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 No-Bid Brackenridge Lease Approved

Two blocks of the 14.3-acre campus tract
leased to limited partnership that won’t profit

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
Part 8 in a Series
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Tuesday July 17. 2018 10:00am

The former University Medical Center at 601 E. 15th St.The former University Medical Center at 601 E. 15th St.When the Seton Family of Hospitals packed up and left the University Medical Center Brackenridge campus to move across 15th Street and open its new teaching hospital, it created a $30 million hemorrhage in Central Health’s annual revenue stream. That was the rent Seton had been paying to use the Brackenridge Hospital property owned by Central Health.

Now a new deal’s crimping but not closing that spurting financial artery. The University of Texas Board of Regents, the Travis County Commissioners Court, and Central Health have approved a lease that would provide a far smaller but much needed revenue addition to the agency that by law is solely responsible for funding indigent healthcare services in Travis County.

But a nagging question have been raised about Central Health tying up two blocks of valuable downtown real estate in a 99-year lease without soliciting competitive bids, as Travis County did before signing a lease for its property at 308 Guadalupe.

Steven LampSteven LampThe deal to lease Blocks 164 and 167, totaling about 2.5 acres of the 14.3-acre campus, will yield an upfront payment of $6.6 million and ongoing rent totaling $1,425,000 a year. Because the deal includes an annual rent increase of 2 percent, over the 99-year term of the lease, Central Health would garner income totaling about $450 million, Steven Lamp, Central Health’s vice president for real estate and facilities, told The Austin Bulldog.

That 2 percent annual boost in rent is a major factor. If the rent never increased, the 99-year lease would yield a total of slightly more than $141 million. “That’s the power of compounding,” Lamp said.

Still, $450 million is a far cry from the $2.97 billion that would have accrued were Central Health able to continue collecting $30 million per year over a period of 99 years. 

Blocks 164 and 167, shaded in blue, were leased to The 2033 LP. Though faint in this illustration, the Hospital Tower occupies a rectangular portion on the southern edge of Block 167.Blocks 164 and 167, shaded in blue, were leased to The 2033 LP. Though faint in this illustration, the Hospital Tower occupies a rectangular portion on the southern edge of Block 167.On Tuesday, July 10, both the Travis County Commissioners Court and Central Health’s Board of Managers each approved The 2033 LP lease.

The University of Texas Board of Regents had already approved in late February a sublease of the property from The 2033 LP. Specifically the improved land on Blocks 164 and 167 including, but not limited to, the site of the existing medical facility known as the Hospital Tower “for future programmed campus expansion and sublease of space to third parties.”

Then on July 11—the day after the Commissioners Court and Central Health approved The 2033 LP lease—the Board of Regents approved “expansion of the sublease of the proposed office building with related parking facilities on Block 164 including prepayment of a portion of the sublease.”

Questions about no-bid lease

Bill AleshireBill AleshireAttorney Bill Aleshire, a former Travis County judge, notified the Travis County Commissioners Court before it voted to approve The 2033 LP lease that competitive bids should have been sought.

He points to the fact that the downtown block at 308 Guadalupe, currently being used as a parking lot, is owned by Travis County. Before that block was leased for 99 years the county sought and obtained competitive bids. Travis County issued a Request for Development Proposals for the property September 14, 2016. Then on July 12, 2017, the county entered a 99-year ground lease with LO/PPC OP Guadalupe LLC. (Copies of these documents are linked below.)

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 Efficiency Audit Headed to Ballot

Citizens for Accountable Austin PAC claims
more than 21,000 signatures were validated

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Thursday July 12, 2018 4:07pm

Don Zimmerman (l) and Fred Lewis (r) watch as Council Member Ellen Troxclair signs petition next to Michael SearleDon Zimmerman (l) and Fred Lewis (r) watch as Council Member Ellen Troxclair signs petition next to Michael Searle

More than 33,000 signatures were filed with the City Clerk this morning by the political action committee that launched a petition drive in mid-May. Given that signatures were validated along the way, it’s highly likely this petition will force a November 6, 2018, election calling for an efficiency audit of the City of Austin.

Michael Searle, treasurer for the Citizens for Accountable Austin PAC, said that more than 21,000 of the petition signatures filed had been validated to be sure they were registered Austin voters, which exceeds the 20,000 minimum required.

Searle wasn’t able to say how much money was spent to gather the signatures, but he said, “Whatever we spent on this will be a bargain compared to what it’s going to save the city.”

