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 Tax Dollars for Council Campaigns?

Charter Revision Review Commission considering
public financing to boost voter participation
and reduce advantages of personal wealth

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2018
Posted Wednesday January 10, 2018 3:41pm
Correction posted Thursday January 11, 2018 12:47pm (re: Ryan's role in drafting the Seattle measure)
Updated Wednesday May 9, 2018 9:55am (Charter Review Commission--not Charter Revision Commission)

Wayne Barnett and Paul Ryan briefed the 2018 Charter Review Commission January 8, 2018Wayne Barnett and Paul Ryan briefed the 2018 Charter Review Commission January 8, 2018The 2018 Charter Revision Review Commission on Monday evening heard a briefing on a preliminary report prepared by its Campaign Finance and Ethics Work Group. The proposal would utilize property taxes from the City’s general fund to partially finance the election campaigns of mayor and council candidates.

To benefit candidates would have to accept lower contribution limits as well as limits on self-funding and total expenditures. The proposed system would replace the current policy of disbursing funds to candidates who sign the campaign pledge and make it into a runoff.

The proposal also includes establishing a nonpartisan Ethics Commission with enforcement powers to include the ability to issue subpoenas, audit candidate records, and fine offenders. It would be independent of the Council and City Manager, report to a citizen board, and be equipped with expert staff and adequate resources.

The plan unanimously approved by the four-member group requires the Commission’s approval and public hearings before it could be recommended to the City Council for placement on the November ballot.

If placed on the November 2018 ballot and approved by voters the new system would take effect in the 2020 City Council elections.

Public financing would boost democracy

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Two Days Left to Triple Your Impact

Contribute now to hold elected offcials and
government agencies accountable all year

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Posted 1:45pm Friday December 29, 2017

If you were waiting till the last minute to get a tax deduction for your charitable contribution while boosting our nonprofit investigative reporting in the public interest, that time is now.

Due to the generous support of three national foundations and the local Kirk Mitchell Public Interest Investigative Journalism Fund, your tax-deductible contribution to The Austin Bulldog will be matched twice over. But only if contributions are made online no later than December 31st. Contributions made by check must be dated no later than that date. (Mail checks to PO Box 4400 Austin TX 78765.)

Please help us build capacity to publish deep-dive background investigations of mayoral and City Council candidates who will be running for election in 2018. We scour every public record, analyze every one of these documents, and publish reports that cut through the fog of what officeseekers say. We expose their personal history, personal and campaign finances, personal voting records—and much more.

Please help give me the resources to use my 36 years of experience to build a team that can cover the campaigns thoroughly throughout the long season that’s already begun and stay on it right through the November elections and December runoffs.

I’m asking for your support. Together we have an opportunity to build the Bulldog team and make a bigger impact on local journalism.

To make your tax-eductible donation now click this button:
 

Your investment now will pay dividends all throughout 2018.

I deeply appreciate your support.
 
Ken MartinKen Martin

Founder, editor and publish

 

 
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 Push for CodeNEXT Election May 5

Petitioners aim to file with City Clerk
by mid-January to trigger public vote

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Posted 12:05pm Tuesday December 26, 2017
Corrected 11:15am Wednesday December 27, 2017 (to attribute statement to Michael Lavigne that was misattrubted to Chris Allen)

The Austin Bulldog reported IndyAustin’s launch of three petition drives September 12. Now organizers say they’re on track to file petitions with the Austin City Clerk in a few weeks to force an election on one of them: CodeNEXT, a complete overhaul of Austin’s Land Development Code that’s costing the City about $8.5 million.

The other two petitions, to restore the power of referendum and provide a new billboard ordinance, will be timed for the November 2018 election.

If the petition is successful in bringing about an election and voters approve its language, it would require both a waiting period and voter approval before CodeNEXT or any subsequent comprehensive revisions of the City’s land development laws become legally effective.

“This waiting period is to ensure voters can learn about the proposed comprehensive revisions and elect council members with sufficient time to amend or reject the prior council’s adopted comprehensive revisions before these laws go into effect,” the petition states.

Would require unprecedented level of public acceptance

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Without you, stories go untold

Please invest in quality journalism today

by Ken Martin
Posted Tuesday November 28, 2017 9:46am

It’s #GivingTuesday—or as we call it around here, #GivingNewsDay—a special day to celebrate and champion The Austin Bulldog’s investigative reporting in the public interest.

Your donation today will accelerate our ongoing investigation of how your property taxes, that are supposed to be used only for indigent healthcare services, are also being used for other purposes. Your donation will help us keep fighting for open government. Your donation will provide funding for deep-dive background investigations of candidates running for local offices in 2018.

