Aleshire the Agitator

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Limelight


photograph by John Anderson

Don't expect many tearful farewells when Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire leaves office on New Year's Eve. Instead, it would be more reasonable to expect shouts of joy. Some county employees even have computers with screen saver devices that count down the number of days until Aleshire walks out of the Stokes Building on West 11th Street for the last time. The computer countdown is indicative of the depth of feeling that Aleshire engenders - not just among county workers, but among a cadre of local political players. But does Aleshire care what people think of him? Hardly. A lame duck since 1995, when he announced that he would not run for re-election this year, Aleshire, a Democrat, has made it clear all along that he won't be leaving office quietly. Instead, over the past few months, he's been beating his drum louder than ever. Here's just a sampling of what he's been up to lately:

  • In May, he led the effort that prevented Travis County from opting into the proposed commuter rail district, a move that would have been the first step toward the creation of a regional passenger rail system between Austin and San Antonio.
  • In June, after Gov. George W. Bush commuted the death sentence of serial liar Henry Lee Lucas, Aleshire sent the governor a letter commending him for his decision. Aleshire went on to add that he was "disgusted" by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Garry Mauro's support of the death penalty for Lucas.
  • In July, he proposed a massive and costly overhaul of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) department.
  • On August 16, the local daily printed a letter from Aleshire in which the judge called the Austin City Council a dog that is "fat and overfed." The council "dog," wrote Aleshire, is "sneaky" and "is trying to eat out of other dogs' dishes."
  • On August 26, KVET-FM aired an embarrassing voice-mail message from County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir to Aleshire, a message that was clearly disseminated by Aleshire, in an apparent effort to hurt his longtime friend (See sidebar).

Aleshire is a true believer, a hyperactive Boy Scout who can't keep quiet. And that is both his blessing and his curse. "Peace and quiet is not my top priority," admits Aleshire, who turns 49 on Monday. "I've made folks mad. I don't take pleasure in that. I do take pleasure in agitating."

Aleshire has done more agitating than a vintage Maytag. And he has left more than a few county commissioners and political opponents fuming. "He is difficult to work with. Very difficult to work with," says former county commissioner Valarie Bristol, who engaged in a few battles with Aleshire during her tenure on the Commissioners Court. "You never mind criticism when it's trying to help you get better. But sometimes, it doesn't appear that that's the goal." When asked what Aleshire would be remembered for, Bristol replied, "I can't think of any major accomplishment that Aleshire has had. Instead of proposing something, he focuses on ripping into other people's work."

Last fall, Aleshire wrote a letter attacking her character and disseminated the diatribe to county Democratic Party members and media representatives. At the time, Bristol was only weeks away from announcing her bid for the county judge's seat, and Aleshire, who supported Sam Biscoe for the job, wanted to do his part to weaken Bristol's campaign before it even got off the ground. Biscoe went on to win the party's nomination.


He's ... Well, Different

Aleshire, who was once lovingly described by former Travis County sheriff Doyne Bailey as a "rolling ball of butcher knives," revels in his role as a maverick. He has thrown himself into many local frays and engaged in long-running feuds with former county commissioner and ex-mayor Bruce Todd, as well as with the former Republican sheriff, Terry Keel. A conscientious objector, Aleshire spoke out against the Gulf War in 1991, and in 1992 protested against the gasoline tank farms in East Austin that have since shut down.

But Aleshire has also become something of a pariah in local political circles. One prominent county employee who requested anonymity said Aleshire "treats people horribly. Bill is convinced that he's the only honest, competent person. If you have a disagreement with him it's because you are incredibly stupid or dishonest. Nobody can just have a different view."

Even Aleshire's supporters are quick to temper their praise. County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, who has had numerous battles with Aleshire, says, "Bill does put the word `anal' into `analysis.' But a great deal of what his job is about are those crummy anal details. You can have a disagreement about how nit-picky it got. But Bill is very good about that and somebody has got to be in that job." Despite their earlier battles, Aleshire and Sonleitner have recently achieved détente. "I can say honestly now that Bill and I are in a better place than we have ever been. For whatever reason, we have the best working relationship that we've ever had. It's too bad it took three and a half years to achieve," says Sonleitner.