He said if volunteers were included, “close to a hundred” people had been out gathering signatures. “It was a lot of people.” He said former city employees were calling and asking for copies of the petition so they could get their friends to sign.

Supporters on hand

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AG Sues to Remove Planning Commissioners

The City had it coming, did everything it could to
ignore friendly warnings and prosecutors' advice

Investigative report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Published Thursday July 5, 2018 8:45am

Ken PaxtonKen PaxtonLitigation filed in a Travis County district court by the Texas Attorney General seeks to remove eight named members of the Austin Planning Commission because these people allegedly hold office unlawfully.

The grounds cite Austin City Charter Article X Section 2, which requires the Planning Commission to “have a number of members equal to the number of members on the council plus two additional members, a minimum of two-thirds of the members who shall be lay members not directly or indirectly connected with real estate and land development.” (Emphasis added.) Meaning no more than four.

“It’s shameful that the City of Austin ignores the will of the voters and its own City Charter, allowing the Planning Commission to be controlled by eight real estate professionals who unlawfully hold seats on the (commission),” Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a July 3 press release. “We’re seeking the court’s removal of all commission members whose appointments violate the two-thirds ‘lay member’ requirement of the City Charter.”

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Attorneys Argue CodeNEXT Petition

CodeNEXT petition backers seek court order to force
City of Austin to put petition on November 6 ballot

By Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Monday July 2, 2018 7:51pm

Judge Orlinda NaranjoJudge Orlinda NaranjoWhether the City of Austin must put the CodeNEXT petition on the November 6 ballot is still up in the air. After a hearing in which attorneys argued for nearly three hours, District Judge Orlinda Naranjo said she would take the matter under advisement and issue a decision as soon as possible.

Before the hearing the parties filed a combined 148 pages of legal arguments as to why the CodeNEXT petition should or should not be placed on the November 6 ballot. (These documents are linked at the bottom of this story. Cause No. D-1-GN-18-002688)

Fred LewisFred LewisBill BunchBill BunchThe petitioners, represented by Austin attorneys Fred Lewis and Bill Bunch, emphasized that the City Charter gives the City Council only two options after the City Clerk validates an initiative petition: either adopt the petition as-is, or place it on the ballot.

Instead, at two separate meetings, the City Council voted 6-4 not to adopt the petition ordinance and, by the same margin, voted not to place the matter on the ballot. In doing so, the City Council relied upon legal advice from Bickerstaff Heath Acosta and Delgado. That advice cites cases in which courts have ruled that zoning may not be subjected to an initiative petition.

The City Council’s rejection prompted the filing of a request for a writ of mandamus. In effect, the writ seeks a court order to put CodeNEXT petition ordinance on the ballot. For the purposes of the writ of mandamus, in legal terms the petitioners are called “relators,” the people who are beneficially interested and on whose behalf the writ was sought.

Lewis and Bunch claimed the cases cited in Bickerstaff Health’s advice to the City are not applicable because they involved zoning for specific tracts of land and the CodeNEXT petition does not do that. Instead, if voters approve the petition ordinance, it would provide for adopting a general zoning ordinance involving a waiting period and subsequent voter approval before CodeNEXT or any other comprehensive land development code could go into effect.

Jane WebreJane WebreCasey DobsonCasey DobsonTo defend the City and convince the judge to reject the writ of mandamus, the City of Austin hired attorneys from the law firm Scott Douglass & McConnico LLP. The case was argued this morning solely by attorney and partner Jane Webre. Her fellow attorney and also a firm partner, Casey Dobson, sat at the same table but did not address the court.

Arguments for the relators

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Charter Revisions Flushed Down the Drain

Two least substantial items on council agenda, if put
on the ballot and passed would block for two years

by Ken Martin
© 2018 The Austin Bulldog
Posted Thursday June 28, 2018 10:23am

It looks like the most important work done by the 2018 Charter Review Commission is about to be flushed down the drain because of council inaction.

Buried among the 130 agenda items the council was scheduled to take up today is an inconspicuous Item 65 that if passed would direct the City Manager to develop ballot language for just two of the nine City Charter changes the Commission recommended. If approved by voters they would provide for two-year terms for Planning Commissioners and approve copy editing changes to the Charter language.

Once amended, the Charter can’t be changed again for two years. So if these two are put on the ballot and either one is approved it would block consideration of the other seven, more important recommendations.

The council meeting calendar gives the month of July off. The next council meeting is scheduled for August 9 and the next is set for August 23, after the August 20 deadline by which City Charter changes can be put on the November 6 ballot.

