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Casey Dobson talks about

Monday, October 7, 2002 by

Representing the City of Austin

By Keith Sennikoff

“I was born in Kansas; but that was just bad luck. I’m from Boerne, Texas,” says Casey Dobson, lead counsel for the City of Austin in both the Stratus and Gary Bradley settlement cases, among many others. Dobson moved to Austin after high school to attend the University of Texas, where he received both his undergraduate and law degrees.

Dobson is a partner in the law firm of Scott Douglass & McConnico and has been with them since he got out of law school 17 years ago. As befits a man in his profession, he enjoys most working the courtroom at trial. “Ultimately, that’s what I do . . . be on my feet and argue cases. If you don’t enjoy doing that, you don’t need to be in this job.” He takes seriously his opportunities to “impact, hopefully positively, a city where I’ve lived for 22 years and intend to live for the rest of my life and have a great deal of affection for.” Also, he says, “You meet a lot of characters representing the City of Austin.”

Dobson relishes the uniqueness and occasional weirdness of Austin. He says, “I like to think every Aggie’s nightmare vision of Austin would be Eeyore’s Birthday Party. If I was going to bring outsiders to one Austin event and say, ‘Okay, here it is,’ everybody from uptight lawyers like me, to college students, to slackers, that would be it.”

However, Dobson is well aware that Austin’s individuality leads to some big problems in the Legislature. “We are a very progressive city trying to make public policy in a very conservative state . . . it’s just a reality in this town and it has been for a long time . . . And I think you’re always going to have that tension there. I hope so, because I think the only resolution to it would be Austin becoming as conservative as the rest of the state.” To avoid that fate, Dobson says city leaders must be mindful of their position when they make decisions and public policy. “We need to be Austin with a healthy dose of reality. And I that’s what I’ve tried to strive for in representing the city.”

One of his most significant, and certainly most exhausting, cases was the Bradley Settlement, which spelled out development rules for land over the sensitive Edwards Aquifer being annexed into the city. In it Dobson articulated language to protect the land from one of the most notorious deal-wranglers in modern Texas history, Gary Bradley. When Bradley recently announced he was going bankrupt, the value of that language became evident. “That deal,” Dobson said, “runs with the land. So it can change hands a hundred times and the protections that were built into the agreement for the city’s benefit don’t go anywhere. Also, the city got as part of that deal not just contractual promises from Mr. Bradley and the other owners of the land, we also got actual property rights, a conservation easement.”

The grandfathering law, otherwise known as HB1704, has been perhaps the legal issue where Dobson’s expertise has been most tested, again concerning development rights on land over the aquifer. “It is the analysis of city staff that if we took care of the Bradley-affiliated property and Stratus’ property, we would have taken care of a huge chunk—more than half, I believe—of the property within the city’s jurisdiction that is in the contributing or recharge zones that might have a 1704 claim. That was a big incentive for us to reach a settlement with Bradley, and two years later to reach a settlement with Stratus.”

He believes there is an additional threat that goes beyond HB1704. “The city only regulates water quality in our ETJ (extra-territorial jurisdiction) because state law gives us the power to do so. Well, what the state gives, the state can take away. And I believe what the city’s concerned about is an effort outside of 1704 . . . to just get the City of Austin out of the business of regulating water quality in our ETJ. I don’t know that . . . but that’s one threat we’re concerned about. That kind of threat is another reason that when a major landowner who is also a major political player, like Stratus, comes to you and says, ‘I want to make a deal,’ you ought to at least listen to them, and at least try. Because anybody that’s trying to pass a bill to eliminate our ability to regulate water quality in the ETJ I don’t believe is going to find an ally or any help from Stratus Properties this next session—because we made our peace with them. And now it’s a competitive issue for them. They wouldn’t want their competitors to not have to go through what they had to go through.”

“The Council makes policy; I’m just a lawyer and a counselor to the them. But when I give my counsel those are some of the things I have to take into account.”

Asked to give an example of how many hours he put into one of these major deals, Dobson said, “The last couple of months of the Bradley negotiations culminating in the Council vote on the Bradley settlement I’m certain I worked between 230 and 270 hours a month those months on that deal. But it’s not just me. I’d get home at 11 o’ clock just beat down, and then I’d get in here the next morning and I’d have a 2am email from ( City Manager) Toby Futrell. I mean, she is the hardest working woman in show business! And all her top people work extremely hard.”

Dobson has great respect for the leadership shown by certain Council members during the recent Stratus negotiations, and for Council Member Daryl Slusher in particular. “He’s got people that would say that they were his base and the main reason that he first got into office several years ago, and they’re down there calling him a traitor, basically. And in what was not a very proud day for Austin, I don’t think, shouting him down and hurling insults at the Council meeting . . . But leadership is all about doing the right thing, even in the face of your friends shouting at you.” And Dobson doesn’t believe the deal would have even happened were it not for the efforts of Futrell.