Love him or hate him, Aleshire has been a force to be reckoned with in Travis County for nearly two decades. During his five-year stint as county tax assessor-collector and 12 years as county judge, Aleshire has been raging against his enemies, whether real or imagined. He has been the loudest and most recognizable force on the Commissioners Court. He is the de facto CEO of an organization with a $300 million budget and more than 3,600 employees.

Aleshire could easily win re-election. He's savvy and popular with voters. He's never been involved in a scandal, has high name identification and could easily raise the money for another campaign. But Bill Aleshire has had enough. Next month, he will become a freshman at the University of Texas Law School. His plan is to practice law and "to spend the rest of my life helping make this system work for people. I want to bring honor to the profession."


The Wonder Years



Aleshire hoisted a placard and protested the former East Austin gasoline tank farm in 1992.

photograph by Alan Pogue

The son of an Army officer, Aleshire was born on Aug. 31, 1949 in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His father, a major in the Army, was later transferred to Camp Stanley in Texas, so the family moved to Boerne. When his parents divorced, he moved to Paris, Texas, with his mother. He attended East Texas State University on a music scholarship (he was a drum major). Later, he got a scholarship in debate and decided to major in government. In 1969, he ran for - and lost - a bid for student body president. It is the only election Aleshire has lost. His campaign manager at East Texas was David Butts, who is now a political consultant in Austin. In 1970, Aleshire moved to Austin and went on to get his college degree, a B.A. in government from UT.

A vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, Aleshire applied for, and got, conscientious objector status, an issue that he says caused more than a little conflict with his father. Part of the work he did as community service in lieu of military service was to work in the Texas Legislature. He worked as a volunteer for The Dirty 30, a group of reformist legislators that included Reps. Sissy Farenthold and Lloyd Doggett, among others. From there, he went to work in the state comptroller's office for Bob Bullock, the craggy curmudgeon from Hillsboro. During his three-year stint with Bullock, Aleshire rose to the position of associate deputy comptroller. In 1979, Bullock was under investigation by the Travis County Public Integrity Unit for allegations that he was abusing the powers of his office. One news report from that time period alleged that Bullock was spending $4,091 per month of taxpayer money to maintain his personal clipping files. A grand jury was convened. According to Aleshire, an embattled Bullock gathered his staff and told them that he wanted to cut off funding for the public integrity unit, and he wanted his staffers to lobby the legislature toward that end.

Aleshire refused. "I didn't feel like I could do that," says Aleshire, who tendered his resignation instead. Aleshire's inspiration for his next career move came while standing in line at the tax office to renew his license plates. After a 45-minute wait, he got to the counter, only to be told the assessor would not accept his check. He went to the bank, and returned a short time later with cash for his license plates and a plan to unseat the assessor, a Republican named Bill Burnette.

Within a few months, Aleshire announced his candidacy for Burnette's job, promising to reform the assessor's office, which at that time had virtually no computers. Instead, it relied primarily on oversized ledger books and hand entry of figures. Just before the November election, Aleshire got a political windfall that candidates dream of: Five months before the election, Burnette made a mistake calculating the county's effective tax rate, a move that overestimated the taxable property in the county by $157 million. The mistake was hugely embarrassing for Burnette, who shortly thereafter dropped out of the race, leaving Aleshire with a Libertarian Party candidate as his only opposition. Aleshire won in a landslide, and a chastened Burnette resigned his position a month early to allow Aleshire to get to work.

