Point Austin: Strange Bedfellows, Stranger Politics
“Efficiency audit” petition campaign could use an independent audit
Last week the city clerk validated the petition circulated by the Citizens for an Accountable Austin PAC, endorsing an "independent efficiency audit" for the city, and a proposition approving such an audit on the November ballot (pending City Council action). It's unsurprising that 30,000 residents were willing to sign a seemingly innocuous petition in favor of careful accounting – petitioners hardly emphasized the potential cost of such an audit (estimates run north of $1 million), nor the fact that the city's line-item budget is publicly available online, nor that the city has its own official auditors who regularly review all departments and publicly report their findings (good and bad). What's one more set of bean-counters?
Yet judging from the campaign's origins and backers, there's reason to suspect less than noble motives. The PAC's treasurer and spokesman, Michael Searle, was formerly chief of staff to Council Member Ellen Troxclair, the sole Republican on the dais and one singularly devoted to cutting taxes and spending (except in her District 8), and to undermining adopted city policy at the state Legislature. According to the July 16 campaign finance report of Citizens for an Accountable Austin (echoing the libertarian Texans for Accountable Government), the PAC collected $137,000 (in money or in-kind contributions), all of it from something called the "Austin Civic Fund Action." Searle simultaneously dissolved the PAC in the same filing.
Most of the money was paid to a Dripping Springs firm, Benezet Consulting, which, according to its website, is more often devoted to electing GOP candidates, among them former Austin Council Member Don Zimmerman.
The Right Connections
The "Fund Action," according to Searle, is a "public education and engagement" project of the Austin Civic Fund, whose mission is "to identify and support innovators in Austin who are working to address the city's most pressing problems." The Fund's corporate donors are not identified – it's 100% "dark money" – but Searle said "sunlight" for the city does not imply daylight for donors: "Transparency is a necessary obligation of government, not of private citizens. Donors to the Austin Civic Fund, who are entitled to privacy, represent a broad range of Austin residents who support the mission of the organization."
However, a few members of that "broad range" are listed on the May 25 state incorporation papers of the "educational nonprofit" Austin Civic Fund. The registered agent is Christopher Covo, an executive with PJS (Professional Janitorial Services), and a director of the Building Owners and Managers Association-Austin, as well as the director of business development for Edible San Antonio. Though he's young, Covo is sufficiently wired in to state GOP politics that in 2016 Gov. Greg Abbott appointed him to the state Dental Hygiene Advisory Committee (hygiene experience unspecified).
Covo's fellow Fund directors are Thomas Bailey and John Nantz. Nantz is a management consultant with Redwood Advisors, and a member of the Austin Liberty Leadership Council, a "young professionals" group within the conservative think tank the Texas Public Policy Foundation. TPPF attorneys are representing Nantz – who says Obamacare is unfair to the young and healthy – as a named plaintiff in one of the latest lawsuits filed to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
Looking for Cover
Finally, listed as the "organizer" on the incorporation papers is attorney Art Martinez de Vara, formerly an assistant general counsel to the state GOP and an aide to state Sen. Konni Burton, but best known for his tenure (2008-15) as mayor of Von Ormy, a tiny town southwest of San Antonio that incorporated to stave off big-city annexation. Martinez de Vara attempted to establish Von Ormy as a "Liberty City," free of property taxes – and as things turned out, of a sewer system, of police or fire protection, of animal control, and of any rational approach to community governance. (See "The Rise and Fall of the 'Freest Little City in Texas,'" by James McCandless, Texas Observer, July 31, 2017.)
All in all, it's a curious cabal, but to help promote their seemingly anodyne petition, Searle and company has received advice and local political cover from none other than longtime campaign finance reform devotee Fred Lewis and environmentalist Bill Bunch. I asked Lewis and Bunch whether they were concerned about the dark money underwriting the campaign. Lewis said he supports the campaign because "the City needs to set different, more progressive priorities," and that he asked the campaigners to disclose their funding sources "but they decided not to." Bunch seconded Lewis, adding, "An effective audit would ... benefit everyone, except those benefiting from waste and lack of oversight."
It's not clear how much oversight accompanied the involvement of nominally liberal activists in a right-wing petition campaign. But whatever the intentions and priorities of Searle, Nantz, Martinez de Vara – and their anonymous underwriters – they're unlikely to be "progressive," or even much concerned about the public needs and financial challenges facing the city of Austin. In their political universe, transparency and accountability are for other people.