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Strayhorn report rips RMA

Thursday, March 10, 2005 by

Slusher, McCracken hope audit will pave the way for change

Council Members Brewster McCracken and Daryl Slusher are hopeful that yesterday’s scathing report on financial practices of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) by Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn may bring more members of the CAMPO board to their side.

The report, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority: A Need for a Higher Standard, recommended the immediate resignation of Chair Bob Tesch and Travis County member Johanna Zmud. Strayhorn accused the CTRMA, headed by former Williamson County Commissioner Mike Heiligenstein, of loose management practices, lax expenditure controls and favoritism in its contracting practices.

“We are the most scrutinized and reviewed agency in Central Texas, other than Capital Metro,” Heiligenstein said after the report was released, which happened to be the same day as the US 183A groundbreaking. “We’ve been reviewed once by the state and once by external auditors, plus the bond-buying market. We have been held accountable by so many people on so many levels that I have no problem saying we are a clean agency.”

In a statement released yesterday, Heiligenstein called the report “riddled with inaccuracies and outdated, erroneous information.” Pressed later to say whether the CTRMA would make changes in its financial practices in light of the report’s findings, Heiligenstein said there could be policies the CTRMA should tighten.

“We have been running hard,” Heiligenstein said. “It’s not to say we don’t have areas we can improve upon, but we need to take a good look at the report and the recommendations that the comptroller has offered.”

Heiligenstein said the CTRMA board and staff would take the next 30 days to look at each issue in the Strayhorn report. The CTRMA also is more than willing to answer any questions the City Council poses to it, Heiligenstein said.

Slusher said the report “lends a lot of credibility to what a lot of us have been saying, that the RMA is set up in a way that is not accountable to the citizens, set up in a way that is prone to boondoggle.” Slusher pointed specifically to the alleged conflicts of interest in awarding contracts, most of it involving Williamson County contractors.

Strayhorn’s report questions Tesch’s 254 acres in land holdings around US 183A that have risen more than 600 percent in value since the Tesch was appointed to the board. Attorney Brian Cassidy, who serves as the CTRMA’s general counsel, has defended the Tesch appointment, saying that law only sets out limits on those who own land adjacent to a proposed roadway and who would benefit from a proposed route decision. The route of US 183A was determined long before Tesch was appointed to the board.

Strayhorn said Zmud should resign immediately because she serves as a subcontractor on a Texas Department of Transportation contract in another area of the state. Current law says that Zmud’s contract poses a conflict- of -interest only if Zmud is a direct contractor to the Texas Department of Transportation and only if a contract was offered to Zmud in order to entice her to cast a vote that might favor the state transit agency.

Legislature may clarify conflicts

Lawmakers still have time to clarify what is considered a conflict –of -interest – or any other issues noted in the Strayhorn report – during the current legislative session. Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock), who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said the Travis County delegation has a number of bills filed relating to RMAs that could be used as vehicles to make changes based on Strayhorn’s findings.

“We’ve already agreed to get together as a delegation and take a look at the report,” Krusee said from the House floor yesterday. “(Rep.) Terry (Keel) and I will be working on this to put something together.”

Strayhorn’s claims, say Slusher and McCracken, strengthen the case for rethinking the toll road plan. “I hope that something with this force…can do what we can't do—turn this thing around. We (CAMPO) can reconsider the whole thing (toll road plan) as part of the 2030 plan,” said Slusher.

McCracken, who along with Keel asked for the audit, said, “The fundamental problem is that this organization is not controlled by any governmental body—and we are turning over our local highway system to this organization. The structure of this program is fundamentally flawed. This report demonstrates the alarming risk of going down this path.”

McCracken added, “When people read this report they should be very alarmed that this is the organization that will be setting toll rates, deciding how this money is spent and controlling transportation in this area for the rest of our lives if changes are not made.”

The Council will take a final look today at funding a $100,000 study of the financial implications of toll roads and possible alternatives.

Reimbursements to Tesch

McCracken said he was especially surprised to learn of apparently illegal reimbursements made to Tesch, who, according to the audit, billed the agency more than $11,000 between Jan. 1, 2003 and Dec. 31, 2004 for CTRMA related expenses. “For example, on Nov. 20, 2003, the chairman bought lunch for a state representative, the TxDOT Austin District Engineer, the HNTB project manager, a Williamson County Commissioner who would become the CTRMA executive director and CTRMA’s general counsel at the University of Texas Club, at a cost of $92.10. CTRMA later reimbursed the chairman for the cost of the meal, mileage and parking, for a total cost to taxpayers of $125.63 for reimbursement simply stated ‘RMA meeting,”’ the report says.

