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Lawyers boost courthouse campaign

Tuesday, July 21, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Members of Austin’s legal community have given a six-figure jolt to the campaign for a new civil and family courts complex.

According to campaign finance documents filed last week, the political action committee coordinating the effort says it raised $134,439 in the first half of 2015.

The Community for Civil and Family Courthouse PAC’s disclosure form also reveals that the vast bulk of the haul came from lawyers.

Three donations from the Austin Bar Association alone – altogether worth $70,000 – account for more than half of the PAC’s receipts. Eight separate law firms also chipped in another $59,000.

Four individuals threw in a total of $1,100, including $500 from Steve McConnico, who is identified as one of the PAC’s directors in a press release announcing the financial report.

The group’s communications director told the Austin Monitor on Monday that no one should be surprised by the level of support from lawyers.

“They have a unique, up-close-and-personal view of the current dilapidated courthouse and a vested interest in making sure our community has a safe, secure and accessible place to conduct its legal business,” Nancy Gray wrote in an email.

Gray added that the proposed $291.6 million bond measure to build the courts complex has been endorsed by groups outside the legal sector, including CASA of Travis County and SafePlace, both nonprofits that advocate for victims of domestic violence and child abuse.

The PAC has not drawn any formal political opposition, and last week’s financial disclosure reveals how much of a head start the group has on any organization that would campaign against the bond.

So far, the PAC has spent $56,000. It has nearly $80,000 still in its coffers with 105 days left to raise more cash ahead of the election.

The lion’s share of the group’s spending so far has been on polling and consultants’ fees. In May, the group paid the polling firm Tulchin Research $18,000 to conduct a survey whose results indicated that “the bond measure is well-positioned to win voter approval in November.”

And, in four separate payments, the group has paid $24,000 to Peter A. Ravella Consulting LLC (whose website indicates the firm’s primary experience is in coastal development).. Those dollars went to pay for Genevieve Van Cleve, who has extensive experience in local political races.

So far, the PAC hasn’t made any major media buys. The report’s two lone expenses listed as advertising indicate that money went to “website design and maintenance.” Categorized as a “printing” expense is a $2,514 payment to a company that provides direct mailing services.

Gray told the Monitor that the group’s relatively low profile will soon change.

“We have a large number of community outreach meetings scheduled in the coming months to share information with the public,” she said.

If voters ultimately approve the bond, the county will build a 14-story courthouse at Guadalupe and West Fourth streets, across from Republic Square Park.

It would replace the Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse just six blocks to the north.

Supporters of the new courthouse argue that the current one, built in 1931, is outdated, cramped and in poor repair and does not provide enough space to minimize contact between victims of domestic violence and their alleged abusers.

While there is broad consensus that the county is badly in need of a new facility, the CCFC PAC will have to overcome several obstacles, including the prevailing belief that local leaders should address the rising cost of living in Central Texas by decreasing the property tax burden on homeowners.

There are also concerns that a courthouse would be a wasted opportunity for one of the last underdeveloped properties in the central business district.

Led by County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, the County Commissioners Court is working on ways to mitigate those concerns, including construction of a second office tower on the site and several other methods to offset a significant portion of the cost.

County staff is expected to reveal a more detailed look at the potential offsets in the coming weeks.

This post has been updated to better define the paid political consultant on the courthouse campaign, Genevieve Van Cleve.

By Milad Mosapoor (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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