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RMA issues report to counter Strayhorn's

Thursday, March 31, 2005 by

Heiligenstein says $15 for alcohol, first class airfare reimbursed

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority went on the offensive Wednesday, delivering its own 65-page response to charges leveled by Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn earlier this month of conflicts of interest and lax expenditure controls. (See In Fact Daily, March 10, 2005.)

The report, presented by Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein and Communications Director Steve Pustelnyk, was released the same day that a district judge cleared the CTRMA of wrongdoing in its bond issue and validated the issuance of bonds for the US 183-A toll project. Any challenges would apply to future—not past—projects.

Last week, District Attorney Ronnie Earle also cleared Chair Bob Tesch of any legal conflict-of-interest charges. Strayhorn had called for Tesch’s resignation because of his land holdings near the US 183-A route, although the path was set long before Tesch was appointed to the CTRMA board of directors.

“I know how hard this board has worked to set the high standards that we have set,” Tesch said during a discussion of the response. “It’s a little tough handling (this criticism) but we know the high standards that we set and we’re proud of those standards. We will continue to set high standards, and we’ll continue to do the right thing.”

The CTRMA report set out and addressed the charges by the Comptroller’s office, one by one. Among the major findings are that Tesch and Board Member Johanna Zmud do not have any legal conflicts of interest; that the board has a proactive policy to disclose conflicts of interest; that all contractors have been hired in accordance with state statute; and that the CTRMA does not reimburse for alcohol or first-class airfare. The report said any incidents cited were isolated incidents.

Heiligenstein said the purchase of alcohol with CTRMA money was a mistake and amounted to no more than $15. The first-class airfare was a one-time expenditure intended to get a contractor home for Christmas when no other seat was available on a flight. Both incidents were reimbursed to the CTRMA, Heiligenstein said.

“When millions and missions of dollars are funded and 15 of them are a mistake … while it’s not excusable, it’s still not to the level where we can say the agency is in any kind of trouble,” Heiligenstein said. “I think our response is that we feel like we have been the most scrutinized agency in Central Texas for some time. I think the amount of auditing we have seen has proven that we are above reproach.”

The CTRMA response also pointed to areas in the Strayhorn report that it found to be inaccurate: The CTRMA is accountable to the commissioners’ courts that appointed its board. The CTRMA did not operate two years without a budget. The RMA has spent $669,000 on public outreach, rather than the $2 million alleged by Strayhorn. And the CTRMA does have a process for reviewing contractor invoices and assessing contractor performance, according to the response presented to the board on Wednesday.

Heiligenstein sidestepped the question of whether Strayhorn’s audit was political, saying he attributed any errors to an earnest team of auditors with little experience in the field of transportation. Heiligenstein said he attributed no motives to the Comptroller’s Office. Instead, he repeated what he said the first day the audit was issued, which was that the RMA had hoped for a document that the agency could have reviewed and clarified before it was presented to the public and so the two agencies could present the document together as an exercise to improve the management of the agency.

The CTRMA will take some recommendations from the report and implement them, such as hiring an employee dedicated to contract management, adding criminal background checks on employees, continuing efforts to join the State Travel Management Program and a re-examining reimbursement policies.

Notes from the campaign trail

Endorsements roll on for Leffingwell, Clarke, Dunkerley

The Southwest Austin Democrats and the North East Travis County Democrats held separate meetings at opposite ends of the county Tuesday night, but their endorsement votes yielded the same results. Both clubs chose to support Lee Leffingwell, Margot Clarke, and Council Member Betty Dunkerley.

The Southwest Austin Democrats meeting was dominated by public safety issues, as candidates were asked to weigh in on the current situation involving the Austin Police Department, comments made by officers during the Midtown Live nightclub fire, and their level of confidence in Police Chief Stan Knee. "It is a critical community issue that there be trust between those who are charged with protecting our safety, and the people that they are supposedly serving. We have some serious problems," said Margot Clarke. "It is appalling to me that our Police Chief has been on the national news having to respond to questions and problems about the police using a publicly-paid for dispatch system to make extremely inappropriate comments." Clarke did not specifically address her level of confidence in the current police chief, but did offer some suggestions for improvement in the department. "Better recruitment of minorities, better working for the community policing model. I think we need to have a lot more communication and interaction between the community and the police, and then the police definitely need additional training and diversity recruitment."

"There's clearly tension between the police and the African-American and Hispanic community in Austin, and that's unacceptable," said Greg Knaupe, who also declined to specifically endorse or criticize Chief Knee. "We have a good police department, but there are issues that need to be addressed. We need more diversity on the police force." He said the Justice Department review requested by the City Manager and Chief Knee, if performed, would help APD improve. "Hopefully that will bring some issues to light and bring to the top those issues that need to be addressed. It's not good for our community for any segment of our community to not have faith in the police department."

The remaining Place 3 candidate at the forum, Mandy Dealey, called on APD officials to issue a more strongly worded apology for the Mid Town Live incident. "I have great concerns about the police department. I have been extremely disappointed that no one has stepped forward to apologize on behalf of the police department for the comments that were made over e-mail. You can't begin to correct bad behavior if you can't own it first," she said. Ten employees have been disciplined because of the Mid Town Live incident, and Chief Knee held a news conference earlier this month to discuss their punishment. However, Dealey said more needs to be done. "The fact that there has not been any accountability or ownership for the bad behavior distresses me greatly. We've got a lot of work to do to make sure that we improve police community relations. We've got to all work better to understand the differences between us and address what clearly is a racism problem in Austin. We don't like to say that word, but it's a problem that exists here and we've got to do something about it."