These are hugely important projects that only The Austin Bulldog delivers—completely original, totally independent, leading-edge investigative reporting. Please donate now.

Since founding this independent nonprofit news organization that’s been serving Austin for more than seven years, I have always put the news-gathering mission first. Frankly, I’ve paid too little attention to gathering financial support. But now I’m taking this #GivingNewsDay opportunity to ask for your help so the Bulldog can be of even greater service to the community.

Your tax-deductible contribution will go three times as far, thanks to the generous backing of News Match 2017 program for nonprofit newsrooms that will double individual contributions of up to $1,000. Plus, the local Kirk Mitchell Public Interest Investigative Journalism Fund will match contributions of any amount.

Please help us reach today’s goal of raising $5,000. Combined with these matches, that $5,000 will generate $15,000 in support.

To make your tax-deductible donation now, click here.

I deeply appreciate your support,


Ken MartinKen MartinFounder, editor and publisher

 

 
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 Lawsuit Challenges Central Health Spending

Plaintiffs argue it is not legal to give $35 million
a year to the UT Austin Dell Medical School

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Part 4 in a Series
Posted Wednesday October 18, 2017 9:58am
Updated Wednesday October 18, 2017 10:44am (to add Central Health’s Statement)
Updated Wednesday October 18, 2017 3:04pm to add press conference photo

Attorney Fred Lewis, backed by a dozen supporters, faces cameras and reporters for an October 18 press conference about the lawsuit to challenge Central Health’s spending.Attorney Fred Lewis, backed by a dozen supporters, faces cameras and reporters for an October 18 press conference about the lawsuit to challenge Central Health’s spending.Three Travis County taxpayers filed a lawsuit this morning against the Travis County Healthcare District, dba Central Heath, and its president and CEO Mike Geeslin, complaining that property tax funds are being used for purposes not authorized by the Texas Constitution and state statutes.

If successful the litigation’s biggest impact would be to force Central Health, through its nonprofit Community Care Collaborative, to stop giving $35 million a year to the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School. That would make vastly more funds available to provide direct healthcare services available for indigent, uninsured, and underinsured residents of Travis County.

Under an Affiliation Agreement, that yearly allocation has already yielded $105 million for the medical school through FY 2017 and the $35 million annual payments are scheduled continue in perpetuity. Stopping that flow of money would undermine the financial foundation upon which the medical school was built. In June 2012 the UT Board of Regents committed $25 million a year to operate the medical school and $5 million a year for eight years to equip laboratories, but made those funds contingent upon the community providing $35 million a year. Otherwise there would be no medical school.

The lawsuit petition tackles that premise head on: “The issue in this case is not whether it would be cool or wonderful to have a medical school in Austin (or whether defendants consider other goals cool or wonderful). This suit is necessary because defendants are not complying with Texas law and are expending funds on items unrelated to its statutory authorization of providing health care to our poor and vulnerable residents.”

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 Public Information Now Harder to Get

Despite lengthy negotiations and compromise
most open government legislation was
blocked in 2017 Texas legislative session

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Posted Monday October 16, 2017 9:41am

Batting .300 in baseball is quite an achievement.

Open government advocates batted .300 in getting laws enacted in the 2017 regular session of the Texas Legislature to make changes to the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA). But they were bitterly disappointed and said so during a panel discussion at the September 14, 2017, annual conference hosted by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas (FOIFT).

The hard work done before the legislative session started in May 2016 and included nine months of meetings and negotiations among members of the TPIA Task Force overseen by the House Speaker’s office. The members represented government entities, the attorney general’s office, requestor groups, and legislative representatives. The Task Force reached agreement that 10 bills were acceptable to all parties yet only three of those bills made it through the legislative sausage-making to become law.

Gary ElkinsGary ElkinsSix of the seven agreed upon bills died in the Texas House—and all but one of those were attributed to the failure of State Representative Gary Elkins (R-Houston) chairman of the Government Transparency and Operation Committee, to call for a vote on them. (The Chart of Legislative Agenda Items, linked at the bottom of this story, lists each of the bills.)

Brian CollisterBrian Collister“Representative Gary Elkins screwed us,” said Brian Collister, an investigative reporter for Austin-based KXAN-TV, a conference panelist who participated in the legislative process. “He looked us right in the face and stabbed us in the back. He’s the problem.”

