments.

Joe LarsenJoe LarsenJoe Larsen, a volunteer hotline attorney with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas and last year’s recipient of the foundation’s prestigious James Madison Award, is an expert in the state’s open government laws. Larsen praised the city manager’s policy and pointed out some improvements that could be made.

“I’ve never seen any other city in Texas with a policy that would require a city employee to forward electronic communication from a personal account,” said Larsen, special counsel to the Houston-based international law firm of Sedgwick, Detert, Moran and Arnold LLP. “I would have to go on the record in saying I think it’s a good-faith effort to address a complicated problem.”

Is the City of Austin unique in adopting such a policy? The Austin Bulldog sought a comment from Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. The TML website states the organization has more than 1,100 member municipalities, including 34 with a population of 100,000 or more.

Sandlin replied via e-mail, stating, “I’m not going to comment on a specific member city issue.”

Sandlin has, however, previously commented for publication concerning the issue at hand. An e-mail attributed to Sandlin was quoted in a January 12 Texas Watchdog article. Sandlin’s e-mail acknowledged that “...public business e-mails on private accounts are indeed public information.”

Larsen and three other attorneys who are experts in the state’s open government laws say the city manager’s policy for employee communication is flawed and raises serious issues about whether the policy will bring the City of Austin into compliance with the Texas Public Information Act.

Flaws in Ott’s policy

 
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(3 votes, average 4.67 out of 5)
Posted Thursday, August 4, 2011 2:00pm
Maps Prove a Select Few Govern Austin

Forty Years of Election History
Expose Extent of Disparities

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

It should come as no surprise that the greatest political power is exercised by those whose wealth, influence, and avid participation enable them to move the levers of democracy in their favor.

Electee Residences Map 1971-2011 (Click to see live maps)Electee Residences Map 1971-2011 (Click to see live maps)The extent to which this is true in Austin is laid bare by maps constructed by The Austin Bulldog that pinpoint the residential location of every mayor and council member elected over the last four decades.

The unalterable fact that emerges is that large parts of Austin are not represented—or are grossly underrepresented—because of the at-large system of elections established by the Austin City Charter.

This is not a new revelation. Attempts to gain voter approval for some form of council districts that would provide for equitable geographic representation have been put on the ballot six times, beginning in 1973, and six times failed to win majority support.

The ship of democracy continues to sail in the direction ordered by the majority. Which is how democracy is supposed to work.

But at what cost to those who feel disenfranchised by Austin’s at-large election system? The at-large system effectively means that all citizens—all 800,000 of us—are represented by every member of the city council. This system fails to make any one council member responsible for our concerns, or those of our neighbors. When every council member is responsible to every citizen, by definition, no one council member is responsible to a particular citizen.

The Austin City Council and a growing coalition of citizens are separately working on two different plans to give voters another opportunity in 2012 to approve a City Charter change to require the majority of city council members to be elected from geographic districts.

Based on what’s been discussed so far, these two initiatives differ significantly regarding how many council districts would be proposed, what procedure would be used for drawing district lines, the length of council terms, and whether terms would be staggered.

Both initiatives are still in the formative stages.

The City Council is scheduled to approve a resolution today (Item 28 on the agenda) to establish a 2012 Charter Revision Committee composed of 15 members who shall be appointed no later than August 25. The committee’s recommendations for charter amendments, and a map that includes any combination of at-large and geographic representation, are due by January 31.

The city’s plan or the grass-roots plan, or both, could wind up on the ballot next year.

But it should be noted that this appears to be the first time that a broad coalition of community organizations have launched a serious effort to formulate a plan that is independent of whatever proposal the city council puts forward, according to those involved in previous election campaigns for council districts.

None of the six failed propositions got on the ballot through a grass-roots petition drive. In the past, voters have only been able to react to whatever plan the city proposed—and the reaction has always been unfavorable.

Why geographic representation?

 
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(3 votes, average 2.67 out of 5)
Posted Friday, July 22, 2011 10:00am
Austin City Council’s Pay Raises
Fly Under the Public Radar

County Commissioners Court Raises
Require Published Notice, Signed Approval

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog

The Austin City Council of 2006The Austin City Council of 2006The Austin City Charter (Article 1, Section 2) establishes the city council as the city’s policy making body. But when it comes to giving themselves a pay raise, the mayor and city council members are just part of the rank and file.

When city employees get a raise, so do council members—automatically, without any public disclosure required.

The mayor and council members have obtained three such raises in the last four years. While the cumulative amount of these recent raises has been relatively small, the process is far from transparent.