Moreover, the report states that the RMA has reimbursed Tesch for “administrative work performed by the staff of his own company,” at $19 per hour and $23 per hour. “These reimbursements appear to have violated several sections” of state law, the report says. McCracken described Tesch’s expenditures as using the RMA “as a personal cash cow.”

Heiligenstein said he had not reviewed all the details of the report but did defend some of the accusations leveled against him personally:

On the conflict between approving the CTRMA as a commissioner and then winning the appointment as CTRMA Executive Director – “There’s a year differential there,” Heiligenstein said. “The job of executive director didn’t come up until a year after we approved the CTRMA. The board was looking for somebody with a regional perspective who had a transportation background, and that fit my background. The fact that my nomination was made, and seconded, by Travis County commissioners on the board shows that I had broad-based support and not just Williamson County support.”

On the use of CTRMA funds to buy liquor – “I’m not aware of ever approving an expenditure on liquor. I helped write the policy myself, and I made sure we wouldn’t be paying for things like beer or ,” Heiligenstein said. “If something got approved, then it was something we overlooked. It was a mistake.”

On the accusation that the CTRMA has spent $2 million on public involvement – “I don’t know where (Strayhorn) got that figure,” Heiligenstein said. “We have spent money – probably $635,000 to date – but it’s nowhere near $2 million. Maybe she is looking at the budgeted expenditures. Those include the roll out of our toll tag program, an expenditure that was essential for us to include for us to get our bonds sold in the market.”

The CTRMA had hired a number of contractors to spearhead public involvement efforts around the city, Heiligenstein agreed. “That may seem like a lot of warm bodies, but we were covering the entire region and covering it quickly. The members of CAMPO and our county commissioners told us that we needed to get out there and publicize this, and that’s what we did. I don’t feel one bit defensive about that expenditure.”

Williamson County judge not concerned

Tesch, a Cedar Park resident, was appointed to the board initially by the Williamson County Commissioners Court and was named chair by Gov. Rick Perry in January of 2003. Williamson County Judge John Doerfler told In Fact Daily yesterday that he was surprised by the Comptroller’s assertion that Tesch’s holding constituted a conflict.

“I guess that depends on who you talk to,” he said. “From what I understand, he bought that land a long time before he was even involved in the CTRMA. I don’t see any conflict of interest, but I’m not a lawyer, either.”

There was controversy last December among Williamson County Commissioners over appointments to the CTRMA board. According to a report in the Taylor Daily Press, two commissioners, Lisa Birkman of Round Rock and Tom McDaniel of Georgetown opposed the automatic reappointment of the county’s three members on the board, Bob Bennett, Jim Mills and David Singleton.

Both Birkman and McDaniel said at the time that they did not specifically oppose either of the current members, but wanted to be able to choose candidates from a pool of qualified persons.

"I have heard from many of my constituents on this issue," Birkman said, "and they want other applicants to be considered."

But Doerfler, and Commissioners Greg Boatright and Frankie Limmer overrode their request on a 3-2 vote and re-appointed the three current members to new terms. Neither Birkman nor McDaniel could be reached for comment yesterday.

RMA exec, McCracken spar on toll roads

Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken and Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein took their dueling presentations on the Central Texas toll road plan to the South Austin Civic Club on Tuesday, laying out significantly different figures about the cost of the plan to local drivers and taxpayers. McCracken is a member of the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Board and an outspoken critic of the toll road plan. Heiligenstein runs the agency that will build and maintain the toll road system.

Members of the 70-year old civic organization ( http://www.southaustincivic.org) questioned both men after their speeches about specifics of the plan and various options for improving traffic, but there was no clear signal from the crowd regarding support for or opposition to the toll road plan.

The meeting was not billed as a debate, but rather a chance for the club to hear opposing viewpoints on the toll road plan. McCracken presented much of the same information he presented to the City Council last week when they were considering hiring an outside consultant to review the plan. He also laid out his guiding principles for analyzing the situation, making accurate information a priority. "Public agencies must provide straight information to the public and elected officials," he said, before accusing TxDOT of failing do to just that. The financial impact of the plan on maintenance funds from the state, he said, was still unclear. "We don't know, because the state is refusing to tell elected officials," he said.