On December 1, 1980, Aleshire began his crusade in county government. He began modernizing the assessor-collector's office, installing computers and speeding up the check deposit system. He also gained notoriety - and positive press - for conducting raids and seizing property from delinquent taxpayers. He consolidated and centralized the tax collection program for 37 different taxing jurisdictions in Travis County into one office, a move that continues to save local taxing jurisdictions millions of dollars per year. Before that, almost every entity collected its own taxes. He gained a reputation as a progressive manager who brought the antiquated tax office into the 20th century. He also began butting heads with the Commissioners Court, which at the time was ruled by the triumvirate of Richard Moya, Bob Honts, and County Judge Mike Renfro. (The commissioner from Precinct 3 was Ann Richards. Shortly after Aleshire got into office, Richards resigned her place on the court to run for state treasurer, a move that allowed her to escape much of the blame for county projects that were authorized by the Renfro-Moya-Honts court, including a brand-new county jail with cells that didn't lock.)

The skirmishes between Aleshire and the Commissioners Court became more heated. In 1982, when Aleshire criticized the commissioners' decision to spend $347,000 on a plaza at the courthouse, Moya responded by suggesting the county "build a child-care center in the plaza for Bill Aleshire and his friends."

The skirmishes turned into a feud. In November 1985, Aleshire quit his job as assessor-collector to run against Renfro, a fellow Democrat who had been county judge for 10 years. Surprisingly, Aleshire easily beat the incumbent in the primary and went on to beat Republican Allen Clark in the November 1986 general election. Clark, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, tried to make Aleshire's objector status an issue in the campaign. It failed.


Aleshire on the Issues



Aleshire the anti-war activist spoke out against the Gulf War in 1991.

photograph by Alan Pogue

County Attorney Ken Oden, who describes himself as a personal friend of Aleshire, says the county judge is "a fountain of unfettered opinion," and calls Aleshire, jokingly, "the most dangerous man in Travis County."

Oden, elected county attorney in 1984, has butted heads more than once with Aleshire. He says his friend is "a prototype of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-Sharpstown political reformer." (The Sharpstown banking scandal rocked state government in the early-1970s and ended many political careers.) Oden believes that Aleshire's own perception of himself is still that of an outsider. As such, Aleshire is constantly campaigning against government, even though he holds the most powerful job in the county. "He's constantly trying to prove his own worth," explains Oden. "He hasn't relinquished his vision of himself as a gadfly."

Throughout his tenure, Aleshire has been a crusader for strengthening the power and authority of county government. He believes that a strong Travis County government is needed to counter the growing power and size of the city of Austin. "Cities are overfed. Counties are underfed," says Aleshire, who wants the Texas Legislature to give counties more authority to impose sales taxes and user fees on residents. When reminded that Bexar County and the city of San Antonio are considering moves that would unify city and county services into one governmental body - the two entities recently held an all-day conference to explore the consolidation option - Aleshire launched into a 10-minute monologue on the pitfalls of consolidated city-county government. "I've debated metropolitan government and consolidation ever since I've been in office," says Aleshire. "But metropolitan government is not the solution. I believe we need to have a separation of duties between the city and the county for issues like EMS, health care, and crime fighting."

And Aleshire thinks the county is often on the short end of the partnership. He points out that the county incarcerates almost all of the city's prisoners, but, he says, 90% of federal crime-fighting monies awarded to the region go to the city of Austin, while the county gets just 10%. "We are paying for [prisoners'] medical care, their housing, their trials, their attorneys, and their probation," Aleshire said. "I don't know if those funds should be split 50-50. But it certainly shouldn't be 90-10."

Then, displaying his knack for hyperbole, Aleshire added, "Going to a mega-government, a USSR-style government, is 180 degrees opposite of what people want to see. If anything, they want to see governments downsize and be held accountable." And he says the issue of governmental consolidation has become increasingly fractious because of Austin's aggressive annexation policies and its "history of operating beyond its borders." He's afraid that county residents outside of Austin would be steamrolled by the city, and he also fears that under a consolidated government, more officials would be appointed, rather than elected. He points out that while the county has numerous elected officials, the city has only the council, and all other city officials are appointed, and have no accountability to voters.

