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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Commissioners told they have no authority to fire, discipline Lehmberg
Wednesday, May 22, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano
Beleaguered Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg received more public scrutiny Tuesday, this time from the Travis County Commissioners Court looking into whether it had authority to respond to “calls for resignation or removal from office” for the DA.
Those calls have come following a drunk driving arrest, conviction and jail term. Lehmberg, who is undergoing professional medical treatment, says she has no plans to resign.
As Executive Assistant Travis County Attorney Jim Collins explained, the power of the Commissioners Court is fairly limited. They are responsible for setting the budget for the district attorney’s office annually, and have the annual option of supplementing her salary as well. Collins explained that once the commissioners have set her salary and budget, that number is fixed for the year, and while they have the option of changing it in the future, they may not do so mid-year.
“You have no authority to require her to resign and you have no authority whatsoever with regard to any action brought to remove her from office,” said Collins.
Despite this limited authority, both members of the public and members of the Commissioners Court took the opportunity to state their opinions on the matter.
An amicus brief in support of Lehmberg staying in office was presented to the Commissioners Court. It has now been signed by 275 attorneys.
Austin attorney Ginny Agnew spoke against the effort to remove Lehmberg from office, noting that the pending civil lawsuit is the appropriate place to address whether or not she should be removed. She added that the district attorney’s office continued to operate, and was not endangered by Lehmberg’s medical care.
Agnew observed, as did her other supporters, that Lehmberg had accepted and served the highest possible penalty of a first-time DWI offense, and sought treatment once released.
Patti Summerville urged forgiveness.
“This has become a political game, with unknown players on the other side pulling the strings. The problem is that Rosemary isn’t a politician. She never has been. She is, and always has been a devoted public servant who has not had an iota of scandal attached to her in her 36-year career,” said Summerville.
Kerry O’Brien, the local attorney who filed the original civil lawsuit asking for Lehmberg’s removal from office, was also on hand to offer his two cents. He said that his choice to get involved was first a family decision, then a community decision, but had never been a political decision.
“I couldn’t care less what party she is from,” said O’Brien. “Anybody who says, ‘Let’s keep her because we are afraid of the alternative’ is speaking politics.”
Political consultant David Butts also made an appearance at the county to show his support for Lehmberg. He noted that if the standard that some are expecting be imposed on Lehmberg were applied evenly across the county, “there would be a whole lot of people looking for a job.”
“If we set out a dragnet outside the W Hotel, we’d probably break a quorum at the state legislature,” said Butts.
Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who brought forward the question of what authority the commissioners had in the matter, spoke first among the commissioners. He said that he had, in an effort to weigh public opinion “purposely talked to 50-70 folks” and found less than a handful who didn’t view Lehmberg’s arrest as a big deal.
As the only Republican politician on the court, Daugherty took umbrage with some of the speakers’ characterizations, saying, “You don’t know me very well if you think I’m political.”
Daugherty went on to praise Lehmberg, but urged her to resign for the well being of the community, though he said that he would continue to work with her should she remain in office.
Commissioner Margaret Gomez also spoke, but in support of Lehmberg, saying that she wasn’t put on Earth to be judgmental. She said that it was time to move on, and thought that the whole experience would likely make Lehmberg a better DA in the future.
Commissioners Ron Davis and Sarah Eckhardt both made similar comments, noting that their personal opinions made little difference in the matter. Judge Sam Biscoe declined comment entirely.
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