McCracken also criticized the figures for the tolls on the CTRMA's first project, US 183A, which held groundbreaking ceremonies yesterday. "In Dallas, the toll rate is 11 cents per mile. In Houston, for their main tollway, their rate is 14.3 cents per mile. The RMA told us a year ago that the toll rate for the toll roads in Austin would be 12 to 15 cents per mile," he said. "We've learned that these actual toll rates are going to be a whole lot more expensive than we were told. The actual toll rate on US 183A is going to be 44 cents a mile."

But Heiligenstein disputed McCracken's claims on the grounds that he was using only part of US 183A in his calculations. "US 183A is an 11.6 mile road," he explained. "There are two toll points. What those tolls are doing are building the entire 11.6 miles if you get on after FM 1431, you can travel 7 miles without paying a toll at this point for the next ten years. But the $1.80 tolls are allowing the construction of the 7 miles of four-lane highway today." McCracken's figures, he said, only counted the 4 and 1/2 mile stretch of the road. "The 44 cents comes from taking the $1.80 and saying 'this is all you get'," he concluded, pointing to a map of the project.

Heiligenstein also praised the CTRMA Board for its efforts to make information public, a point on which he and McCracken found some agreement. "I maintain that that our agency is more open than any government agency in the city of Austin," said Heiligenstein. While McCracken did not go that far, he did concede that the CTRMA had been more forthcoming than TxDOT. "I will give the RMA credit," he said. "The RMA has been very good about putting information up on their web site."

After the official presentation, the two men got into a spirited discussion over the CTRMA's bond rating after a question from the audience. McCracken slammed the CTRMA for the rating of BBB—, the agency's bonds received without insurance. Heiligenstein countered that as a start-up agency with no taxing authority, the CTRMA had done well to achieve that investment-grade rating. Investors, he said, had shown their confidence in the agency by agreeing to buy more than $230 million worth of the agency's bonds, which are insured (see In Fact Daily, March 4, 2005). Were the City of Austin forced to start from scratch without taxing authority, Heiligenstein said, it could expect a similar bond rating.

Notes from the campaign trail

Women's group endorses Leffingwell, Clarke, Dealey and Dunkerley

The Austin Women's Political Caucus endorsed four candidates in three City Council races Wednesday night, throwing its support to two of the candidates seeking to fill the seat being vacated by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman in Place 3. The group voted to back both Margot Clarke and Mandy Dealey in that race, and will support current City Council Member Betty Dunkerley in Place 4 and Lee Leffingwell in Place 1.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman had some advice for her friends in the caucus before they considered their City Council endorsements. Candidates and members of the public may be less informed about the specifics of city issues than they used to be, Goodman said, adding that she had heard numerous "almost accurate" questions of would be Council members. Perhaps that's because, "we don't ask Council members to play a role in the trenches anymore," starting with service on a city board or commission, she said. That is where Goodman started, before her first election to the Council 12 years ago. She said she hopes the caucus will assist her in recruiting more women to serve on city boards and on the Council.

As one of two women on the Council, Goodman believes "two is not enough." In fact, Goodman said she wouldn't see anything wrong with having seven women on the Council. After all, she said, there were seven men for a very long time.

The Mayor Pro Tem also pointed out that most of the work the Council does is not broadcast on Channel 6. One of the most important things they do, she said, is work on the budget. When the new Council members take office they will be faced with the budget process immediately. "If you don't know the issues, you'll be eaten for lunch. Games will be played by Council members and staff." Goodman did not make any specific recommendations about candidates—and city regulations prohibit her from making an endorsement—but she left little doubt that she would be biased in favor of women and those who have already done city service.

There are no women candidates running to replace Daryl Slusher in Place 1. Lee Leffingwell, who served for almost six years on the city's Environmental Board, told the group he was happy not to be running against any women.

Leffingwell said he was a member of ASHA, a collection of human service organizations, the National Abortion Rights Action League and had worked on a number of women's campaigns including that of Kelly White for the Texas House. He said he served as a volunteer escort for the Grover Street Clinic when it was in operation.

Leffingwell said his main issue is long-term land use and mobility planning. He said he is "a strong believer" in the goals set forth by Envision Central Texas. He said he would be a strong advocate for public safety, human services and small business. He said he would be also back continued city funding for human services, "especially now when the federal and state government are turning their backs on the less fortunate who are at the bottom of the safety net. We have to do that."