And even though Aleshire admits the city of Austin operates its business affairs "not just good, but excellently," his opposition to recent city proposals borders on the bizarre. Aleshire criticized the city last year when it annexed 22 square miles of county territory along with some 27,000 county residents. His criticism puzzled city officials, who pointed out that the annexation dramatically reduced the territory and the attendant services (police, roads, etc.) the county would have to provide. And earlier this year, Aleshire went out of his way to oppose the city's plans to acquire land in the county. He stridently opposed Prop. 2, a $65 million bond proposal that was on the ballot May 2. The proposal, which passed, was sold for its ability to protect water quality. "The process stinks, whether the project is justified or not," Aleshire said of the city's bond proposal.

Perhaps the best example of Aleshire's inclination toward gadfly-dom were the endless negotiations over the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan, the effort to establish a preserve system for endangered species in western Travis County. At the interminable meetings over the plan, Aleshire endlessly asked questions. Two-hour meetings became three- and four-hour meetings. If the Endangered Species Act was a federal statute, why weren't the feds paying to enact the law in Travis County? Aleshire asked. Where would the money come from? But in the end, despite such questions about financing, the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve system was created. In 1995, federal officials from the Interior Department, including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, came to Austin to dedicate the system, which is supposed to cover 30,000 acres.

Today, three years and three months after Babbitt's visit, questions about the viability of the preserve system are increasing and the problem has been - drum roll please - financing. The preserve system was predicated on the belief that developers in western Travis County would pay a land impact fee of $5,500 per acre. That money would then be used to purchase land for the preserve system. Developers though, have been insisting the fee is too high and have been developing elsewhere. Attorney David Armbrust, who represents land developers and has been involved with the BCCP throughout its troubled life, says of Aleshire, "I think he was right. Aleshire was one of the people who said the financing didn't work. In my view, it [the preserve system] hasn't worked and that's the reason it hasn't worked." A few months ago, the Austin City Council voted to reduce the impact fee to $3,000 per acre to make the financing for the BCCP more sound. It remains to be seen if the council's move will make a difference.


Sparring With Spataro

While Aleshire focused critical attention on the BCCP, he has saved his most vitriolic attacks for County Auditor Susan Spataro. Last December, Aleshire wrote and distributed a 21-page attack on every aspect of Spataro's office, charging that she is incompetent, has used unethical hiring practices, and has a "reputation among county officials as operating with political and personal prejudice." Perhaps Aleshire's biggest concern about Spataro is that she acts as both the auditor and the comptroller for the county, a situation he believes allows her too much autonomy with no direct oversight and no accountability to voters.

Oden and several other county officials believe Aleshire was right to attack Spataro. Oden points out that Spataro has hired several of her friends and even hired her brother's live-in girlfriend. Oden also questions Spataro's authorization of salary supplements that were withdrawn from a jail commissary fund while Terry Keel was county sheriff. Spataro refused to comment on Aleshire's charges. Bristol, however, came to Spataro's defense, saying, "I thought Susan was an outstanding auditor. Every commissioner that I know has always worked well with Susan," she said.

Aleshire's attack on Spataro led to an investigation by the county's 13 district judges, who are responsible for appointing and overseeing the auditor. The report, issued by District Judge Joe Hart on July 1, concludes that Spataro "has not committed official misconduct nor is the County Auditor incompetent to faithfully discharge the duties of her office." However, the report agreed with Aleshire on a couple of points, saying that by hiring Rebecca Murski, her brother's girlfriend, Spataro had "exercised poor judgment." The report also found "an error in judgment" in the way the auditor reserved funds to do remodeling work in her office.

However, the report also faults Aleshire, who in his 21-page screed against Spataro had alleged that the auditor had been partisan and had helped Shyra Darr, Aleshire's opponent in the 1994 election. The report states: "None of this amounts to anything except the innuendo, and that is all it is, that Ms. Spataro has a political agenda. This innuendo, which I find has no basis in any facts I can discover, appears several times in Judge Aleshire's memorandum."