Good intentions, hard work, little success

Laura PratherLaura Prather“It was incredibly frustrating—especially since lawmakers always tout the importance of building consensus,” said attorney Laura Prather of HaynesBoone in Austin, a longtime open government advocate who moderated a panel discussion titled “What happened in the 2017 Legislature and what’s ahead?”

“In this instance we worked hard to build consensus for nine months and then were stymied every step of the way by big business that wanted to hide from taxpayers how they use their money and the chair of the House Government Transparency and Operation Committee, whose interests were not in making more information available to the public—even the ones footing the bill.”

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 CodeNEXT Opposition Organizing in Earnest

Neighborhood activists launching efforts to
drum up support and raise campaign funds

By Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Posted Tuesday October 10, 2017 7:13am

Charlotte Herzele and Robin RatherCharlotte Herzele and Robin RatherCentral city residents are up in arms over perceptions that the work in progress called CodeNEXT, a complete overhaul of the City of Austin’s Land Development Code, will wreak havoc on their neighborhoods and way of life.

The Austin Bulldog previously reported on the three petition drives launched by IndyAustin, one of which if approved by voters would slow down CodeNEXT and put the matter to a public vote before it could be implemented.

The first get-together to rally support against CodeNEXT was held October 3 at the home of Charlotte Herzele, where several speakers addressed what they said are shortcomings in the plan that will have an undesirable impact on how the city is redeveloped.

Carmen Llanes PulidoCarmen Llanes PulidoCarmen Llanes Pulido, executive director of Go Austin/Vamos Austin and the host’s daughter, said CodeNEXT is based on the false premise that, “If we open the doors of development it will take care of the problems of East Austin, but I don’t believe the growth machine is so easily satiated.”

She said that density is not bringing affordability to East Austin and policy changes are needed to provide truly affordable housing.

“If we cannot ameliorate the effects of rapid growth we should not accelerate growth,” said Pulido, who was a member of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission that drew the boundaries of the 10 geographic City Council districts implemented in the 2014 elections.

Former council member opposed

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 Critic: Proposed Financial Policies ‘Pointless’

Commissioners Court will vote tomorrow
on Central Health financial policies for FY 18

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Part 3 in a Series
Posted October 9, 2017 1:14pm

The Travis County Commissioners Court is scheduled to vote tomorrow on financial policies that Central Health must follow in FY 2018, which began October 1.

Sarah EckhardtSarah EckhardtCounty Judge Sarah Eckhardt had been adamant at the September 19 meeting that she wanted a vote October 3, saying, “A perpetual conversation is not healthy.” At the October 3 meeting, however, she said, “Although last time I said I would take a vote today, I’m going back on that because we’re received so much new information and we’re drafting.”

John HilleJohn HilleThe new information to which she referred were two new drafts prepared by Assistant County Attorney John Hille. He handed the drafts to the commissioners just as they took up the matter of Central Health’s financial policies at 1:45pm—nearly four hours after the scheduled time of 10am.

Patti OhlendorfPatti OhlendorfAnother piece of new information was an October 2 letter to the judge and others from Patricia C. “Patti” Ohlendorf, vice president of legal affairs for the University of Texas at Austin.

Ohlendorf, who attended the October 3 meeting of the Commissioners Court, seeks to preserve the $35 million a year the university gets for Dell Medical School through the Affiliation Agreement it has with Central Health and the Community Care Collaborative.

The university received $105 million through FY 2017. The Affiliation Agreement calls for additional $35 million per year in perpetuity but contains no requirement for accountability for providing healthcare services for indigent, uninsured or underinsured patients. The medical school’s own reports indicates most money has been spent on salaries.

University resisting accountability

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 Central Health Financial Policies Hotly Debated

$185 million given to Dell Medical School and
Seton, with little to show for indigent healthcare,
and $55 million more is on the way in FY 2018

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Part 2 in a Series
Posted Friday September 29, 2017 2:12am
Correction posted September 29, 2017 8:43am (see footnote)

The challenge for Central Health is how to improve accountability for mega-millions of dollars it doles out to other agencies.

The chief beneficiaries of this funding are the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School and the Seton Healthcare Family.

Together they will have received $240 million through the FY 2018 from taxes levied by Central Health. State law dictates those funds may only be used to provide indigent healthcare services.

Yet Central Health, the agency created by voters in 2004 to provide healthcare services for the uninsured poor people of Travis County, has little proof of how much of that $240 million was actually used to provide indigent healthcare—services that by law is Central Health’s sole responsibility.

A showdown over proposed new financial policies that could increase accountability and help to repair this institutionalized breach of fiduciary responsibility is scheduled for the Commissioners Court meeting of October 3.

