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Leak of Citizen Panel vote stirs City Hall

Wednesday, November 16, 2005 by

APA files contract grievances; city to investigate source of information to paper

An apparent leak of confidential information on a vote by the Citizen Review Panel has resulted in a storm of controversy and finger-pointing at City Hall, including the filing of a formal grievances by the Austin Police Association for violations of its contract with the City of Austin. Such a leak might also violate state law.

As In Fact Daily reported Tuesday, the APA is alleging that someone in the Police Monitor’s Office or on the Citizen Review Panel disclosed confidential information regarding a recommendation by the panel that Officer Julie Schroeder be fired.

There seemed to be little doubt that the information was leaked. The American-Statesman confirmed the fact last night by reporting on its web site that the panel had voted 4-0 to recommend that Police Chief Stan Knee fire Schroeder and demote the sergeant involved in last June’s shooting of Daniel Rocha.

City Public Information Officer Kristen Vassallo said city management and the APA would jointly select an investigator to determine the facts related to the alleged leak and other grievances. When told about the story, City Manager Toby Futrell called reporting such information “extraordinarily reckless,” under the circumstances.

A discipline review board will review Schroeder’s actions as well as those of Sgt. Don Doyle on Friday. Knee then will make a decision on whether any disciplinary action is warranted against either of the officers.

Police Monitor Ashton Cumberbatch said he was concerned that focus on the leak would divert attention from the Rocha case. “I think my office has complied with the contract,” which requires that the panel’s vote be kept confidential until after the chief has acted. “I would like to believe the focus at this point in time would be on the Rocha case—whether the action taken by the officer was appropriate, and if not what are the steps the chief should take,” Cumberbatch said.

APA President Mike Sheffield said that the police monitor’s office and review panel have not lived up to the expectations of the community or police officers. “Most of us see the monitor has turned into something other than what we all believed it would be, which was a process that was fair to all sides,” Sheffield said. Instead, he complained, “The effort’s being made to turn it into more of a political tribunal. And the person I hold responsible for letting this happen is Toby Futrell, our city manager.”

Futrell responded, “I’m glad that Mike is back in his election mode. I always notice that we get particularly virulent and personal when (1) he’s on the losing end of an issue or (2) we’re in election mode. The Office of the Police Monitor was intended to bring some openness into a process that by state law has been a very closed door. And I think it has done that very well.”

“The Citizens Review Panel was designed for seven average citizens to lift the veil, peak under the tent, where no one has been allowed to go before,” Futrell said. Reviewing internal documents and understanding the process is “not a political tribunal; that’s citizen oversight,” she said.

In its grievance, the APA says the release of the panel’s recommendations was “a blatant attempt by an individual(s) to inflame (that) animosity and anger in hopes of placing political pressure upon Chief Knee.”

The APA also complained that the police monitor’s office improperly used an Internal Affairs summary in another case. Such summaries are supposed to be confidential unless there is disciplinary action. Two other allegations relate to whether two members of the Citizens Review Panel who did not attend the case briefing should have participated in the vote. According to a memo from Vassallo, those panel members did not vote on the recommendation.

LCRA set for final approval of water line

After years of acrimonious debate, the Lower Colorado River Authority Board is poised to give final approval today for construction of the Hamilton Pool Road Water Line. The project, now estimated to cost almost $6.5 million, will consist of 25,000 linear feet of transmission main, improvements to an existing pump station on SH 71, a new storage tank and pump station.

The water line has been at the center of a battle between Hill Country residents who want to limit development in the Hamilton Pool Road area, and the LCRA—particularly General Manager Joe Beal—who says development is inevitable and controlling water access is the best way to control the growth.

Groups such as the Hamilton Pool Road Scenic Road Coalition and the Hill Country Alliance have battled the water pipeline project at every turn, saying that the extension of water service into the area will make urban sprawl type development inevitable. Members of both groups say how the LCRA proceeds with extending water service into the area could mean the difference between “whether the Hill Country is paved or saved.”

The LCRA board gave a tentative go ahead last December when it voted to approve water service contracts with three landowners in the area who are planning subdivisions. That vote came at the end of an agreement between the environmental groups and the LCRA to put a six-month moratorium on new contracts. That was designed to allow for the completion of the Regional Water Quality Protection Plan to be completed.

But the plan was still being formulated in December, so the LCRA moved ahead, despite pleas from the environmental groups to wait for its completion. The LCRA did not wait, and the RWQPP was not completed until June of 2005.

