Beside the Point

Improper Appearances

Uncorking a vintage cask of vitriol on Sunday, March 12, Statesman cellar steward Rich Oppel paused long enough to let the delicate bouquet waft under his nose, before swatting it away. "The Austin City Council's clumsy effort last week to bring to heel City Auditor Steve Morgan was a dangerous sign of a local government that brooks no internal criticism and demands secrecy," Oppel began. His Truthiness then paused, royally, for a moment, swishing and spitting through a wheel-spinning detour of accusations that Austin public access TV channels – rather than being a redoubt of volunteer and obviously impecunious soap-boxers – are somehow the conduit of the council's "honey pot … to reward all sorts of backers." This because one of the city's administrators of the stations was recently discovered with his hand allegedly in the till. (We hope Alex Jones has duly forwarded those clandestine council contributions to his deep-cover operatives at the Bohemian Grove.)

Scuttling ever sideways, Oppel finally addressed his real subject: persistent city hall whispers that the planned council evaluation of Morgan's work (rescheduled for today, Thursday) is in fact a thinly veiled hatchet job instigated by City Manager Toby Futrell, reportedly angry that over the last few years the auditor has uncovered an embarrassing string of official snafus and boondoggles. As Oppel points out, Morgan has uncovered much in his tenure as auditor – the aforesaid embezzlement at Austin Community Television, the social-services-agency-cum- slush-fund known as Vision Village, and more recently, disgraced minority-contractor conduit Bonding and Technical Services. BTS recently pleaded guilty to five counts of making illegal corporate contributions to council candidacies; Oppel credits Morgan's initial investigation with uncovering the corruption.

One Morgan-related story that Oppel-Ed curiously avoids is a more current one: the continuing saga of Bill Moriarty, former director of the Austin Clean Water Program. In his pending lawsuit, Moriarty names Futrell (and others, including Council Member Brewster McCracken) as responsible for his unceremonious firing, alleging he was pushed out over refusing to play nice with perennially teat-sucking city contractors. The official line on Moriarty's dismissal is that his companion, Diane Hyatt, was hired as a subcontractor to the Clean Water Program – creating, if not an actual conflict of interest, then the appearance of one. Morgan enters that picture when, asked to review the Moriarty matter (earlier dismissed by both the APD and the DA), he found nothing other than, as he told the Statesman, "appearance problems." A subsequent investigation followed – at the independent insistence of the city manager – with Moriarty's dismissal ultimately ensuing over said appearance-of-impropriety. Upon Futrell's request, Earth Tech (the contractor technically employing Moriarty) axed him.

Yet nothing in Austin's city charter visibly authorizes the city manager, as distinct from the auditor's office, to initiate such an investigation; indeed, in 1991, Austin voters explicitly moved the auditor's office from under the manager to work directly at the council's discretion. The source of Futrell's investigative authority in this instance is puzzling enough. The persistent rumors of her gunning for Morgan for failing to bring back the goods on Moriarty – if true – are far worse. (Futrell maintains that Moriarty's downfall was his own doing, and that her reviews were made necessary by public questions about the Clean Water Program.)

The Statesman lit this particular powder keg when it ran a leaked confidential memo from Council Member Jennifer Kim, submitted to her colleagues, featuring the nearest-to-official reasons for dissatisfaction with Morgan's performance – difficulty providing information to customers/citizens, honoring time commitments, following up on council requests, and, ironically, trouble with "appropriate protocol regarding highly sensitive information." It also detailed what Kim saw as the council's options on Morgan: dismissal, or placement on a "time bound, formal improvement plan." (Normally personnel matters are handled in executive session, but somebody decided Morgan's case is somehow not normal.) Oppel chides Kim for taking Morgan to the municipal woodshed – but her memo, although undeniably composed in bureaucratese, reads instead like a pre-emptive move to save him and his office. Indeed, after discussing the full range of options, she recommends an "improvement" program – and indeed, according to Morgan, has advocated that auditing positions cut in recent lean years be restored.

Asked via e-mail about the dustup, Kim insists her memo was only amplifying dais-buzz about the auditor, and countering the worst of it. "If Austin wants an accountable, efficient, and transparent government that benefits everyone," she told us, "the council must empower our city auditor to do this work. … There should be no daylight between the auditor's office and the council. My memo laid out concerns voiced by other council members that I thought were best consolidated in one document to help stimulate a healthy discussion. In fact, I believe Mr. Morgan would concur that my discussions with him have been candid, above-board, and will lead to a productive conversation with the council. Furthermore, I believe Mr. Morgan is doing a good job which is the reason I have made the recommendation I did. That 1) the council members be clear in our expectations of Steve and 2) that Steve be given an opportunity to meet those expectations. My focus was and remains on moving forward and empowering our auditor to do his job effectively and efficiently with the support of the entire council."

Kim's gambit may have worked, at least temporarily. Morgan himself thanked her for her support in a March 19 letter to the Statesman (Kim's "intent was to test the validity of concerns she had heard from others"), and was reinforced by a letter from none other than much-acclaimed state auditor, John Keel. "Steve Morgan is doing his job, and he's doing it well," wrote Keel bluntly. "My advice to him is to carry on."

For council to remove Morgan at today's meeting, in a now politicized atmosphere, would certainly create the "negative press and turmoil" warned of in Kim's memo. It would also certainly require much more justification than has thus far escaped the back room. (The leak of the memo itself, apparently intended to embarrass Kim, seems instead to have backfired.) Whatever the outcome, the story is symptomatic of a new truism at City Hall: It's safer to play nice than to make waves – even if making waves is your job.

Lest, you know, you create the appearance of impropriety.

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Austin City Council, city auditor, Steve Morgan, Jennifer Kim, Toby Futrell, city manager, Brewster McCracken, Bill Moriarty, Austin-American Statesman, Rich Oppel

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