News Roundup: Council, Court, and the Lege

Council announces proposal, 5th Circuit hears arguments, and more

Mayor Steve Adler
Mayor Steve Adler (Photo by Jana Birchum)

In this week's News Roundup, the new City Council lays out a plan to (hopefully) streamline meetings, a former APD detective tries to get into federal court, the 5th Circuit contemplates abortion and marriage equality, and more.

RSVP Requested: Austinites are encouraged to provide feedback at the “SpeakUpAustin!” website in response to a proposal by the new City Council to change the current Council committee and meeting structure. The proposal was announced last Thursday at a press conference in the Downtown Hilton, where the new Council members were starting a three-day orientation. Mayor Steve Adler described it as an attempt “to change the way the city works” – it would increase the number of Council committees, require most ordinances to be heard first by a committee before reaching Council, and move most public hearings to those committees as well. The intent, said the mayor and several Council members, is to provide earlier public input and reduce the length of formal Council meetings.

The plan also calls for Council to meet more often (weekly rather than biweekly, generally the current practice) and to move some matters (e.g., executive sessions) outside the public meeting cycle. Emergency items would still be able to be placed on the Council agenda by a group of four Council members; but in principle the vetting by committee would shorten the formal agendas. The city is hoping that public feedback will refine the details; the SpeakUpAustin! site includes the proposed changes, a flow chart for potential ordinances, and a list of new committees under consideration. Council is planning a public hearing on the changes Jan. 22 and a potential vote Jan. 29 – although curiously, the closing date on public comments is currently listed as Feb. 7.

Pressley fights on: Despite a 30-point run-off defeat on election day – and a reiterated defeat by the identical vote in a Jan. 6 recount – District 4 City Council candidate Laura Pressley is refusing to concede to Council Member Greg Casar, and told Newsdesk she intends to take her complaints to the Texas Secretary of State. Pressley claims that certain mail ballots were counted more than once – although she and her team monitored the manual recount of those ballots – and that the overall number of ballots reported were greater than the number of voters reported for the precincts. She also wanted “ballot images” to be provided by the Travis County Elections Division, and was not satisfied with the “cast vote records” (CVRs, line records of the individual votes) that the system is able to print. Dana DeBeauvoir said Pressley declined to provide documentation of the “discrepancies” she is claiming are reflected in the count, and said her allegations do not accord with how the electronic voting system actually works. Pressley also objects to the amount of the deposit that was required from the defeated candidate to pay for the recount — $100 for each polling place that must be reviewed for District ballots, plus one for early voting.

Asked via email if she believes the alleged “discrepancies” are sufficient to overturn the District 4 results, Pressley responded, “Absolutely,” and insisted that the “errors … question the validity of the whole process.” Asked if she thought the alleged discrepancies were intentional, Pressley wrote, “Early next week, we will be filing election complaints to the Texas Secretary of State's office to document a) the nature of the alleged violations of the Election code that we believe occurred during the Run Off and the Recount, and b) those entities involved.” Newsdesk can hardly wait.

Kleinert case takes a turn: On Friday, Jan. 9, Judge Lee Yeakel held a conference to discuss the process for hearing defendant Charles Kleinert’s motion to remove his manslaughter trial from Travis County to federal court. Kleinert’s lawyer, Randy Leavitt, is arguing that the former APD detective was actually acting as a federal officer - he was a member of the Central Texas Violent Crimes Task Force - when he shot and killed unarmed black Austinite Larry Jackson Jr. in July 2013. The motion came as a blow to Jackson’s family and advocates, since it’s almost certain to cause the date of Kleinert’s trial, currently set for April 20, to be delayed. “Delaying this will keep the wound open even longer than it already has,” Jackson’s sister LaKiza wrote to the Chronicle. Additionally, should Yeakel decide Kleinert belongs in federal court, there’s the possibility that the fed would have to reindict, further complicating the case. Yeakel, for his part, said that in the 11 years he’d been on the bench, he’d not only never seen a motion for removal in a criminal case, but he’d never ever heard of one taking place. A hearing for summary remand is scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, Jan. 13. Look for a full report on the case in this week’s issue of the Chronicle.

Busy Week at the 5th Circuit: On Wednesday, a three-judge panel heard oral arguments in the challenge against parts of Texas’ abortion law, House Bill 2 and weren’t afraid to fire critical questions at the state, as the Chronicle previously reported. (A final judgment is expected in that case within a few weeks.) Similar skeptical questioning came from two of three judges appointed to hear oral arguments against state bans on marriage equality from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Judge James Graves Jr. (appointed by President Barack Obama) and Patrick Higginbotham (appointed by President Ronald Reagan) both sharply criticized state logic in defending same-sex marriage bans, with Higginbotham calling the state’s denial of marriage equality based on failure to procreate “ridiculous.” Evan Wolfson, president of national LGBT-rights group, Freedom to Marry, called on the 5th Circuit to follow what nearly 60 states and federal courts (including four federal circuit courts) have now done – end discrimination against gay couples. “Once again an appellate court was presented with the lopsided case in favor of the freedom to marry, the opponents having no evidence and no significant legal justification to outweigh the powerful arguments for ending the exclusion of gay couples from marriage,” said Wolfson. The 5th has no set deadline to issue a ruling.

Legislative Update: With the 84th Legislature starting on Tuesday, new state leadership duo Governor-elect Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick are giving more clues about legislative agendas. At an event organized by right wing think tank the Texas Public Policy Foundation, last Thursday Abbott warned that he will curtail efforts to make Texas "California-ized", and that he has set his cap against "bag bans, fracking bans, [and] tree-cutting bans." That could be bad news for Austin, which adopted a non-reusable bag ban in 2011, a year after implementing its heritage tree ordinance.

Meanwhile, there was a brief burst of panic on Sunday when the Houston Chronicle reported that Patrick said he would be appointing his fellow KSEV 700 radio host, freshman Senator Paul Bettencourt, as his successor as chair of the Senate Education Committee. This immediately sent shock waves through Legislature watchers - after all, a freshman never chair a committees, never mind one so important. Patrick clarified that he meant that Bettencourt would succeed him in Senate District 7, not leading the vital committee, and the Chronicle quickly admitted it had misinterpreted his comments. However, this means public education advocates can go back to worrying about Patrick's fellow voucher and charter enthusiast, Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, taking over the committee.

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