Central Health’s chief obstacle in implementing changes in financial policies and accountability is that the agreements the agency struck with these two major partner organizations—in 2013 with Seton, in 2014 with the University—do not require an accounting of how much indigent healthcare services they provide.

If the Commissioners Court orders Central Health to adhere to the proposed tougher financial policies, that may require renegotiation of those longstanding agreements and a major realignment of how Dell Medical School and Seton are allowed to use the largesse received from taxpayers.

The budget approved by the Travis County Commissioners Court September 19 provides $237.8 million for Central Health’s operations during FY 2018. The agency will levy a tax rate of 10.7385 cents per $100 property valuation. This will result in a tax bill of $327.71 for the average homestead valued at $305,173.

Out of those funds Dell Medical School will receive $35 million and Seton will receive $20 million. That $55 million equates to more than 23 percent of the entire Central Health budget.

Persistent advocates for accountability

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 IndyAustin Pushing Three Petitions

Grassroots group organizing to get
measures on the May 5, 2018 ballot

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Posted Tuesday September 12, 2017 9:21amIndyAustin's petition wagon will be making appearances all over Austin to gather signatures for its three petitions.IndyAustin's petition wagon will be making appearances all over Austin to gather signatures for its three petitions.

Activists calling themselves IndyAustin formed a specific-purpose political action committee last month and they’re pushing to get 20,000 signatures on not one, not two, but three separate petitions.

They want to get several measures on the ballot that if approved by voters would bring about what they say are badly needed reforms.

Their overarching mission is to reinvigorate grassroots democracy and provide a mechanism to allow citizens of Austin to vote on matters of major importance.

Specifically they want to give voters the opportunity to:

• Approve sweeping revisions to the Land Development Code known as CodeNEXT—which may have far-reaching effects on private property rights throughout the city.

• Update the power of referendum bestowed by the Austin City Charter so that citizens once again have the ability to reverse City Council approval of ill-advised ordinances.

• Approve a new ordinance concerning regulation of billboards.

Push to head off boondoggles

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 Central Health Feedback Meetings Ill-Attended

Two public forums to gather public opinions
about the agency drew just nine speakers

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Part 1 in a Series
Posted Sunday August 27, 2017 3:45pm
Updated Thursday May 3, 2018, at 9:12am to correct Sara Black’s name

Plenty of food but few takers at public input meetings.Plenty of food but few takers at public input meetings.Consultants for Central Health threw open the doors, laid out plentiful food, and even provided child care for attendees, but almost no one came. All but a half-dozen of the 130 seats available were empty.

Central Health is paying for the care of some 143,000 uninsured Travis County residents this fiscal year, involving about 400,000 patient encounters, according to information compiled as part of the FY 2018 budget currently under review for approval in mid-September by the Travis County Commissioners Court.

Yet a total of nine people showed up to provide feedback at the two public meetings held August 8th and 9th at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. Collectively they said Central Health is misusing funds by giving $35 million a year to the University of Texas Dell Medical School, failing to serve huge areas of Eastern Travis County, and losing sight of its statutory mission to serve the healthcare needs of indigents.

Blanca LesmesBlanca LesmesBlanca Lesmes, co-founder of BB Imaging and Healthcare Consulting, is leading the public outreach under a $17,600 subcontract from Dayton, Ohio-based Germane Solutions. Germane has a $315,000 consulting contract for an independent Performance Review of Central Health (aka Travis County Healthcare District).

In addition to the meetings, the work also involves reviewing patient surveys collected from CommUnityCare Clinics, reviewing “thousands of pages” of documents supplied by Central Health, and accepting comments via email to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Comments will be accepted until December 1 and findings will be shared with the public in January.

First night’s critics

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 Legal Battle Won But War Ahead

Victim got a copy of record sought, but a second
lawsuit looms over new public information request

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Part 9 in a Series
Posted Monday August 7, 2017 11:39pm
Updated Tuesday August 8, 2017 9:51am (to link to Settlement Agreement)

David EscamillaDavid EscamillaThe public information request that gave rise to a lawsuit in which Travis County Attorney David Escamilla sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has been withdrawn. And with it the litigation over whether the County Attorney must provide the document at issue, as ordered in the AG’s open records ruling.

The matter was put to rest when a Settlement Agreement was reached today that allowed the requestor to have an unredacted copy of the Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) the County Attorney entered into with her abuser.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireEscamilla declined to comment until a copy of the Settlement Agreement is filed. The Austin Bulldog filed a public information request for a copy of the Agreement and it was not immediately received. (It will be linked at the bottom of this story when obtained.)“We settled,” Austin attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, told The Austin Bulldog in a telephone interview late yesterday.