From 2000 to 2010, the mayor’s salary has increased 124 percent, council members’ 109 percent.

Adding to the lack of transparency, salaries for the mayor and council members are not posted anywhere on the city’s website, a fact confirmed by the city’s public information office. Council payroll documents for the past five years were obtained by The Austin Bulldog through submission of an open records request and payment of $127 in fees to retrieve and search boxes of older records. Because of the city’s inadequate initial response to the request, incomplete records, and the city’s changing methodology for documenting council pay changes, clarity was achieved only after submitting numerous follow-up e-mails to city officials to obtain answers.

The city’s current system of pay raises for the mayor and council members was established November 16, 2006, when the council led by Mayor Will Wynn voted unanimously to pass Ordinance 20061116-081. This ordinance grants future raises to the mayor and council members “...equal to the base percentage amount established for ‘meets expectations’ compensation adjustments for non-Civil Service employees.” (Only police and firefighters are civil service employees and their pay is determined by contracts. The rest of the city’s 12,000 workers are not civil service employees.)

Tom SmithTom SmithTom “Smitty” Smith is director of Public Citizen Texas, a nonprofit group that addresses a broad range of public policy issues, including what it calls "clean government” by working to hold public officials accountable.

“I think Austin City Council members should be well paid, comparable to the other 20 large metropolitan cities in the United States,” Smith says, “because it’s more than a full-time job.

“But council members pay raises should not be done through subterfuge,” Smith says.

Smith says the Texas Legislature is an example of more extreme subterfuge. When our low-paid lawmakers vote to raise judicial salaries they are actually voting to raise their own retirement pay, because their retirement pay is pegged to judicial salaries.

The preferred way to address salaries for council members, Smith says, is for the city auditor or some other disinterested official to establish a citizens committee removed from council influence that would study compensation issues and make recommendations for the council to adopt.

While the City of Austin’s methodology is opaque, this below-the-radar procedure is permitted by Local Government Code Section 141.004, which states, “The governing body of a home-rule municipality may set the amount of compensation for each officer of the municipality.”

County commissioners are much more closely regulated. In fact, Local Government Code Section 152.013 requires newspaper publication of a notice of any salaries, expenses, or allowances that are proposed to be increased for all elected county or precinct officers—including the amount of proposed increases—more than 10 days before the commissioners court meets for a budget hearing and adopts the budget. To view the ad published for the current fiscal year click here.

County commissioners must publicly vote on these proposed pay increases. Then, each member of the commissioners court must personally sign the order setting salaries for elected officials, including their own. To see the order for the current fiscal year click here.

Council raises 2000 to 2010

 

 
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(2 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Wednesday, July 13, 2011 4:30pm
City of Austin Dragging Its Feet on
Implementing Lawful E-mail Practices

City Employees, Board and Commission
Members Still Not Covered by City Policies

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Nobody knows how many e-mails that constitute public records are escaping collection and retention for public disclosure while the City of Austin delays implementing policies ordered by the city council in its April 7 resolution. (See The Austin Bulldog’s April 15 report.)

It’s possible that thousands of e-mails that are public records may have been exchanged without copies being retained as required by the Texas Public Information Act and the Local Government Records Act.

Today, more than three months after the council voted unanimously to pass the resolution, no policies have been enacted to require retention of e-mails about city business that the city’s 12,000 employees and 365 board and commission members send or receive on their personal e-mail accounts.

As a result, government in the shadows continues unabated.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireAttorney Bill Aleshire of the Austin law firm Riggs Aleshire and Ray PC, who is The Austin Bulldog’s attorney in its lawsuit concerning the city’s violations of the Texas Public Information Act, said of this lack of progress, “The first mistake the council made was being suckered by the city attorney into believing the council cannot make policy that applies to all city employees.

“The second mistake was not recognizing that any record made or received in the transaction of city business should have been included in the city’s record and be subject to disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act,” he said.

The lack of e-mail policies to address communication about city business on personal devices has persisted for many years—even for the mayor and council members. The council resolution established a new policy for the mayor and council members, and the handful of employees that the council directly hires: the city manager, city clerk, city auditor, chief judge of the municipal court, and municipal court clerk.

The city council resolution also tasked City Manager Marc Ott with developing a policy that applies to city employees, and City Clerk Shirley Gentry with developing a policy for members of sovereign boards and commissions. The council asked for progress reports within 30 days.