The idea that was 'too good for Austin'

Dobson was part of the vanguard group that came up with the idea of trading land in the Desired Development Zone, specifically Robert Mueller Airport, for land over the aquifer, an idea Stratus welcomed. But, as Dobson explains, “When that idea was first floated in the spring of 2001, you had a different Council then, and you had one or two Council members that just had a kneejerk, very negative reaction to it. And that’s fine; there’s certainly room for principled disagreement about whether that was a good idea. But what struck me more was the opposition of the environmental leadership, which I was absolutely flabbergasted by! How can we go wrong trading development where we do want it for development where we don’t? But that ship sailed. We don’t have that opportunity. I think the city does have some other property that you might see become part of a future swap deal, but I think anything like that is a ways off.”

“One of my favorite sayings of ex-Mayor Watso n is when he told me, ‘Casey, people that are for stuff don’t come to meetings in this town.’ You can’t ask any political body to get too far out on a limb; you’ve got to build some political support from below for an idea like that. And other than the city’s lawyers and the top city staff and a few voices in the environmental community—I remember specifically Jack Goodman, who I think has as much or more common sense than anybody I’ve met in Austin, being incredulous that the SOS leadership wouldn’t enthusiastically support the idea of an airport swap—such as Robin (Rather) and Jack and a few other lonely voices, most of what the Council heard was against it—from the environmental community, and certainly from the various groups that have their fingers in the Mueller redevelopment pie. I think now if you were to talk to those people, frankly, you’d hear a lot of revisionist history . . . The fact of the matter is when that idea needed political support there wasn’t any there, so it died.”

Asked whether he would consider the idea of becoming a judge in the future, Dobson responded, “I’ve taught as an adjunct professor at the law school for several years, and I really enjoy that. And if I could do that full time, maybe sometime far off in the future, I think I’d enjoy that more than being a judge.”

Dobson lives in Austin with his wife Diana and their two children, Zoë and Jack. He is naturally a big Longhorn fan and goes to most of the UT football and basketball games. He also likes to spend a few weeks a year relaxing at the family home on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, reading history and political biography. “I think it’s valuable for someone that does what I do to study how power is amassed, used and abused across time. And what you’ll find is that though the issues and personalities change, the themes of amassing power, using power and abusing power stay remarkably consistent.”


© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Zoning case put on hold . . . The City Council last week decided to postpone indefinitely the controversial zoning case involving industrially-zoned property at 618 Tillery St. in East Austin. The city is attempting to downzone the property, home to a warehouse that has over the years elicited numerous complaints from nearby residents. The owner is opposed to any change, so it will take six votes on the Council to approve a rezoning. Neighbors have cited the proximity of Brooke Elementary School and the number of large trucks that enter and exit the warehouse as primary reasons for requesting the change. The item could come back before the Council in January of next year, when the Council is tentatively scheduled to consider the area’s neighborhood plan . . . City meetings scarce . . . A short list of City of Austin meetings appears on the city’s Web site this week. Tonight the Design Commission will again talk about Art in Public Places and consider the process for reviewing projects brought to the Commission . . . Local political forum tonight . . . Westlake High School and a number of Western Travis County organizations are hosting a candidate forum tonight from 7-9pm at the 9th Grade Center, Westlake High School. Candidates from all the local races for that area have been invited to participate . . . Mayor and Chamber members visit Nashville . . . Mayor Gus Garcia is leading a delegation of civic-minded Austinites to Nashville. They left yesterday and are scheduled to visit Dell Computer’s Nashville facility and record company founder Mike Curb and Dr. Robert Fisher of Belmont University, who will speak on the music industry as an economic driver. Austin delegate Neal Kocurek will discuss creating a regional vision for the future with his Nashville counterparts. The group is also expected to visit a number of educational facilities, including the state-of-the-art Nashville Public Library . . . Randy Worden joins GBRA . . . The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority has created a new position, executive manager for business development and resource management, and named a former City of Austin employee to the post. Worden, who served as operations director for the Macon Water Authority in Georgia, is also a former member of the city’s Water & Wastewater Department . . . DAA’s Impact 2002 luncheon . . . The Downtown Austin Alliance will honor the Convention Center Expansion, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and 300 West Sixth as the three winners of the 2002 Impact Awards. Architect Lawrence Speck of PageSoutherlandPage will receive the Design Award for work on the Computer Sciences Corp’s financial building. Eddie Safady, president of Liberty Bank, will receive the Individual/Organizational Award for being the first to rehabilitate a historic structure on Congress Avenue as his own residence. The Downtown Housing Award goes to Plaza Lofts. The Historic Marketing Department of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau will receive the Chair Emeritus Award. Betty Baker, chair of the Zoning and Platting Commission, leads that department. The luncheon will be at noon, Oct. 23, at the Four Seasons Hotel. For more information, call 469-1766.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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