In Place 1, candidates Lee Leffingwell and Andrew Bucknall offered slightly different assessment of Chief Knee. Bucknall, a student at Houston-Tillotson College, offered praise for the Chief's efforts to recruit more minority officers. "I have faith in Stan Knee. Stan Knee teaches classes at Houston-Tillotson College. Houston-Tillotson is involved in recruiting people from communities of color to become police officers to try to deal with these issues," he said. But he also called on the entire community to do more to address racial issues. "This is an institutionalized way of looking at a community of color and it cannot just be addressed at a piecemeal fashion. We have to be proactive." Leffingwell said his primary concern with Chief Knee was not with his handling of racial issues, but with his relationship with the rank-and-file officers. "I don't want to pre-judge the Chief," he said. "I've heard a lot of good things about Chief Knee. The only thing that bothers me, frankly, is apparently a lot of the people in the ranks don't like him and don't trust him…and that troubles me."

On another public safety issue, the candidates were asked about their stance on sobriety checkpoints. Several bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature that would authorize police to establish random checkpoints, and those bills are being opposed by local bar and restaurant owners and the Travis County Libertarian Party ( Candidates were asked whether they would support APD having the authority to establish checkpoints if the bills become law, and what types of restrictions or guidelines they would like to see on the use of those checkpoints. For the most part, candidates were adamantly opposed to allowing police officers to set up roadblocks to check for DWI, with most describing the proposal as unconstitutional. A majority of states already allow checkpoints for DWI, and the Supreme Court allowed them in a 1990 ruling ( Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz). Only Council Member Betty Dunkerley expressed any willingness to even consider the checkpoints, telling the crowd it was not an issue that she had previously given much thought. "I assume there would be time when it might be appropriate for road blocks, et cetera, but I want to see a lot of controls and restrictions on that…if plans were developed, certainly they would come to City Council before they put them in place. I would have to think about the processes before we let that item go."

The North East Travis County Democrats also met Tuesday night to hear and endorse Council Candidates, but distance and time constraints kept some of the candidates or their surrogates from making an appearance. “Not everyone was able to make it to the meeting,” said NETCo’s Linda Pemberton. “But our members were able to evaluate some of the candidates on their reputations. I think a lot of our members had already made a decision on who they were voting for.”

The group endorsed Leffingwell for Place 1, Clarke for Place 3 and Dunkerley in Place 4. Pemberton said the ballots contained, in addition to all of the registered candidates, a “no endorsement” option, but only a very few members chose it.

Back to history

Yesterday in this space In Fact Daily set forth a brief history of women on the Austin City Council. Some old friends wrote in to correct a couple of errors. Homer Thornberry resigned from the City Council in 1948 so he could run for Congress. He was later appointed to the federal bench, but his chance to represent Lyndon Johnson’s old district was created when LBJ won a seat in the US Senate. Also, Beverly Griffith decided not to participate in a runoff with Betty Dunkerley in 2002. Dunkerley led in the first round but Griffith was not defeated at the polls.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Midtown Live loan onslaught not over . . . Although the e-mail has slowed down from last week’s barrage, the City Council and City Manager Toby Futrell continue to log in messages from citizens on both sides of the issue. Some contains the language of bigots; some includes requests for loans. While the owners of Midtown Live hope their appearance at next week’s meeting may spur the Council to consider their original request earlier than after the 60-day timeframe Futrell announced, some folks around City Hall are hoping the matter can be put off even longer . . . Bad news for ACC . . Austin Community College announced Wednesday that its Board of Trustees would consider the resignation of President Robert Aguero at next Monday’s meeting. The news release said Aguero submitted his resignation yesterday, “citing family and personal reasons for the action.” Hopes were high last summer when Aguero joined ACC but he has been on unpaid personal leave since Feb. 21. Dr. Steve Kinslow has taken over Aguero’s duties . . . Political events . . . Former AISD Board Member Ingrid Taylor will host a fundraiser for Gregg Knaupe at her home, 1507 Westover Road from 5:30pm-7:30pm tonight. . . South Austin supporters of Lee Leffingwell will hold a Frito-Chili-Piefest & Longneck Political Caucus honoring Leffingwell from 5:30 -8pm tonight at 1303 Hillside Ave. . The party will feature the old-fashioned bluegrass musical stylings of the Grassy Knoll Boys . . . Democrats oppose gambling . . . Democrats are holding a “ No Slots Rally” at 11am Thursday at the Capitol. They will hold orientation at 9:30am at the First Baptist Church downtown, 9th and Trinity . . . Republicans oppose gambling too . . . Texas Republican Party Chairman Tina Benkiser and her friends will be at the rally too—evidently at the same place and time as the Democrats rally. Makes you wonder who’s in favor of gambling, if both big parties are against it . . . Environmental Board . . . A subcommittee of the Environmental Board will meet at 4pm today in Room 240 of One Texas Center. The panel will continue its study of possible alternatives to the proposed Travis Water Treatment Plant #4. . . The learning curve . . . Several UT student groups hosted a City Council forum on campus last night, and one might assume that these youngsters are tomorrow’s political operatives in training. But though they got high marks for organizing the political forum, one of their props earned a C-minus. The dark blue T-shirts handed out for the event said “ Informed Voter” on the front, and “ Be sure to vote on May 4” on the back. The problem? The election is on May 7.

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