Leslie PoolLeslie PoolCouncil Member Leslie Pool, whose resolution to establish the Charter Review Commission was approved a year ago, said, “We still have time to consider other items on the list. But at this time the council lacks the bandwidth to assess the many and important items the Charter Review Commission brought to us.”

“You have to talk to other people but I’m pretty much at my limit,” she said.

Fred LewisFred LewisAttorney Fred Lewis was a member of the Charter Review Commission. He did much of the heavy lifting to vet Seattle’s system for providing public financing for council candidates. He drafted an Austin plan modeled on it and was instrumental in leading the way on other major recommendations.

“To have a charter election on just these two items is just horseshit,” he said. “If either one passes there won’t be another opportunity for two years.”

He said he would prefer that all the recommended charter changes be held for a November 2019 election when there will be constitutional amendments on the ballot as a result of the 2019 legislative session.

If these items are put on the ballot to change the charter, Lewis said, “That gives us a reason to vote against them.”

Major recommendations would be shut out

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 Petitioning ‘Problems’ a City Invention

Austin Library Department has no evidence of problems
with signature gathering until CodeNEXT crackdown

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2008
Posted Monday June 25, 2018 10:42am

Austin Central LibraryAustin Central LibraryThe City of Austin cannot document a single problem with petitioners gathering signatures around public libraries going all the way back to 2006.

That is, not until IndyAustin’s CodeNEXT petition drive was accelerating earlier this year.

What had never before been a problem suddenly became a problem.

It all started with a phone call on Thursday February 15, 2018. It was just a heads up call to notify the library administration that petitioners would be at some library locations on Saturday February 17.

The courtesy call was reported to higher ups and then orders rolled down to branch managers to prevent soliciting customers on library property.

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City launched a new software system for
responding to public information requests

Requestors can set up a customer account
and then track requests through city website

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Thursday June 14, 2018 8:12pm

The City has taken a major leap into what may be a far better way of responding to public information requests.

That’s great news for open government advocates, who take seriously the rights made clear in the opening words of the Texas Public Information Act:

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

Responding to public information requests is a gargantuan task for the City. The Austin Police Department alone fielded more than 25,000 requests in each of the last two fiscal years, according to information supplied by the city. Requests for all other departments averaged about 7,500 for each of the last two calendar years and more than 4,400 were received though June 1 of this year alone.

Those of us who are veterans of the struggle to get information from government agencies must for now be skeptical. Because this isn’t the first time the City has jumped into a major software contract in search of a solution for keeping up with a relentless torrent of public information requests, each and every one of which must be responded to within strict deadlines imposed by the Act.

Given the huge public appetite for responsive information, as revealed by the number of requests, I have in the last few days experimented with the new system. I find that it holds great promise but has some kinks to work out.

Nevertheless, the City was comfortable enough to unveil it for public use as-is.

System tested internally 

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 Petition Seeks Austin Efficiency Audit

People are already  hustling signatures to
get this measure on the November 6 ballot

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Friday May 25, 2018 10:52am

Michael SearleMichael SearleMichael Searle is a tall man who’s undertaken a tall order. Searle, who earlier this year resigned his position as aide to District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair, is heading up a new petition drive to gather the signatures of 20,000 registered voters—and get it done in 60-some days. 

Gathering the signatures of 20,000 registered voters requires a tremendous effort under any circumstances. But for the Austin Efficiency Audit Petition (copy linked below) to get on the November 6, 2018, ballot, it would have to be finished and submitted to the City Clerk by July 20, 2018.

That’s just 56 days from today. The petition drive started no more than 10 days ago. So to make that deadline the total time for gathering signatures would be only about a third of the six months allowed by law to complete the job of buttonholing passersby.

But with a fat bankroll that allowed him to hire paid petitioners instead of relying solely on volunteers, it’s possible this lightning fast effort will succeed. However, unless a website is set up to publish the petition online where people could download and sign it—a tactic that worked well in IndyAustin’s CodeNEXT petition drive—the process will have to rely entirely on face-to-face solicitation.

Citizens for Accountable Austin is a newly formed political action committee (PAC) that’s already put paid petitioners on the streets and in Austin’s public spaces to gather signatures.

In a May 24, 2018, phone interview, Searle told The Austin Bulldog that he is the treasurer for Citizens for Accountable Austin PAC but the City Clerk’s website for campaign treasurer appointments does not yet reflect that appointment.

