Then There's This: The Return of Bruce Todd
Shock and awe over Biscoe's choice to fill commissioner's seat
Wednesday morning, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe succinctly summed up the mixed reactions to his appointment of Bruce Todd to serve as the interim county commissioner for Precinct 2. "If you think lobbyists are the worst people in the world, you won't like the decision," he said. "If you view [lobbying] as just another profession, then you just roll with it."
Biscoe had rolled with it, announcing on Monday that he had tapped Todd to serve out the remainder of Sarah Eckhardt's term through Dec. 31, 2014, while she campaigns for the county judge seat that Biscoe is leaving at the end of next year.
Given the stark differences between Todd and Eckhardt on a range of policy issues, many people in and out of county government were surprised by Biscoe's choice of a corporate lobbyist to replace an environmental progressive. Like many other ex-office holders, Todd has capitalized on his political career – first as a county commissioner, then as Austin mayor from 1991 to 1997 – by using his inside knowledge and contacts in state and local governments to help build his consulting firm. His wife, Elizabeth Christian, runs a PR firm, and the two have often teamed up on various projects. Though he's accepting only $1 a year, plus benefits, for his service, Todd's year-and-a-half on the commissioners court is certain to benefit him when he returns to his lobby practice full time.
While Eckhardt said that while it's "highly improbable" she would have chosen Todd, she respects the judge's decision and has offered Todd her assistance should he ask for it. (Todd, through his staff, said he didn't have time to return my phone call.)
In hindsight, Biscoe's selection should not have come as a surprise. He and Todd first worked together as county commissioners in the late Eighties, and they continued collaborating on issues after Todd became mayor in 1991. Both are considered "establishment" Democrats – strong on social issues but stronger on business-friendly measures. It's reasonable to assume Biscoe selected someone he knew would be in his corner on controversial votes that may come before the court in the next 18 months. It's also reasonable to expect the unpopular SH 45 proposal to return to the commissioners agenda, and a likely reversal of previous action to withdraw county support from the proposed roadway that extends across the aquifer. Biscoe and Todd both support SH 45, as does Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who pledged to get the road project back on track as part of his successful campaign to unseat Karen Huber last November. Additionally, not all commissioners see eye to eye on how to proceed on the construction of a new courthouse, but Biscoe will likely find an ally in Todd.
"Sometimes it's good to be the king, and this is one of those occasions," political consultant Mark Littlefield observed of Biscoe's decision.
Still, as others have pointed out, it's ironic that Biscoe would choose a lobbyist over the general counsel of the Texas Ethics Commission, Tim Sorrells, who was short-listed and interviewed for the job, along with former Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, former City Council candidate Margot Clarke, and attorney/civic activist Jeb Boyt. Biscoe made no apologies for skipping the standard protocol of calling those four candidates to alert them of his selection before his announcement. He said he didn't make his decision until the night before, and the only people he told were Todd and his staff. He briefed Eckhardt's staff 30 minutes before his press conference.
Todd rode into the mayor's office on an environmental platform, but reversed course and, after leaving office, spent the next 16 years lobbying on behalf of developers, transportation firms, gambling interests, and law firms – one in particular that's been trying to take over the county's collections of delinquent property taxes. Todd told Biscoe he would no longer represent companies that seek to do business with state and local governments, with one exception – the law firm that wants the county's collections business, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson. Biscoe says Todd will not lobby for the firm in either Travis County or Central Texas during his time on the court.
The sharpest criticism of Todd's appointment came from Save Our Springs Alliance director Bill Bunch, who had argued against Todd's appointment in a widely circulated letter sent out last week. On Tuesday, Todd's first day on the job, Bunch appeared before the commissioners court during Citizens Communication to propose passing "the broadest possible disclosure and recusal ordinance" to apply to all commissioners. "Passing such an ordinance is even more important now that Mr. Todd has stated he will continue lobbying while in office," he said. Biscoe said later he would give some thought to such a proposal, but added that commissioners already must file financial disclosure forms, although he wasn't certain how soon Todd would need to file his financial statement.
Oddly enough, former County Judge Bill Aleshire, who's always quick to point out conflicts of interests, says he isn't immediately concerned about Todd, who was a colleague on the commissoners court. "I am not worried about his lobbying business because, ironically, his appointment will draw special scrutiny about any potential conflict of interest," he said. While the two didn't always agree while on the court together, they were part of an alliance that helped win voter approval of the 10-1 charter amendment that will change City Council's governance structure next year. "I was pleased that he let that part of his populist sentiments surface," Aleshire said. "Let's hope that continues."