The agreement requires the requestor not to publish or assist anyone in publishing the DPA. “But she may give it to her attorneys, counselor, or therapist. And it can be entered into any official court proceeding,” he said.

Tara CoronadoTara CoronadoThe ability to enter a copy of the DPA into court proceeding is important because the requestor, Tara Coronado, is in a custody dispute with her abuser and former husband over whether one of her four children will be sent to an out-of-state boarding school.

At the request of her attorney in that dispute, Coronado declined to personally comment on the Settlement Agreement.

One battle won, a war ahead

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 Must Deferred Prosecution Deals be Secret?

County attorney denies victim of domestic
violence right to see deal her abuser got

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Part 8 in a Series
Posted Wednesday July 5, 2017 1:59pm
Updated Wednesday July 5, 2017 2:55pm to add Coronado's statement about putting DPA online
Updated Wednesday July 5, 2017 3:40pm to strike incorrect sentence re: couldn't rely on previous determination
Updated Thursday July 6, 2017 10:08am to provide the correct blank form the county attorney uses for DPAs

The next stage in a legal battle over a prosecutor’s discretion to withhold certain records played out last Thursday in a state district court.

The Travis County Attorney’s Office and an intervenor in the county attorney’s lawsuit against the Texas Attorney General argued over which parts of the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) would govern arguments when the matter goes to trial August 8.

Lora LivingstonLora Livingston“It’s prudent to give you a clear ruling on what’s going to trial,” Judge Lora Livingston of the 261st District Court told the attorneys at the conclusion of the hearing, after listening to nearly two hours of arguments.

On Friday, Livingston ruled that plaintiff Travis County Attorney must limit arguments in favor of withholding a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) to the same grounds the county stated when it asked the Attorney General for a ruling.

A DPA is an agreement signed by the prosecutor, the defendant and the defendant’s attorney. It sets forth conditions that if met will result in dismissal of criminal charges. (More details about DPAs later.)

In its request for a ruling from the Attorney General (AG), the county cited only what’s commonly called the “law enforcement exception” contained in Section 552.108(a)(1):

“Information held by a law enforcement agency or prosecutor that deals with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime is excepted from (release) if: release of the information would interfere with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime.”

Tim LabadieTim LabadieAt Thursday’s hearing, Assistant County Attorney Tim Labadie argued that the county had not cited other sections of the Act because previous determinations by the AG had allowed the very same DPA to be withheld.

He asked the judge for permission to claim several other exceptions set forth under Sections 552.108(a)(2), 552.103, and 552.107.

The judge denied his request.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireAttorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC won the ruling by citing Section 552.326 which states, “the only exceptions to required disclosure … that a governmental body may raise in a suit filed under this chapter are exceptions that the governmental body properly raised before the attorney general in connection with a request for a decision regarding the matter….”

Why county sued the AG

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 Zimmerman Complaint Finally Resolved

Texas Ethics Commission took more
than two years to settle the matter

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Posted Monday, June 26, 2017 2:33pm

Don ZimmermanDon ZimmermanAn ethics complaint against then District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman was resolved by the Texas Ethics Commission June 12, 2017. It took the agency 28 months to get the job done.

The complaint filed February 5, 2015, alleged that Zimmerman illegally used campaign funds to pay his wife $2,000 for work she did for his 2014 council campaign.

The Texas Ethics Commission completed its consideration of the sworn complaint by entering into an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance with Zimmerman. The document states that Zimmerman acknowledges the prohibition against such expenditures, and he consented to forego adversarial evidentiary hearings and formal adjudication by the Commission.

Zimmerman escaped being fined for the infraction, common in similar cases such as In the Matter of James C. Doyal SC-31108180, because he had personally loaned $20,000 to his campaign and considered the $2,000 payment to his spouse as “partial reimbursement” for the loan.

In essence the Commission allowed Zimmerman to reclassify the campaign funds paid to his wife for her personal services as a partial repayment of a loan that he personally made to his campaign.

In a telephone interview today, Zimmerman told The Austin Bulldog that he had not been aware of the prohibition against paying his wife from campaign fund. This despite the fact that the City Clerk provides copies of applicable regulations to all candidates.