In response to three separate open records request for copies of the city manager and city clerk’s progress reports, and an interview, The Austin Bulldog obtained the following information:

City manager’s report
 
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(6 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Wednesday, July 6, 2011 7:03pm
Updated July 6, 2011 10pm
Updated July 7, 2011 at 11:05am to correct for Chris Riley
Updated 12 noon July 7, 2011 to correct for Randi Shade

E-mails Exchanged By Council Members Expose
Private Deliberations and Political Maneuvering

More than 2,400 Pages of 2009 E-mails
Published Here in a Searchable Format

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Randi ShadeRandi ShadeKathie TovoKathie TovoThe schisms within the Austin City Council that surfaced during the runoff election between incumbent Council Member Randi Shade and challenger Kathie Tovo were a revelation, as the other incumbents split evenly in lining up to support Shade or Tovo.

Such passionate and public election advocacy among sitting council members is rare, if not unprecedented. The election outcome created deep political wounds in need of healing, not only for personal relations among council members but also for making good public policy when the council’s summer hiatus is over in three weeks.

The thousands of e-mails written in 2010 and January 2011 obtained through open records requests and The Austin Bulldog’s lawsuit, published May 12, foreshadowed some of the differences that surfaced in this runoff election. But the e-mails exchanged by council members in 2009, published here, show the roots of dissent among council members goes back much further.

The latest batch of more than 2,400 e-mails obtained through an open records request raise new issues—not only for what these e-mails reveal, but also because of what was withheld.

Some of these records show council members communicated among themselves about city business in numbers equaling or exceeding a quorum, a possible violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Some of the council members also deliberated through their private e-mail accounts about a $250 million city project that was under consideration.

As for what was withheld, two (not four, as first reported) council members failed to provide copies of e-mails about city business conducted on their personal e-mail accounts during calendar year 2009: Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez. (Deleted Chris Riley and Randi Shade.)

To withhold private e-mails about city business flies in the face of at least four open records opinions issued by the Texas Attorney General, which state that e-mails about government business that were created or received on personal accounts are public records (OR2003-0951, OR2003-1890, OR2005-01126, OR2005-06753) and thus are subject to release under the Texas Public Information Act.

As reported March 2, The Austin Bulldog filed a lawsuit against the mayor, council members, and City of Austin because of the failure to release copies of personal e-mails about city business exchanged by the city council during calendar year 2010 and January 2011. As a result, the mayor and council members eventually relented and released at least some of those e-mails.

For e-mails sent or received in 2009, Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Laura Morrison, Chris Riley, and Randi Shade released personal e-mails about city business and Council Member Bill Spelman released city business e-mails from his University of Texas account. As in the earlier releases forced by the lawsuit, the city characterized these actions as being voluntary. (Update July 7, 2011: Click here to see the cover letter provided by the City of Austin that accompanied the 2009 e-mails released by the city.)

The bottom line is the other city council members continue to take the position that they need not turn over e-mails about city business conducted on personal accounts. This position is inconsistent with the e-mail policy the city council adopted in an April 7 resolution that applies going forward. (See The Austin Bulldog report of April 15.)

Personal politics trump public policy
 
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(3 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Friday, June 24, 2011 2:30pm
Taxpayers Footing Big Bills to Correct
City of Austin’s Open Government Issues

$200,000 Spent on Attorneys
So Far and No End in Sight

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog

The Austin City Council so far has authorized spending $399,000 to hire outside attorneys to provide advice to bring the city into compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act and to defend a lawsuit filed by The Austin Bulldog under the Texas Public Information Act.

More than half that amount has been spent already, most of it to deal with the ongoing investigation of possible criminal violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by Travis County District Attorney David Escamilla.

Section 551.143 of the Texas Open Meetings Act states that a member or group of members of a governmental body commits an offense if the member or group of members knowingly conspire to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations in violation of this chapter. An offense, if proven, is punishable by a fine of $100 to $500 and confinement in the county jail for one to six months, or both the fine and confinement.

David EscamillaDavid EscamillaThe Austin City Council’s possible violations of Section 551.143 were exposed by The Austin Bulldog’s investigative report published January 25. That same day The Austin Bulldog reported that Escamilla was investigating these matters. That investigation is still ongoing.

The city’s response to these reports was swift. On January 28, the city council hired three law firms and huddled with their lawyers for two and a half hours in a closed-door executive session.

The practice of scheduled private meetings was immediately stopped. The Austin City Council held its first public work session February 9.