The Texas Ethics Commission’s Instruction Guide for Appointment of a Campaign Treasurer by a Specific-Purpose Committee states, “A specific-purpose committee must file a campaign treasurer appointment before it can accept more than $500 in political contributions or make more than $500 in political expenditures.” The Guide states the treasurer appointment must be filed with the City Clerk if the committee supports or opposes a measure to be submitted at an election ordered by the city.

$100,000 raised to run the petition drive

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Story update: The Library Commission at its May 21, 2018, meeting received from City staff new draft Library Use Rules in the form of line-by-line changes to the current Library Use Rules that have been in effect since February 1, 2017. These draft rules (linked at the bottom of this story) would require petitioners to remain within designated areas, called Limited Public Forums, when gathering signatures at Austin library locations.

The Library Commission referred the new draft, as well as a competing draft prepared by the Commission Chair Chad Williams, that would leave the current rules unchanged, to a work group of commissioners. The work group will review these competing proposals and bring back a recommendation for consideration at the next meeting of the Library Commission. Whatever recommendation is ultimately approved by the Library Commission will go to the City Council for a final decision.

Will petitioners be corraled? Stay tuned for The Austin Bulldog’s coverage.


 Library Commission May Protect Petition Rights

But competing draft rules pushed by city staff would
restrict signature gathering to designated spaces

by Joey Gidseg
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Monday May 21, 2018 10:32am
Updated Thursday May 24, 2018 10:00am

The Library Commission will meet tonight at the Little Walnut Creek branch library to address rules for petitioning outside libraries.The Library Commission will meet tonight at the Little Walnut Creek branch library to address rules for petitioning outside libraries.The Austin Library Commission has for several months been grappling with what changes, if any, should be made to Library Rules that determine how signatures may be gathered outside Austin libraries.

The need for action was made clear in the final weeks of the petition drive conducted by IndyAustin for an ordinance requiring both a waiting period and voter approval before CodeNEXT or any other comprehensive land development revisions become effective.

At two different libraries on two different dates, IndyAustin volunteers gathering petition signatures near library entrances were issued criminal trespass warnings by police after being called by branch librarians who were following department orders.

At virtually the last minute the City dropped its objections to such efforts, rescinded the trespass warnings, and allowed IndyAustin to continue petitioning at libraries. Petitions were submitted to the City Clerk March 29, 2018, and were found sufficient to trigger an election.

The City Council has not yet voted to put the IndyAustin proposition on the November 6 ballot. The council on April 27, 2018, did vote 6-4 not to adopt the ordinance proposed in the CodeNEXT petition. 

Past councils have pretty much always resisted adopting a petition ordinance outright and been forced to put the measure on the ballot for voters to decide. Some initiatives have been so distasteful to elected officials that they put a competing measure on the same ballot. That happened in 1992 with the Save Our Springs Ordinance. It happened in 2012 with the petition to bring about 10 geographic council districts. In both cases the petition measures were approved by popular vote.

What rules will govern future petitioning?

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 Nine Charter Revisions Recommended

Public financing for mayor and council candidates,
an Independent Ethics Commission with teeth, more

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Tuesday May 8, 2018 10:05pm
Updated Wednesday May 9, 2018 9:30am (Charter Review Commission--not Charter Revision Commission)
Updated Monday May 14, 2018 9:22am to link the final verison of the 2018 Charter Review Commission Report to the City Council)
Updated Monday May 14, 2018 3:23pm to remove Terrell Blodgett as an endorser of the Democracy Dollars Vouchers plan)

Will the recommended City Charter changes be on the ballot you see November 6, 2018. That's up to the City Council.Will the recommended City Charter changes be on the ballot you see November 6, 2018. That's up to the City Council.The 2018 Charter Revision Review Commission was mighty happy to finish its seven months of work last night as it put the final touches on nine recommended Charter changes.

Jannette GoodallJannette GoodallCity Clerk Jannette Goodall, Assistant City Attorney Lynn Carter, and Assistant City Clerk Myrna Rios was relieved of the considerable workload they have carried through the process. Goodall even brought brownies for an informal celebration once the commission adjourned.

Matt HershMatt HershThe final report was adopted on a vote of 9-1 with Commission Matt Hersh opposed and Commissioner Joy Arthur absent.

Now the recommendations will go to the City Council for a decision about which of these, if any, you will see on the November 6, 2018, ballot.