“If I had shacked up with Jennifer, then I could pay her while living in sin. That looks like marriage discrimination,” he said. “Once it was pointed out that the payment was improper, I said, “Fine, I’ll credit that payment against the loan.’ ”

Complainant dismayed

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 Tab for Public Records $133,000

City of Austin cost estimate for records
related to its Right of Way decisions

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Posted Monday June 12, 2017 11:03am
Updated Tuesday June 20, 2017, 12:14pm 
to add theCity's first response to the attorney general

Golden Padlock AwardGolden Padlock AwardWell this case probably would not qualify for the Golden Padlock Award bestowed annually by Investigative Reporters and Editors. The award is designed to dishonor the most secretive publicly funded agency or person in the United States.

But on a local level in the Austin area—if anyone were keeping track—this might rank among the highest cost estimates furnished by a government agency for providing records in response to a single public information request.

Wayne DolcefinoWayne DolcefinoThe request was filed with the City of Austin by Wayne Dolcefino of Houston-based Dolcefino Consulting. Recently he survived a head-on highway wreck that might easily have been fatal. Now he’s trying to make the best of a collision between the public’s right to know and a government agency’s unyielding response.

Dolcefino is no stranger to public information fights. He is a former investigative reporter and winner of 30 Emmy Awards for his work in television and numerous other awards, according to his website. Back in the 1970s he worked at KLBJ Radio here in Austin. More recently, in Houston at KTRK-TV he headed the station’s 13 Undercover Unit at for 27 years.

Dolcefino filed a public information request six months ago and is still waiting for the information. He asked for records that he needed to investigate the “staggering right of way fees for developers trying to build new apartment complexes and office buildings,” which he says ultimately result in charging higher rents to cover the costs.

He asked for copies of three kinds of records: (1) the personnel files of 11 named employees, (2) emails sent or received after January 1, 2016, by these employees, and (3) other electronic communications covering the same period for these individuals.

A whopper of a cost estimate

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 Lawsuit Alleges Open Meetings Violation

Yet another instance of agenda posting
not sufficiently detailed for public notice

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Posted Tuesday June 6, 2017 3:00pm

Potential Plaintiff to City of Austin: Like to settle instead of getting sued?

City to Plaintiff: No thank you.

The plaintiff in the latest lawsuit against the City of Austin made a settlement offer before filing the litigation and gave the City 45 days to accept one of two options: (1) Cancel the City Council’s approval given November 10, 2016, and repost with proper notice of the proposed waivers of sections of two city ordinances. Or (2) Accept an Agreed Judgment.

By not responding to the offer, the City will have to face off in court.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireThe lawsuit, Lake Austin Collective Inc. v. City of Austin (Cause No. D-1-GN-17-002447) was filed in Travis County District Court yesterday by Austin attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC.

Anne MorganAnne MorganCity Attorney Anne Morgan did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit and instead funneled a written statement through a City spokesperson: “The City of Austin appreciates having had the opportunity to review the issue before the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit, but we disagree with Mr. Aleshire’s interpretation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

“We believe the City gave appropriate public notice about the subject matter to be discussed. In fact, the record shows that this issue had a robust public engagement process,” the statement said.

Aleshire disagrees.

“The City Attorney said the same thing about the Pilot Knob open meetings lawsuit and lost. The ‘robust’ discussion of environmental waiver the City claims occurred did not start with or ever involve the boards and commissions before the Council let the Champion developer slip those waivers (of the Lake Austin Watershed Ordinance and Hill Country Roadway Ordinances) in on third reading. Part of the robust engagement process was just trying to find out what kind of backroom deal the developer and the Council majority was cooking up.”

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 New Open Meeting Violation Alleged

City of Austin again accused of
insufficient notice of agenda item

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Posted Monday April 3, 2017 4:35pm

Did the City of Austin violate the Texas Open Meetings Act—again?

Bill AleshireBill AleshireThat’s what a lawsuit in the making alleges. A draft of the petition and an offer to settle the matter without actually filing the legal action has been conveyed to the City by Austin by attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, who represents the plaintiffs.

The draft lawsuit,Lake Austin Collective Inc. and Marisa B. Lipscher v. The City of Austin, claims that the posted Agenda Item 6 for the Austin City Council meeting of November 10, 2016, failed to adequately describe what would be voted on, that the posting omitted notice that the vote would entail waiving sections of two city ordinances.

Anne MorganAnne MorganCity Attorney Anne Morgan in a phone interview toldThe Austin Bulldog,“I did get the draft lawsuit and I wrote to tell Bill Aleshire I appreciate him sending it before filing. I haven’t had a chance to talk to my client, the City Council. We take it seriously. We will look at it and move forward as appropriate.”

The offer to settle gives the City 45 days to accept one of two options:(1) cancel its approval given November 10 and repost with proper notice of the proposed waivers. Or(2) Accept an Agreed Judgment.