Andrew Bucknall told the AWPC he is a single father and a resident of East Austin. Bucknall said he believes in being a passionate advocate, as he has been for abused and neglected children. "We need to make sure that funds are not cut, that waiting periods are not extended," for programs like SafePlace, he said. Like Leffingwell, Bucknall mentioned the diminishing dollars coming from federal and state funds. Unlike them, he said, "the city cannot pass the buck.” He stressed his experience on the city's affordable housing committee, as a Democratic precinct chair and neighborhood association leader.

Bucknall also talked about his change in perspective after moving to East Austin. "When I lived in West Austin I thought I lived on the top of the mountain. I thought I lived in a progressive city and everything was cool. But when I moved over here, I learned something different. I saw my neighbor get racially profiled, laid out on his front yard, humiliated in front of the entire neighborhood. I went through the entire process with him with the Office of Police Monitor and saw how it feels, saw how helpless you can feel in the system . . . we're not as progressive as we need to be. We have a ways to go . . . we need to bring everybody together."

Both Casey Walker and Scott Williams used the meeting to tell Caucus members about their respective backgrounds and involvement in women's issues. "I believe I'm the only Place 1 Candidate who currently has a child in child care," said Walker. "It is incredibly expensive. We pay half of my wife's salary. I don't know what is more sad about that: that child care costs so much, or that women make so little. We need to change both of those things." Walker has been involved with the film group Reel Women ( http://www.reelwomen.org) and has also done work for the Travis County Sheriff's Office Brown Santa program and the Austin Film Society.

Court clerk and former hotel employee Scott Williams said he would bring his problem-solving skills to the Council if he's elected. "I'm not as fully informed on the issues as I could be," he admitted. "However, you don't have to know the answer to a problem…you just have to know where to find it. I'm very good at finding the answers to problems."

The Caucus chose to endorse Leffingwell, as have all of the other organizations offering endorsements in the Place 1 race.

In the Place 3 race, the Caucus was unable to restrict itself to just one endorsement. Both Mandy Dealey and Margot Clarke won the group's approval, in part because of their responses to the question on the group's survey dealing with abortion rights. Clarke is a former Public Affairs Manager with Planned Parenthood in Austin, while Dealey is a long-time board member with that same organization locally and has just joined the group's national board.

The format of the candidate forum allowed for members of the Caucus to ask questions of the candidates after their prepared statements. One Dealey supporter in the group called for Gregg Knaupe to explain why he "flip-flopped" before choosing to run in Place 3, where she said the office-holder was "traditionally a woman."

"I didn't flip-flop," declared Knaupe. "I was trying to decide which seat to run for. Obviously, I want to serve, and I want to have the best opportunity to win." Knaupe said his experience in dealing with health care law in his position with the Texas Hospital Association would help him follow Jackie Goodman’s tradition of a commitment to health and human services funding. "I am the only candidate who has real professional experience in dealing with health care issues," he said. "I want to make sure that is protected on the Austin City Council. Those are issues I care a great deal about. I'm not even pretending that I can fill the Mayor Pro Tem's shoes…but I can get done what I think needs to be done in this community."

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Media moments . . . Mayor Will Wynn and Senator John Cornyn will be holding a news conference at 9am at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to discuss terminal improvements and fire protection equipment for the airport. Federal funds will pay for those improvements . . . Today’s City Council meeting . . . No fireworks are expected today. Even the question of a new City Hall café appears to be a foregone conclusion since only Austin Java remains in the running. The Council will not hear about current bonded indebtedness, bond ratings and bond capacity this week, as had been planned. That may come back on the agenda in two weeks. Next week is Spring Break for everyone with kids and anyone else who can take it—including the City Council . . . Planning Commissioner resigns . . . Matt Hollon has stepped down from the commission because he has joined the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department . . . Confused about Keith Jackson? . . . Keith Jackson, an engineer, serves on the Zoning and Platting Commission. Council Member Brewster McCracken appointed him. Keith Jackson on the Planning Commission was recently appointed by Council Member Danny Thomas . . . New Urban League leader . . . The Austin Area Urban League has elected Jeffrey K. Richard as the organization’s president and chief executive officer. Richard has served as vice president of education and workforce development for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. He holds a Master of Public Policy degree in urban economic development from Harvard University, and a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas Christian University. Before joining the Chamber in 2002, Richard was a principal in a management consulting and accounting firm, and served as a senior assistant to long-time U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright . . . Another candidate meeting. . . Capital Area Democratic Women meet today at the Nuevo Leon Restaurant. Networking begins at 11:30am; the meeting starts at noon. The program will be the candidates for Austin City Council Place 3.

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