Among the high-profile recommendations are public financing for mayoral and city council campaigns, establishment of an Independent Ethics Commission, hiring a Budget and Efficiency Officer to advise the City Council on finance and other issues, allowing the City Council to hire the City Attorney instead of the City Manager, and requiring public hearings and/or voter approval of major new revenue bonds and spending for electric and water projects. (A complete list and details are provided below.)

The Commission met 15 times starting November 6, 2017. Most of the heavy lifting in research and formulating recommendations was done in working groups that brought their work back to the Commission for discussion, refinement, and a vote. Two of the recommendations came from concerned citizens who brought ideas the Commission ultimately adopted.

The Commission scheduled five public hearings, two of which were cancelled due to lack of a quorum. The three hearings actually held—at Anderson High School, Dove Springs Recreation Center, and City Hall—drew a total of just three speakers.

Final report packed with details

The Commission’s 59 93-page 2018 Charter Review Commission Report to City Council, May 7, 2018, reflects the final few votes taken last night. Some of the recommendations were approved at earlier meetings.

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 Central Health Sponsorships Top $200,000

New spending list adds $88,000 to the total
having no connection to indigent healthcare

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Part 7 in a Series
Posted Tuesday May 2, 2018 4:27pm

“Lest We Forget” dollar bill art (courtesy of Dan Tague,“Lest We Forget” dollar bill art (courtesy of Dan Tague, turns out that Central Health, the agency whose sole mission is to provide indigent health care services in Travis County, vastly understated in its original response to a public information request the amount it has handed out to local organizations for luncheons, galas and other events.

The Austin Bulldog reported March 31, 2018, that more than $111,000 in property taxes collected by the agency had been spent in fewer than four years, much it for lavish galas at high-end hotels that included fine food, entertainment and awards presentations, events that have nothing to do with providing indigent healthcare services.

Since then Central Health provided a list of additional expenditures that totaled more than $88,000, bringing the grand total to more than $200,000. (The revised March 31 spreadsheet, with additional expenditures entered in red, is linked at the bottom of this article. It lists each donation, the organization that received it, the date, and a description of the event.) The cost of several other events that research shows Central Health funded have still not been provided by the agency.

The Austin Bulldog’s compilation of the total amount that Central Health gave to each of the 42 organizations from January 2013 to January 2018 is shown in the accompanying chart. (Central Health Funding Recipients.)

Spending squelched by lawsuit, new policy

Mike GeeslinMike GeeslinMike Geeslin, president and CEO of Central Health, declined to address these expenditures for the March 31 story, so he was not contacted to comment for this update.

The number of events sponsored and the individual amounts given by Central Health have been reduced since Geeslin took the helm May 15, 2017—mainly due to a new policy ordered by the Travis County Attorney’s Office.

The new policy limits such expenditures to a maximum of $500, specifies the types of education and outreach events that might justify funding, and requires Geeslin’s pre-approval.

The new policy was implemented soon after Central Health was sued October 18, 2017, over alleged misuse of funds. (Birch et al v. Travis County Healthcare District, dba Central Health, Cause No. D-1-GN-17-005824.) That lawsuit is currently in the discovery phase.

Complete details about the legal restrictions on use of Central Health funds were included in the March 31 story.

Showboating after big tax increase

On November 6, 2012, 54.67 percent of voters approved a big leap in the property tax rate that Central Health could levy, raising it from 7.89 cents per $100 property valuation to 12.9 cents. Suddenly the agency was awash in cash and Central Health strutted its newfound wealth by blowing $30,000 in 2013 to be the “presenting” (or major) sponsor of the Austin Business Journal’s Healthiest Employers Awards presentations.

This annual event recognizes employers that provide programs for the health of employees. By definition, then, these employers, however enlightened and commendable, are not providing indigent healthcare services.

Adding $10,000 sponsorships in 2014 and 2015 for the same event, plus additional expenditures with the publication for women’s events in 2015 and 2016, plus its Commercial Real Estates Awards in 2015, brought Central Health’s spending to more than $52,000, making the Austin Business Journal the chief beneficiary of Central Health’s largesse unrelated to indigent healthcare services.

Central Health boosts Chambers of Commerce

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 Library Director Misled Library Commission

‘Austin Monitor’ reported Roosevelt Weeks said
petitioning banned at ‘majority of urban public libraries’

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Thursday April 12, 2018 9:36pm

Austin Library Director Roosevelt WeeksAustin Library Director Roosevelt Weeks

It appears that Austin’s library director vastly overstated the numbers of urban libraries in this country that ban people from gathering petition signatures on library property.

