City Hall Hustle: Everybody's on Vacation

Propositions and lawyers and auditors, oh my!

At City Hall, to cement someone's job security, first you gotta can him.

That was the Catch-22 the City Council became ensnared in Monday, at a specially called meeting canvassing the results of the Nov. 4 election. After pro forma approval of the results, a second item addressed Proposition 1 – the city auditor proposition, which had passed resoundingly (71%). By appointing the auditor to a fixed five-year term and requiring a council supermajority to boot him, Prop. 1 was written by the council with the intent of keeping current auditor Steve Morgan in his office while further insulating him from political retribution. The move grants "autonomy and independence ... from city influence," said Council Member Mike Martinez. So what did council do next? Simple: vacate his office and appoint him "acting" city auditor while a panel is convened to fill the permanent position.

Who else could elucidate this Möbius strip of logic, other than your city law department?

A few clarifications: Morgan will undoubtedly be returned to his current capacity, and requiring a nominating committee (comprising three council members, the city manager, and the state auditor) to name the auditor is spelled out in the City Charter. "What it affects is what we lawyers call 'a vacation of the position,'" says Assistant City Attorney Jenny Gilchrist, reasonably enough. "It essentially creates the position anew," she says, meaning the office "of the current occupant ... is rescinded by operation of law. So what council will do is appoint an acting [auditor], because in our city code, there is a fairly complicated process they have to go through in order to actually make an appointment" – the aforementioned nominating committee.

While red tape may be a fact of municipal life, there's an incredulity at City Hall concerning the legal department's tardiness in spelling out the proposition's ramifications. To put it simply: Could we get a little more proactive, please? "It's not exactly concerning to me, but I was ... surprised to see that the issues of appointing an interim auditor and then doing the 'search' for a replacement for the new auditor never came up during the discussions when we were talking about this ballot initiative," said Martinez at the council meeting. "At least I don't recall it." The facts seem to back him up. Gilchrist says: "We weren't asked to do an analysis of the impact of the charter amendment until fairly close to Election Day. So while there was a presumption it would have an impact, we did not do the analysis." Still, you'd think at some point in reviewing the ballot language, the department, headed by David Smith, would have briefed council – not to mention the voters – on its full effects.

City legal's taken its share of lumps – for deference to Wal-Mart in the Northcross debacle, its role in drafting what critics reflexively called biased ballot language, from Paul Robbins just about every time he opens his mouth, and so on – of which this appears to be the latest scrape.

Now For Something Completely Different …

Carole Keeton Strayhorn's nonannouncement for mayor last week reminded us all that silly season's right around the corner. The Hustle reached out to another potential candidate, but when we reached Brewster McCracken on Nov. 10 – the first day candidates could begin spending on elections – his mind was squarely in marriage mode. The mayor pro tem has since tied the knot with Sarah Groos, the LBJ Library's programs manager; the two are honeymooning in Zihuatanejo, on the southern Pacific coast of Mexico, having left seemingly as soon as Martinez returned from his honeymoon with new bride Lara Wendler, chief of staff to Texas senator and death row phone foe John Whitmire. The Hustle sends his best wishes all around.

As for its meeting today (Thursday, Nov. 20), council receives an after-the-fact presentation on the qualifications process for teams vying to design the new central library. It's a little strange, since the three finalists have already made their pitches to the council, with the decision since slated to come in December. Can we assess late fees?


Drop a line: wells@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Props. and lawyers and auditorsoh my!, City Council, Law Department, Mike Martinez, David Smith

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