The investigative report exposed the longstanding practice of the mayor and council members holding a flurry of routinely scheduled private meetings that for many years had been taking place a day or two before every council meeting. These private meetings denied public access to significant deliberations about city business that are required to be conducted in the sunshine of open meetings.

The Austin Bulldog reported February 7 that the City of Austin committed $159,000 to engage three law firms to provide legal advice related to Texas Open Meetings Act: James E. “Jim” Cousar of Thompson & Knight LLP, C. Robert “Bob” Heath of Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP, and Randy T. Leavitt of the Law Office of Randy T. Leavitt.

Since then, City Attorney Karen Kennard has issued amendments that allowed other lawyers and support personnel within the three law firms to assist, and increased the total authorized expenditures to $289,000 solely to address Texas Open Meetings Act issues.

Lawsuit expenses
 
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(6 votes, average 4.83 out of 5)
Posted Wednesday, June 22, 2011 12:59pm
Taxpayers Sue to Stop State Comptroller
From Paying Tax Funds to Formula One Promoters


Lawsuit Questions Whether Formula One
Qualifies for Subsidies Under State Law

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Three Austin taxpayers filed a lawsuit today to stop State Comptroller Susan Combs from paying state tax money to the promoters of Formula One racing in Austin.

The lawsuit filed in state district court may affect the Austin City Council's action scheduled for tomorrow to enact ordinances that would otherwise enable the comptroller to make the payments.

Race promoters have publicly stated that the comptroller’s payment must be made in July for the race to take place.

Combs jumped on the opportunity for the race before consulting with the City of Austin or Travis County. In fact, Combs issued a letter to Formula One World Championships Limited on May 10, 2010, to certify that, “With the understanding that the first Formula 1 United States Grand Prix will be held in Texas in 2012, full funding of the entire sanction (fee) for 2012 will be paid to Formula One World Championship Limited (FOWC) no later than July 31, 2011. In subsequent years, two through 10, of the race promotion contract, i.e., 2013 through 2021, we will be sending $25 million to FOWC by the end of July 31 of each year preceding the actual race event.”

As a result of the comptroller’s early commitment, and the extreme lateness in approaching the City of Austin to sign on as the sponsoring municipality, the city is under the gun to approve contracts and is scheduled to consider doing so at tomorrow’s council meeting. The economic study that projects tax revenue to be derived from the race was not delivered until late Monday.

Lawsuit seeks to halt payments

 
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(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Friday, June 10, 2011 1:54pm
‘Austin American-Statesman’ Cutting Staff Again

Voluntary Job Buyouts Offered to 167 Employees


by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog

The ever shrinking monopoly daily newspaper that serves Austin and Central Texas is once again reducing its workforce. While the final results won’t be final for a week, some 40 or more employees in the newsroom were among those who got early buyout offers and could be leaving.

This cutback comes more than two years after the Austin American-Statesman offered a voluntary retirement program to 130 employees in January 2009. At that time the Statesman employed 906 full-time and part-time workers. A dozen people in the editorial department took that offer—including Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Ben Sargent and journalists with up to 44 years of experience. That loss was sorely lamented by Editor Fred Zipp in a March 15, 2009 column, which indicated 71 people retired from the company.

This latest reduction in force would leave the paper with about 700 employees, a drawdown of about 22 percent since 2009, and a reduction of about five percent from the current workforce of 740.

Fred ZippFred ZippZipp told The Austin Bulldog that employees who got the offers had until 5pm today to apply and the company has a week to review the applications. The company has reserved the right to limit departures in areas thought to be critical, he said.

“It's not the huge talent exodus that I had feared,” Zipp said. “I hate to lose anybody and we are losing some good people here,” he added. “It’s regrettable but necessary as we find the right size while the business stabilizes.”

The latest announcement was buried in the bottom left corner of the June 2, 2011 business page.

Jane WilliamsJane WilliamsJane Williams—who took the job as Statesman publisher in January—said in that article the voluntary separation program offers up to a year’s severance pay for employees at or near retirement age. Williams said the Statesman is making the offers to reduce costs at a time revenues are drifting lower.

Employees may retire at age 55, Chief Financial Officer Eddie Burns told The Austin Bulldog. Burns predicted about 20 percent would take the offer, and said the results “are pretty close to that number, based on the feedback I'm getting.”

Burns said about 25 percent of the early buyout offers went to employees in the newsroom, which makes up about the same percentage of the newspaper’s workforce.

