News Roundup: Commissions, Complaints, and Candidates
Intrigue and drama over technical lobbying laws
9:00AM, Mon. Dec. 7, 2015
In this week's News Roundup: A potential anti-lobbying violation thwarts City Council's quest for a utilities consultant; council's battle over property appraisals continues; another Democratic candidate enters the Travis County Sheriff's race; and more.
• Silent Advocate: On Thursday, Dec. 3, City Council punted on its decision to hire a "consumer advocate" for residential and small business Austin Energy ratepayers for lack of a qualified candidate. Oxford Advisors LLC had been recommended by staff for the position that would represent ratepayers in next year's development of AE's rate structure, although Council members were disappointed that the city's two solicitations had not evoked more responses. But the entire search has been derailed, at least temporarily, after an inquiry to Oxford by Electric Utility Commission Chair Michael Osborne – a communication during contract consideration that city attorneys concluded violated the anti-lobbying ordinance, even though it was initiated by Osborne and self-reported by Oxford. "As written, the Anti-Lobbying Ordinance prohibits representations regardless of which party, the offeror or a city representative, initiates them," reads a memo to Council from city Purchasing Officer James Scarboro. "The ordinance also does not provide conditions or criteria for determining lessor violations or corresponding sanctions." Council was briefed on the matter in executive session and deferred any discussion or action. Oxford has until today, Dec. 7, to protest the disqualification and ask for reconsideration. – Michael King
• Going Courting: In its only other action in an abbreviated meeting (and the absence of Mayor Steve Adler, District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool, and D8 CM Ellen Troxclair), Council reiterated its intent to pursue legal action against the Travis Central Appraisal District concerning what the city contends are insufficient appraisals of commercial property. (In early November, state District Judge Tim Sulak rejected the city's lawsuit for lack of standing.) Passed unanimously was a resolution (sponsored by the mayor, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, D5 CM Ann Kitchen, and D6 CM Don Zimmerman) "affirming the City Council's commitment to a fair and equitable appraisal system and its support of legal actions related to the level of appraisals of commercial property values." Zimmerman proposed a Troxclair-drafted amendment that would have required any change in the overall appraisal totals to be "revenue neutral" – that is, any increased commercial appraisals would de facto result in lowered residential property tax bills, but only D10 CM Sheri Gallo joined him in voting for the amendment, which failed 5-2. Council was united on pursuing the overall legal case, leaving it to the lawyers to determine whether to ask for a retrial in district court or appeal Sulak's ruling. – M.K.
• Affordability in Question: On another TCAD front, two residents of the Mueller Neighborhood's affordable housing program have filed suit against the appraisal district because the Appraisal Review Board rejected their appeals of "market rate" appraisals that will increase their 2015 property taxes by as much as 67% in a single year. Homeowners Laura Rodriguez and Stephanie Grimes have separately filed lawsuits against TCAD, arguing that while their own rights of resale are restricted to no more than 2% increases annually, appraisers are appraising the properties at potentially market rates – putting their ownership in jeopardy and undermining the entire Mueller Foundation affordability program, currently including some 290 homes sold to residents earning 80% or less of median family income. The lawsuits argue that TCAD's appraising the homes without acknowledging the affordability restrictions encumbering the properties violates state law; TCAD disagrees. TCAD and the foundation have been trying to arrive at a compromise, but until that occurs more residents will become eligible for legal action. For more on the Mueller/TCAD dispute, see "Mueller Makes Plea to TCAD Board," Nov. 3, and this week's print edition. – M.K.
• Contractors in Hot Water: Austin Water Utilities has selected a consultant to handle an audit of the meter reading practices the city contracts to third party vendor Corix Water Products. A spokesman for the department said that Utiliworks Consulting is scheduled to begin work within the area today, Dec. 7. The department’s been under fire since late summer, when a rash of high water bills had residents throughout the city – and many Council members – crying foul on the accuracy of AWU's meter readings (as well as the bill-monitoring habits of Austin Energy, which handles that side of AWU's business). Individuals from within both departments have been adamant in denying any potential systemic issues on either front – the meter reading or AE's billing – but that's done little to quell the public doubt. A cursory look at the Chronicle's inbox makes clear that the problem's not yet over. AWU head Greg Meszaros told Council's Public Utility Committee three weeks ago that he expects a first batch of findings by mid-January. Asked Friday whether Utiliworks was handling the audit on Austin Energy's billing practices in connection the same concerns, the department declined to specifically comment. – Chase Hoffberger
• Sheriff candidates: Travis County Constable Sally Hernandez officially announced her run for county sheriff on Thursday, ending a long song-and-dance with the state's "resign-to-run" law, which brings an automatic resignation to any judge, clerk, constable, and other assorted officer who files for candidacy in another position any time before one year and 30 days before that position's election. Hernandez hadn't filed, but she's been an an earnest player in the race to earn a nomination in the Democratic primary election this upcoming March. Her announcement formally ties her to a list of Democratic candidates that includes Precinct 3 deputy John Sisson, county sergeant Don Rios, and Lakeway Chief of Police Todd Radford. Current county sheriff Greg Hamilton, currently in his third team, had originally stated that he would not seek a fourth, but in September let it be known that he was actually considering a run. – C.H.
• Texas Retreats on Refugees: Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton continue to pursue a lawsuit against the federal government and the International Rescue Committee to end resettlement of Syrian refugees in Texas, but have withdrawn their request for a temporary restraining order to immediately block 21 refugees (12 children among them) scheduled to join relatives in Texas. Paxton released a statement claiming that the TRO request was dropped because the feds had finally provided sufficient information (the law requires only that the U.S. and resettlement agencies "consult" with the state). The Justice Department responded that the law has consistently been followed, and the IRC and other groups issued a joint statement defending their position: "We are confident that the IRC has always acted in accordance with the law when it comes to our work to assist refugees who have been given sanctuary in Texas," said IRC Senior Vice President Jennifer Sime. "We have had a strong and collaborative relationship with the State for the past 40 years, which has benefited refugees and local communities. We have made clear our commitment to continued dialogue with the state authorities and we hope for a swift resolution of this case." The Texas ACLU, the National Immigration Law Center, and the Southern Poverty Law Center issued similar statements in support of the IRC and the refugee program. – M.K.
• Cops 4 Weed: The Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy received a show of advocacy at a training event in Tyler on Saturday from an unexpected source: Dallas Police Officer Nick Novello. The 33-year veteran officer said before the event that he believed in the benefits of legalization from the perspective of a cop: "Regulation and education will focus police resources on more important crimes and make the drug more difficult for children to get. By every measure, marijuana prohibition has failed. Safer communities are within reach." – C.H.
• Go Back to ... America?: Kerbey Lane Cafe received some unwelcome publicity this week after management failed to kick out a customer who was making anti-Muslim comments at two other customers. The subjects of the man's attacks are both Americans, but that did not stop the man from telling the two women to "go back to Saudi Arabia," among other things. When the women asked for the man to be removed, management told them there was nothing they could do. Kerbey Lane has since apologized for their handling of the incident, and has said that they will conduct staff training on how to deal with racist patrons. For more on the story, see "Breakfast With Bigots," Dec. 6. – Amy Kamp