The Austin Bulldog reported on discussions of library policies at two meetings of the Austin Library Commission. In both meetings Library Director Roosevelt Weeks argued against allowing petitioners to gather signatures outside the city’s public libraries.

In fact, police issued criminal trespass notices to two men, at different library locations on different dates, who were approaching library patrons for signatures on the CodeNEXT petition.

As reported by The Austin Bulldog March 10, 2018, the City later backed off on issuing trespass notices for such activity and agreed to rescind the notices already issued.

What next caught our eye was the March 28, 2018, report in the Austin Monitor by Jessi Devenyns, who covered the March 26 Library Commission meeting. The last sentence in her story, titled “Will petitions be allowed on library property?” states: “Weeks did note that the majority of urban public libraries in the United States do ban petitioning on library property.”

Following up on that statement, The Austin Bulldog filed a public information request April 1, 2018, for any study, report, or other source material that addresses or supports Weeks’ statement.

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 City Charter Changes: Who Cares?

Commission’s public hearings in northwest, southeast
and central Austin draw total of only three speakers

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Monday April 9, 2018 10:24am
Updated Wednesday May 9, 2018 9:40am (Charter Review Commission--not Charter Revision Commission)

The Asian American Resource Center, located at 8401 Cameron Road, is the site of the Charter Revision Commission’s final public hearing on proposed City Charter changes.The Asian American Resource Center, located at 8401 Cameron Road, is the site of the Charter Revision Commission’s final public hearing on proposed City Charter changes.If you were waiting for the last call to make comments about nine proposals to change the Austin City Charter, this is it: the Charter Revision Review Commission will hold its final public hearing April 12 at the Asian American Resource Center at 8401 Cameron Road in northeast Austin.

Many of the Commission’s recommendations being aired are of major importance. For example:

Should the City establish an Independent Ethics Commission that has the power to issue subpoenas, compel depositions and production of evidence, investigate and hold hearings, all under the oversight of a commission whose members are drawn from a pool of applicants and will be empowered to act without other oversight?

Should the City Council establish a Budget and Efficiency Officer with a small staff that would report directly to and advise the council on financial matters?

Should tax money be taken from the general fund to help fund election campaigns for mayoral and council candidates?

That's just a small taste of seven recommendations the Commission has already adopted to change the charter and it’s considering two other proposals.(More details about the recommendations are provided below.)

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 Dining and Shining on Taxpayer Dollars

Central Health spent more than $111,000 for sponsorships
that have nothing to do with providing indigent healthcare

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Part 6 in a Series
Posted Friday March 30, 2018 4:06pm
Updated Saturday March 31, 2018 10:08am to correct date errors

Rosie Mendoza (far left) arrives at the Chair's VIP reception for the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Celebrando Austin, September 13, 2014. Central Health paid $2,500 to sponsor the event. (Photo by Martin do Nascimento/Austin American-Statesman)Rosie Mendoza (far left) arrives at the Chair's VIP reception for the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Celebrando Austin, September 13, 2014. Central Health paid $2,500 to sponsor the event. (Photo by Martin do Nascimento/Austin American-Statesman)

Central Health, the Travis County agency that levies property taxes to pay for indigent healthcare, has spent more than $111,000 to sponsor various community events in fewer than four years. Much of that money put Central Health in the spotlight as it laid out cash for lavish galas at high-end hotels that included fine food, entertainment, and awards presentations.

As the above photo shows with Central Health Board of Managers member Rosie Mendoza, some events were attended by Central Health board members and executives. It is not clear whether these attendees paid to attend or their tickets were included in the sponsorships. The managers and Central Health Board of Managers who would know have declined to comment.

More than $50,000 of that $111,000-plus in spending went to sponsor multiple events for Austin’s Healthiest Employers Awards presentations, the Austin Business Journal’s annual event that recognizes employers who provide programs for the health of employees. Of that amount $30,000 was paid in 2013 to be the “presenting” (or major) sponsor for the event. (Other expenditures large and small will be detailed later in this story.)

These expenditures are totally unrelated to Central Health’s sole mission: to provide indigent healthcare services. In fact no other Travis County governmental agency is permitted to provide that care, nor is the State of Texas allowed to fund it. If Central Health abandons its fiduciary responsibility to the uninsured, underinsured and poor, then its stewardship to taxpayer dollars has run amok.