Lake Austin Collective Inc. is a Texas nonprofit filed with the Secretary of State March 17, 2017. Lipscher is the registered agent. Board members are Linda Bailey, Susan Kimbrough, and Carol Lee. All are property owners affected by the rezoning of the nearby Champion Tract.

Aleshire said that the zoning application for the Champion Tract was not presented to the Planning Commission. Instead it was taken up by the council directly. The application initially asked for the entire tract to be rezoned.

But in the face of a valid petition signed by 25 percent of opposing property owners, approval of the measure would have required an affirmative vote by a supermajority (three-fourths of the council members). To avoid that daunting opposition, two days before the third and final reading, the developer redrew the area to be rezoned with 205-foot setbacks from the tract’s boundaries, Aleshire said. That negated the petition and the rezoning was approved on a vote of 7-4.

But the agenda item did not state that approval would also entail granting variances to the Lake Austin Watershed Ordinance and Hill Country Roadway Ordinance.

(Disclosure: Bill Aleshire representedThe Austin Bulldog in two lawsuits filed in 2011 against the City of Austin for its violations of the Texas Public Information Act. He currently represents theBulldog to intervene in County Attorney David Escamilla v. Attorney General Ken Paxton, in which the county attorney seeks to close the courtroom and permanently seal all records considered in the hearing.)

Persistent pattern of violations

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 New Public Info Procedure Questioned

City of Austin will require that emailed
requests be sent to only two addresses

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Posted Wednesday March 15, 2017 9:18pm

The City of Austin issued a press release this morning to announce a new procedure that would take effect in three business days on March 20. It would allow requests filed under the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA) via email only to be sent to one of two addresses, one for records held by the Austin Police Department ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) and a second for all other departments ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).

“Requests sent to any other email at the City of Austin will not constitute an official records request. All City staff have been instructed to respond to requests and direct people to the proper email address,” the press release states.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireAustin attorney Bill Aleshire of Aleshire Law PC, on behalf of The Austin Bulldog, immediately fired off a letter to the Austin City Attorney to challenge this procedure.

“I question the legality of this new procedure that may play ‘gotcha’ or delay when common folks make requests to the City for public information,” Aleshire wrote.

“First of all, what authority does the staff have to impose such rules? Under the TPIA, only the City Council can promulgate such rules, and I have been unable to locate any such recent action by Council.”

Aleshire is currently representing The Austin Bulldog in a petition to intervene in opposition to Travis County Attorney's motion, in his lawsuit against Attorney General Ken Paxton, to close the courtroom to the public and to permanently seal related exhbits, motions and responses in the case. Aleshire previously represented The Austin Bulldog in two successful lawsuits against the City of Austin to obtain public records.

City Attorney responds

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 County Attorney Escamilla Wants to
Close the Courtroom, Seal Records

‘The Austin Bulldog’ intervenes to oppose
this unusual action to deny public access

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Part 7 in a Series
Posted Friday February 25, 2017 12:21am
Updated Tuesday February 28, 2017 5:02pm to clarify Escamilla's statements (see underlined text)

David EscamillaDavid EscamillaTo keep a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) from being obtained by a victim of domestic violence — and ensure that it isn’t widely disseminated — Travis County Attorney David Escamilla has taken the extraordinary step of requesting that a hearing be held in a closed courtroom and that the related exhibits, motions, and responses to be argued in court be sealed because they might make reference to the DPA.

The Austin Bulldog filed a petition February 21, 2016, to intervene and oppose the County Attorney’s petition.

Courts are rarely closed, except in some family law cases involving child custody. Honoring this principle provides transparency and accountability. It avoids courts being thought of pejoratively as a Star Chamber, the ancient English tribunal “established to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against socially and politically prominent people so powerful that ordinary courts would likely hesitate to convict them of their crimes.”

If the County Attorney’s petition is granted it would deny public access to courts, which is a cornerstone of our system of justice that is grounded in Texas law and the First Amendment, although this right is not absolute. Courts are sometimes closed to prevent dissemination of sensitive information to the public, such as matters dealing with attorney-client privilege, trade secrets, and matters of national security.

The Austin Bulldog’s motion states that the County Attorney’s petition to seal records fails to articulate — or to provide any evidence at all — of any “specific, serious and substantial interest which clearly outweighs” the presumption of openness of court records.

Bill AleshireBill AleshireAttorney Bill Aleshire represents the Bulldog in this matter, citing in the motion Texas Rules of Civil Procedure 76a(3), which allows non-parties who pay a filing fee to intervene as a matter of right for the limited purpose or participating in proceedings.

