Animal Shelter Lawsuit: City Has Alpo on Its Face

On Monday, the fifth citizen-group lawsuit this year was filed against the City of Austin, this time alleging a “conspiratorial strategy” to keep the controversial animal shelter relocation decision away from the public scrutiny of an open council vote.

On Monday, the fifth citizen-group lawsuit this year was filed against the City of Austin, this time alleging a “conspiratorial strategy” to keep the controversial animal shelter relocation decision away from the public scrutiny of an open council vote. Intriguingly, the lawsuit promises to lift the veil on who really wears the pants (or is that skirt?) at city hall – the City Manager, and the staff she directs, or our elected officials on City Council.

The lawsuit alleges that “the Austin City Council has violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by failing to give public notice of its deliberations” on 1) deciding to move the municipal animal shelter, and 2) amending the East Austin neighborhood plan that includes the proposed new site. Lead plaintiffs are the city-appointed Govalle/Johnston Terrace Neighborhood Planning Team, which created the city-approved plan, and PODER, a social-justice activist group with overlapping leaders and members. Both groups have called for the city to follow their plan and build affordable housing and/or parks on the site. In a deft bit of east-west solidarity, they’re joined as plaintiffs by the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association (which has an interest in the current Town Lake site of the shelter) and, an animal welfare nonprofit asserting that the east-side site would lower pet adoptions.

The 31 pages of legal petition and exhibits trace a most circuitous – possibly illegal, even criminal – city decision-making process. Deliciously, says plaintiff’s attorney Bill Aleshire, City Manager Toby Futrell and Animal Shelter Director Dorinda Pulliam stand to be the star witnesses for his clients against City Council as discovery proceeds. “It’s their own actions and own words that are our strongest basis for the suit,” said Aleshire. In a March 27 memo on which the mayor and council were cc’d, Futrell justified staff action to proceed with the new site by claiming that council had provided a policy directive to relocate the shelter, when it voted March 8 to approve additional project funds and proceed to hire an architect. Yet no explicit statement of a relocation discussion, decision or vote was ever part of the public council record.

If Futrell’s account is correct, alleges the lawsuit, then Council violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. Such a decision, particularly as it amends the adopted Govalle/Johnston Terrace Neighborhood Plan, requires consultation with the city-appointed neighborhood planning team, they claim, and public notices that were never given. “If council and staff are going to disrespect the neighborhood planning process, then they need to do it in the open,” said Aleshire, a former Travis County judge. “It sure gives the appearance that this was done on purpose.” Numerous neighborhood planning teams have complained that their plans, which are legally adopted by city ordinance, later have been disregarded by council and staff. This lawsuit could crack open that endemic problem as well.

Futrell’s assertion also leaves Council open to the charge that members intentionally camouflaged a vote to relocate the shelter, said Aleshire, by hiding it under a funding-increase agenda item. Or, if Futrell is putting policy decisions in council’s mouth, then Austinites have a whole other kind of problem – a city manager and staff scheming to push their own agenda past an inattentive, bamboozled, or just plain limp mayor and council. Third option: Staff and council members illegally conspired to work together to cut the public out of the relocation decision, as the lawsuit alleges. Whatever the lawsuit discovery process reveals, the city manager appears to have set up council to get a load of animal by-products on its face.

The March 8 council motion referenced by Futrell was made by Betty Dunkerley and seconded by Mike Martinez. When asked on Monday if he understood that vote to be a council policy directive to staff on the shelter relocation, Martinez said: “Absolutely not. In no way was I ever informed it was, or was it even portrayed as, a decision to relocate the shelter.” He added, “If that was the intention of staff, then they clearly misled us.” Martinez said he shares the frustrations he’s hearing from citizens: “The city manager at times directs policy, rather than managing and implementing the policy that council adopts.” He intends to change that in hiring a new city manager.

Martinez is acting to put the staff’s selected new site to a council vote on the Oct. 11 council agenda. “I want to have that public vote once and for all,” said Martinez. “But I truly do not know if it will get passed by Council.”

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