Mike GeeslinMike GeeslinMike Geeslin, president and CEO of Central Health since May 15, 2017, declined to address these expenditures in an interview with The Austin Bulldog Wednesday, October 28, 2018 Tuesday, March 27, 2018, or to answer numerous other prepared questions related to these expenditures—even though nearly $11,000 of the total was spent since he took this job May 15, 2017.

Geeslin would not even characterize these expenditures as inappropriate and would only comment on a new policy going forward (more about that later).

So what’s the big deal with a government agency being a sugar daddy for handouts to fund things so people can go have a good time, a good meal, and pat backs over the good works they’ve achieved?

It’s only chump change, right?

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 Panel: Forget Amazon, Invest Locally

North Carolina Business Council hosts panel that
advocates investing in growing local business

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Sunday March 18, 2018 3:41pm

Amazon founder Jeff BezosAmazon founder Jeff BezosPut their sentiments into song lyrics and the trio of panelists who discussed the impact of Amazon’s HQ2 would be singing in perfect harmony: “We don’t want it, you can have it, it’s not good for the Tar Heel State.”

Their focus was on what would befall the region should finalist Raleigh, North Carolina, be the pick of the 20-city litter to land the deal.

The nearly two-hour discussion March 14 took place at Elon University, a private institution with a student body of 6,000, both undergraduate and graduate, who study in a half-dozen fields including business, health sciences and law.

Since Austin is also among the 20 finalists trying to reel in what Amazon claims to be a $5 billion investment and 50,000 jobs averaging $100,000 in annual pay, The Austin Bulldog tuned in to cover the webcast.

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City Lifts Ban on Library Petitioning

Attorney Aleshire’s second appeal for relief March 8
gained reprieve for petitioners till library rules revised

by Ken Martin
©The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Saturday March 10, 2018, 1:02am

The good news received by attorney Bill Aleshire Friday evening came as a surprise—but a pleasant one.

Bill AleshireBill Aleshire“Well, I’ll be darned,” Aleshire wrote in an email to The Austin Bulldog last night. “I just received this from the City regarding petitioning at public libraries.”

Anne MorganAnne MorganWhat he received was a conciliatory email from City Attorney Anne Morgan sent at 5:45pm Friday that states until the Library Commission considers taking action to revise the Library Use Rules March 26, 2018 “…the Austin Public Library will allow petitioners to solicit signatures on library grounds in a manner that is not disruptive of library services to its customers, or to the library services provided by library staff.” (Copy of Morgan’s email linked below.)

Making the decision to back off all the more timely is the fact that IndyAustin petitioners were already scheduled to petition at Austin Public Libraries today, Saturday, March 10.

Second trespass notice issued

Morgan’s message came a day after Aleshire on Thursday, March 8, sent a letter via email to City Manager Spencer Cronk, Library Director Roosevelt Weeks, and Morgan to request a hearing for his client, Lucas Burdick.

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 Big Charter Changes Up for Scrutiny

Charter Revision Review Commission schedules public hearings
to gather citizen input before finalizing recommendations

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Thursday March 8, 2018 7:59pm
Updated Wednesday May 9, 2018 9:45am (Charter Review Commission--not Charter Revision Commission)

We the citizens of Austin, in reverance to the dignity and enrichment of all people, do ordain and establish this Charter to assure economic, environmental, and cultural prosperity throughout our community.

—Preamble to the Austin City Charter

The Austin City Charter is a fundamentally important document that bestows the “powers, privileges, rights, duties, and immunities” that form the foundation and structure for our municipal government.

Such is the Charter’s importance and the need to maintain stability that it may only be amended every two years and then only by the affirmative approval of each proposition offered at the polls.

From time to time the City Council appoints a Charter Revision Review Commission and charges it with identifying potentially useful changes, vetting the resulting proposed changes with the public, and recommending to the council certain propositions to be placed on the ballot.

Propositions may also be put on the ballot via initiative petitions that contain a sufficient number of signatures of the city's registered voters.

The City Council may on its own authority place Charter amendments on the ballot, as it did in 2014 by offering an 8-2-1 alternative to the 10-1 council structure that got on the ballot through initiative.

The 2018 Charter Revision Review Commission was created last June and has met a dozen times, beginning on November 6, 2017. Now it has reached agreement on numerous propositions that it will offer for public input, and then decide what to recommend the City Council put before voters in the November 6, 2018, election.

The Commission last met March 5 and heard pitches for two additional Charter changes—both of which drew heated debate. This article first will cover these two new proposals and then summarize the proposals already approved by the Commission.