The RWQPP provides a set of guidelines to protect water quality in the general vicinity of the Barton Springs arm of the Barton Springs Recharge Zone of the Edwards Aquifer. The Planning Region covers portions of northern Hays County, southwest Travis County and a small section of eastern Blanco County. It includes all or a portion of the cities of Austin, Buda, Dripping Springs, Hays City, Kyle, Mountain City, Rollingwood, Sunset Valley, West Lake Hills, the villages of Bee Cave, Bear Creek, Lakeway, and portions of the Barton

Springs/Edwards Aquifer, the Hays Trinity and the Blanco-Pedernales Groundwater Conservation Districts.

A unique aspect of the plan is that it utilizes transferable development rights. This concept allows development rights to be transferred from one property to another, while ensuring that the net effect complies with the water quality protection measures in the plan. The intended outcome is to direct higher intensity development either outside the planning region or into preferred growth areas.

In July, Travis County Commissioners adopted new development rules that authorize more oversight of subdivision construction and water quality in the unincorporated parts of the county. The regulations affect about 20 percent of the county's land, mostly on the western and eastern ends, and will include much of the area along the Hamilton Pool Road Corridor.

The LCRA board authorized a $1.5 million engineering and design study for the water line in April, 2005. The project will be divided into two parts, with Phase 1 being a 16-inch water main running from the SH 71 pumping station to a proposed storage tank near the development areas along Hamilton Pool Road, and Phase 2 continues the line beyond the storage tanks to the proposed developments.

Phase 1 has been bid and the LCRA board is expected to award a construction contract today to Key Enterprises. Construction on the pipeline will begin early next year and will be completed sometime in 2007.

Barrientos bashes timing of Baxter resignation

Democrats say Baxter should pay for special election to fill seat

State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, a Democrat, called into question Tuesday Republican State Rep. Todd Baxter’s abrupt resignation of his House seat this month to accept a lobbying job with the Texas Cable and Telecommunications Association.

Barrientos, along with Travis County Democratic Party Chair Chris Elliott, said that Baxter is the only one of a dozen lawmakers who has insisted he must leave his seat in the middle of his two-year term. Barrientos has announced that he will not run for re-election, but will serve to the end of his current term.

Elliott said that Baxter should assume the costs of the special election to fill his vacancy if Gov. Rick Perry chooses to call the election on any day other than the uniform election date in May.

The County Elections Division has pegged the cost of an emergency election for Baxter’s seat at $250,000, with an additional $125,000 for any run-off election. Elliott said it was outrageous for Travis County taxpayers to assume such a cost.

“He was elected to a two-year term, and he has now decided that he’s going to resign because he wants to go make money as a lobbyist,” Elliott said. “As a taxpayer of this county, I find that outrageous, and something that has not been talked about heretofore is what Mr. Baxter’s abdication of his duties is going to cost the taxpayers.”

Perry has three options to fill Baxter’s seat, which Baxter will not officially relinquish until his successor is appointed. Perry could call a special election on the next uniform election date. He could call an emergency election, with 30 days notice. Or Perry could call an expedited election if a special or regular session is anticipated.

In the case of the late Rep. Joe Moreno of Houston, a Democrat, Perry pulled the trigger on the regular election in November rather than an emergency election, a fact that has irked many in the Democratic Party, especially after some tie votes on key bills in the House late last session.

Scott Haywood, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, says the Governor has 28 days from the date the resignation is turned in to make his decision about the election.

Baxter, who served two terms in the House, did not return a call to address the issue of his mid-term resignation. During an afternoon news conference, Barrientos and Elliott noted that the event appeared orchestrated, given that the general counsel of TCTA resigned her position the same day that Baxter announced his resignation. And they mentioned that Baxter had sent out a newsletter to constituents, almost to the day of his actual resignation. That newsletter contained no mention of Baxter’s intentions.

The executive director of the Travis County Republican Party issued a quick heated statement praising Baxter’s service to his district and calling Elliott and Barrientos the “Kings of political hypocrisy.”

“Gonzo Barrientos fled the state to avoid his public duties for partisan political purposes in 2003. Where was his concern for the taxpayers when the state was unnecessarily spending millions on special sessions because he would not show up for work?” asked Sally Aiello. “Gonzo has been one of the biggest supporters of wasteful spending and tax increases in the history of Texas. His sudden concern over the amount of money for a special election is a classic demonstration of liberal crocodile tears.”