Despite the report, which clearly absolves Spataro of Aleshire's most serious charges, the county judge won't let it go. He insists that the passages regarding Spataro's "errors in judgment" support his position. Asked about his dogged pursuit of the Spataro matter, he responds, "Am I rational about it? I'm alarmed because other people aren't concerned about it."


Emergency!

The Spataro affair has not been Aleshire's brightest moment. Neither has his involvement with EMS. Aleshire wants the county to control the EMS department. So does everybody at City Hall, and so do the outlying cities in the county. Negotiations began nine months ago, with plans for the county to gradually take over the operations of the department. But there are stumbling blocks to the deal, including the transfer of city property and authority to the county. When negotiations slowed, Aleshire suddenly announced a plan to set up a separate EMS system for the county, a move that would have duplicated services. His plan drew a scathing letter from Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy, who, on July 13, wrote, "I can guarantee that people will most certainly die simply because Bill Aleshire is throwing one more political temper tantrum." Levy also told Aleshire that thanks to his proposal, county residents "will no longer get high quality emergency care, but you really don't care as long as you get what you want politically. `Tis a pity."

City councilmembers - read "dogs" - were not chasing after Aleshire's plan for a separate EMS system, either. Over the past few weeks, Aleshire's idea, and his involvement in EMS negotiations, have ended. And it appears that the city and the county will cut a deal to unify the EMS system and put it under the control of the county. Last week, the Commissioners Court approved a resolution drafted by commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Margaret Moore that calls for spending $5 million on new ambulances and new staff positions. The proposal will put five new ambulances in different parts of the county: Pflugerville, Manor, Elroy, Jonestown, and the Cebar area near 2244 and Cuernavaca. The plan also includes upgrading the ambulance now stationed in Lago Vista to an advanced life support unit.

In an Aug. 18, letter to the City Council, the Commissioners Court said it will "make this investment only upon agreement with all the cities in Travis County, including the City of Austin, to a unified system under the ultimate control of Travis County." The Austin City Council is ready to vote on an item regarding the transfer of EMS to the county, but Mayor Kirk Watson says several legal issues will have to be resolved through legislation. In the meantime, the city and county want to form a transition team that will set benchmarks for response times, and deal with the issues of taxes and transfer of personnel.

Long-term management of EMS will probably fall to a board of city, county, and medical officials. It could also be run by the Commissioners Court. Having the sheriff in charge of EMS may be the best choice, as the sheriff's office fields the 911 calls that originate from county residents. Aleshire, Watson, and Sheriff Margo Frasier all have voiced support for that option. Meanwhile, despite his mistrust of government consolidation in other fields, Aleshire strongly supports the EMS consolidation, and thinks it'll benefit his constituents: "EMS just hasn't produced good results outside of Austin."


Target on His Chest

Whatever the issue - birds, budgets, or ambulances - Aleshire has made it clear that he marches to a different drummer. And now that he is leaving, many people are thrilled to see him go. But that sentiment may lack a bit of perspective. After all, Aleshire has done what politicians dream of doing: He has made a difference. He brought the tax assessor's office out of the Stone Age, and he rode herd on Travis County as it went through a recession, and then a period of explosive growth.

Aleshire has always relished a good scrap. But it also seems clear that he has been worn down. He sounds weary of being continually reminded that his politics have too little polish. "That's one of the reasons I want to quit politics," he says. "That is that style matters more than substance. If I am correct ought to matter more than style." Alas, in politics, being correct rarely wins many friends. And Aleshire's assertion that being right ought to matter more than anything else demonstrates that even after 18 years in office, he still has a certain idealism - or maybe it's naiveté - about what politics should be. Sheriff Margo Frasier summed up her view of Aleshire this way: "I kind of appreciate somebody in the political arena who paints a target on their chest and says what they feel."

Yes, Bill Aleshire painted a target on his chest and left it there for nearly 18 years. It may have been foolish. Hell, sometimes it was just plain reckless. So call him foolish, reckless, or something stronger. The truth is, Bill Aleshire really doesn't care.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Bill Aleshire, Aleshire, Travis County, Commissioners Court, County Judge, Judge, Agitator

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