Planning Commission appointments

Fred LewisFred LewisThe first hot-button issue addressed at the March 5 meeting was a staff recommendation on Charter provisions related to terms and appointments of Planning Commission members. Attorney Fred Lewis had studied the issue beforehand and was so adamantly opposed to the recommendation that he immediately moved to table it. (Staff Recommendation linked below.)

Lewis said this was an effort by City staff to “gut the developer prohibition” in the Charter. He was referring to Article X Section 2, which states:

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 IndyAustin Nears Petition Goal

Plans to continue petitioning at city library
facilities despite having been barred before.

by Joey Gidseg
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Tuesday March 6, 2018 1:42pm

Bill Aleshire provides guidance to IndyAustin membersBill Aleshire provides guidance to IndyAustin members

The Library Commission meeting of February 26 left petitioners with unanswered questions about why City libraries cracked down on petitioners who were gathering signatures on library properties,

But petitioners intend to continue doing so long enough to complete IndyAustin’s CodeNEXT petition drive and submit petitions to the City Clerk by the end of the this month. Detailed written instructions are being given to volunteers on how to conduct themselves when petitioning anywhere but particularly at today’s polling locations and at libraries. (Linked below.)

Instructions cover the do’s and don’ts, including where to stand, to “Be polite at all times,” and what to do if asked to leave: ask for the reason, ask what rule is cited, and if possible get pictures.

IndyAustin members gathered last night at Austin Energy for an update and get some answers from attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, who is representing the group pro bono in urging the City to back off its stance.

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Library Commission Debates Petitioning Rights

Petitioners appeal for access to library properties,
library director and attorney adamantly opposed

By Joey Gidseg
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Friday March 2, 2018 2:06pm
Corrected Saturday March 3, 2018 12:20pm re: branch library where Debbie Russell was petitioning

Scott RoyderScott RoyderOn February 17, IndyAustin volunteer Scott Royder received a “trespass notice” from the Austin Police Department, for refusing a library employee’s request to leave library property where he had been gathering signatures for a petition to bring CodeNEXT to a public vote.

The Austin Bulldog’s coverage of that incident triggered a discussion of the Library Use Rules at the February 26, 2018, meeting of the City’s Library Commission at the Pleasant Hill Branch. The discussion addressed whether citizens can distribute materials, including petitions for signatures, on Austin Public Library property.

Several people spoke during citizens communication, including IndyAustin volunteers who shared their experiences and concerns about being asked to leave multiple branch libraries where they were petitioning the same day as Royder.

Petitioners speak their minds

Debbie RussellDebbie RussellDebbie Russell had petitioned outside of the Hampton Branch at Oak Hill [not the Howson Branch as originally published] from 2:30pm to 4:15pm. She said that “an embarrassed and nervous staff member” had told her that she “wasn’t supposed to be there,” but that she had declined to leave.

Russell said she told the staffer she would take her chances with the police if they were called. None arrived during the additional hour Russell spent petitioning.

“I wasn’t harassing anybody. I wasn’t blocking the sidewalk. I was standing on the grass part of the area, about 100 feet from the entrance, and no one indicated they were annoyed with me.”

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 Amazon Bid Made Without Council Okay

Claim city’s contract with Chamber permits
bid on City’s behalf is questionable

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Tuesday February 27, 2018 7:27pm

Amazon founder Jeff BezosAmazon founder Jeff BezosAll that’s known publicly is that Austin’s proposal was good enough to keep it in the running to be home to a second headquarters of the company founded by Jeff Bezos, now reportedly the Richest Man in the World.

Its hardly news that Austin is one of the finalists among 20 U.S. and Canadian cities whose proposals have earned a shot at attracting what Amazon calls its HQ2—and with it up to 50,000 high-paying jobs and $5 billion in construction expenditures.

The Request for Proposals the company issued last September nevertheless indicates the Richest Man in the World is looking for a long list of incentives before deciding where to invest that fortune.

Now it has come to light that the proposal designed to harpoon this Moby Dick of an economic development opportunity was put together—apparently with the City’s tacit approval—by the Greater Austin Economic Development Corporation. That’s an entity within the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce that works on the Opportunity Austin program. The City of Austin has been the major funder of Opportunity Austin since 2005.

The Austin Bulldog’s investigation indicates that while the mayor and some City Council members were aware the Chamber was heading up this effort, the City Council never discussed authorizing that action, not in a public meeting and not in executive session.

Did the City delegate authority for Amazon bid?

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