Aiello added that it was Democrats who opposed setting school district elections for November – the same time as Constitutional amendment elections – which could have saved taxpayers millions of dollars.

“Based on their logic, Travis County Democrats should be billed for the millions of dollars spent in unnecessary elections and unnecessary special sessions due to Democrats’ inability to separate their partisan political shenanigans from public duty,” Aiello said, adding that Barrientos has accepted thousands of dollars over the years from the alcohol Industry even though he has been on the payroll of a local beer distributor for a number of years.”

If the Republican Party conspired to push Baxter out of office – and Barrientos admitted he had no real proof they did – Travis County Democrats clearly wanted to get out in front of the possible election. Democrats lost House District 48 by less than 200 votes, and Barrientos said the Democrats did not want to be faced with an emergency election with a self-funded millionaire candidate like retired Dell executive Ben Bentzin, who has announced he is running for the seat.

Elliott denied speculation that Travis County Democrats were at work on their own end, trying to discourage three announced Democratic candidates from running for the seat in favor of a second run by Kelly White, who barely lost to Baxter two years ago. Elliott said he had not discouraged any candidate from running in House District 48, considered all of them well qualified, had not solicited White to run in the race, nor had anyone else in the party.

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

Campaigns begin to roll. . . A second candidate for the Place 6 seat, now held by Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, has designated his campaign treasurer. DeWayne Lofton filed paperwork with the City Clerk’s Office naming Hazel Obey, a Democratic Party stalwart, to handle his campaign’s finances. Sheryl Cole filed her designation on Monday. Perennial candidate Jennifer Gale designated herself as treasurer in her bid to unseat Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken reappointed William Heyer as his campaign treasurer . . . Meetings . . . The Telecommunications Commission meets at 6:30pm in room 1101 at City Hall . . . The Planning Commission, Neighborhood Planning Committee meets at 6pm in room 500 at One Texas Center . . . I t helps to have connections . . . Street connectivity is still an issue for members of the Planning Commission. Members of the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee will be at the Council Committee on Land Use and Transportation on December 5 to see if there is any way to resurrect the issue of street connectivity and grid blocks . . . Manor Town Hall meeting . . . Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton hosts a Town Hall Meeting in Manor at 7pm tonight in the cafeteria of Manor Middle School, 10323 US 290 East. Capt. Darren Long plans a brief presentation about services provided by the Sheriff's Office in eastern Travis County. Representatives from Manor's new Chamber of Commerce and Manor ISD will also be on hand to answer questions from the public . . . Williamson County Open House . . . Williamson County Pct. 4 Commissioner Frankie Limmer, in cooperation with the consulting firm of Carter & Burgess, Inc., will conduct an informational Open House for proposed improvements to US 79 in Williamson County. The meeting begins at 4:30pm today at the Taylor High School Cafeteria, 3101 N Main St. The two proposed projects consist of upgrading existing US 79 to a four-lane divided highway with a 200-foot minimum right-of-way from just east of Hutto to CR 402 and from just east of Taylor to the Milam County Line. For more information, call 352-4111 (local) or 512-238-2111 (metro) . . . Get the lead out. . . . Bob Gregory, owner of Texas Disposal Systems Inc., has fired a shot across the bow of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in a case that—if he wins—could mean major changes in the way hazardous waste is handled in the State of Texas. Gregory has filed a petition with the US Environmental Protection Agency to force the TCEQ to bring its hazardous waste program in compliance with federal law, or take the program from the state and have it administered by the feds. The complaint stems from a case that began in 1997 when waste from a truck accident was taken to the TDI landfill in southeast Travis County. When it was discovered that the waste contained high levels of lead from TV tubes and was hazardous, TDI rejected it and told the trucking company and manufacturer to come and get it. They refused, and the case has been in and out of court and before the TCEQ numerous times. Gregory’s petition claims that the TCEQ has not followed EPA regulations and has left his company stuck with 99 bins of contaminated waste that it is not permitted to bury. Neither the TCEQ nor the EPA would comment on this matter. For more information, see . . Oops! . . In Fact Daily said Tuesday that Republican Ben Bentzin planned to run against former Mayor Kirk Watson for the local state Senate seat. Not so. Bentzin plans to run for House District 48 State, currently held by Todd Baxter. (See above.)

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