“Trust in any governmental activity is enhanced with transparency,” said Aleshire, a former Travis County judge and before that tax assessor-collector. “And that trust is diminished with secrecy.  Why should any deals a prosecutor makes with any defendant be concealed from the public?  Is secrecy about prosecutor deals really in the public interest?  In this day of enhanced concerns about equal justice (e.g., Black Lives Matter) does secrecy about who gets what deal from a prosecutor enhance or diminish trust and respect for the criminal justice system?”

A hearing on the matter was originally scheduled for February 22. The hearing was rescheduled for March 8 after the County Attorney learned through The Austin Bulldog’s motion and Aleshire’s e-mails to him that the county had failed to comply with the requirement to post notice with the Clerk of the Supreme Court of Texas.

Why intervene?

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Boards of Examiners Ripped for Backlogs

 Sunset Review rough for boards that license and regulate
professionals who play key roles in child-custody cases

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2016
Part 6 in a Series
Posted Friday December 16, 2016 10:39am
Sunset Advisory Commission members (left to right) are public member William Meadows; State Representatives Cindy Burkett, Dan Flynn, Richard Peña Raymond, Senfronia Thompson, and Chair Larry Gonzales; and State Senators including Vice Chair Van Taylor, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Robert Nichols, Kirk Watson; and public member Allen West.Sunset Advisory Commission members (left to right) are public member William Meadows; State Representatives Cindy Burkett, Dan Flynn, Richard Peña Raymond, Senfronia Thompson, and Chair Larry Gonzales; and State Senators including Vice Chair Van Taylor, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Robert Nichols, Kirk Watson; and public member Allen West.

The Austin Bulldog’s investigation of problems in family law courts involving child-custody cases includes a review of complaints against some of the professionals appointed by courts to provide related services. Specific complaints will be detailed in later installments of this ongoing series. An overarching question is why does it take two or three years to resolve complaints against these practitioners? The answer was revealed in the biennial exercise known as Sunset in Texas, which is now underway.
 
Sunset in Texas is not the romantic experience the name might imply. It’s not a time for kicking back, sipping a beer, and watching the sun dip into the chilly waters of Lake Travis. Sunset in Texas is a time for a deep and probing examination of a good portion of the 130-odd Texas governmental agencies to learn how well they are performing. It’s a time for determining whether the sun should set on their work and deciding if these agencies should fade into history.
 
Although the Sunset process for the 2016-2017 cycle is scrutinizing 25 separate agencies, this story will focus solely on the four professions whose services are utilized to varying degrees in family law cases involving child custody: Professional Counselors, Psychologists, Social Workers, and Marriage and Family Therapists.
 
Practitioners in each of these professions are licensed and regulated by a separate Texas State Boards of Examiners. Each of these boards will be abolished unless lawmakers reauthorize them in the 85th Session of the Texas Legislature that convenes January 20.
 
As with all agencies now under review, if these four are reauthorized they could be radically reformed. They could also be moved under the umbrella of a different state agency.
 
Three of these Boards of Examiners—for Professional Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage and Family Therapists, which collectively oversee some 50,000 licensees—currently receive administrative support from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS).
 
It’s apparent these three boards will not be left to continue floundering as they have been, based on the scathing review of their performance aired during a December 8 hearing of the Sunset Advisory Commission. Under the current operating procedures and with insufficient staff support from DSHS, they have not kept up with the workload. The backlog of unresolved complaints against the professionals they regulate has grown exponentially in recent years.

During Fiscal Years 2000 through 2006, the average length of time for these three boards to resolve complaints rarely exceeded 200 days. But since FY 2007 the length of time needed to resolve complaints has been rising steadily and now stands at 2.3 years for marriage and family therapists, 2.9 years for professional counselors, and 3 years for social workers.
 
These delays fail to protect the health and safety of Texans—many of whom are struggling with litigation and mental stress. The delays also soil the reputation of practitioners who may have been wrongfully accused of misconduct and would like a timely opportunity to clear their names.
 
The Sunset Advisory Commission Staff Report recommended that the Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage and Family Therapists all be transferred to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) by August 31, 2018.
 
In addition the staff report recommended that the boards’ complaints and ethics committees be abolished, that board members not be involved in investigating complaints, and that TDLR develops a policy for prioritizing complaints and updates enforcement plans. In addition the report calls for throwing a wider net when checking the backgrounds for licensure applicants to include fingerprints and checks for disciplinary actions taken in other states. 

Psychologist examiners board excels

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