The early buyout offer is apparently being applied throughout the Cox-owned local newspapers, including the 10 community newspapers. Editor Ed Allen of the Westlake Picayune said he received the offer, too, but does not intend to take it.

Newspaper industry in distress
 
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(4 votes, average 5.00 out of 5)
Posted Thursday, June 2, 2011 12:21pm
Updated Friday, June 3, 2011, 2:30pm
Council Members Riley and Shade
May Have Violated Austin City Code


Sworn Financial Statements Give Public
Tools to Monitor Their Elected Officials


Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

City Council Members Chris Riley and Randi Shade may have violated the Austin City Code by not reporting the financial activity of their domestic partners.

Many financial statements filed by the mayor and other council members are incomplete or erroneous, and one annual statement is missing.

Perhaps a larger problem is that neither these elected officials (with some exceptions) nor the city staff is paying sufficient attention to ensure that these important statements are accurately prepared to fully comply with state law and the City Code. The penalties that apply to the more serious violations are not being enforced. And citizens are kept in the dark because few are aware these documents exist or where to find them.

These problems were discovered during The Austin Bulldog’s broader investigation aimed at bringing greater transparency to city government by giving citizens the tools to monitor the conduct of their elected officials.

Do Austin’s mayor and council members have conflicts of interest in the decisions they make? How would you ever know?

Aside from the fact that these officials are required to withdraw from even discussing something in which they have a substantial interest, the public is entitled to be informed of their financial interests so they can observe and monitor how these officials conduct themselves.

System lacks transparency

 
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(3 votes, average 4.67 out of 5)
Posted Tuesday May 17, 2011 4:49pm
Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan
Looks Back On 15 Years of Accomplishments


Preserve Still Short of Acreage But Provides
a Lasting Legacy for Future Generations

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2011

Balcones Canyonlands Preserve: 15th Anniverary Hat from 2011 Celebration, Commemorative Cup from 1996 CelebrationBalcones Canyonlands Preserve: 15th Anniverary Hat from 2011 Celebration, Commemorative Cup from 1996 CelebrationSpirits were high on May 2, 1996, when Nancy Kaufman, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, signed the permit at 10:24am, the stamp of approval obtained through the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP). The plan called for the creation of a preserve system (the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve or BCP) to protect endangered and at-risk species. The overcast morning cooled temperatures and saved a lot of sweat for those who attended the invitation-only celebration, including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, former U.S. Representative J.J. “Jake” Pickle, and other dignitaries.

Holding the permit aloft after signing it, Kaufman said, “It looks like it’s made out of paper but it’s really made out of blood, sweat and tears.”

That was not an exaggeration, considering the plan was eight years in the making. From 1988 through 1996, concerned citizens, business leaders, landowners, developers, environmental groups, scientists and the Fish and Wildlife Service collaborated to create a Habitat Conservation Plan that allowed the permit to be issued under the Endangered Species Act.

We were bussed in that morning amid tight security that blocked access by the protesters, who had massed outside the gate to Reicher Ranch on Ranch Road 620. Inside, we stood amid the junipers and watched turkey vultures coasting lazily on the currents overhead. Remarks were purposely kept short so that all in attendance would have time to sign the registry that would stand as testimony to this unique achievement, which Babbitt called, “the very first place in the United States we have produced an urban conservation plan.”

Kerry Tate, chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce said, “In developer’s terms, we could shout, ‘Done deal.’”

But Babbitt issued a warning: “I recognize this as the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. We’ve got a long way to go.”

The irony of this project being ramrodded by Babbitt, who said he was drawn to the challenge of working on the Endangered Species Act for President Bill Clinton, is that around here Babbitt wasn't exactly thought of as a friend of the environment. As I later wrote in the July 2002 edition of The Good Life magazine, in a story titled “The Life and Death of Barton Springs,” it took two federal lawsuits filed by the Save Our Springs Alliance to force Babbitt to finally declare the Barton Springs Salamander an endangered species in 1997.

But then, the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan was not simply about the environment. It gave landowners who wanted to develop or otherwise alter habitat for endangered species that’s outside the preserve boundaries an alternative to seeking an individual permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The FWS permitting process requires development of an individual habitat conservation plan tailored to the project and may require additional habitat to be set aside.

The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan offered landowners a faster process administered by Travis County in which they could buy participation certificates to allow development in habitat located outside the preserve.

On May 13, 2011, fifteen years after the BCCP permit was signed, there were no protesters at the gate and precious little cloud cover to ward off the heat, but the spirit of the event was again one of celebration.

Bad press, mea culpas

 
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