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Swift backlash for Zimmerman’s courthouse idea

Friday, September 11, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council Member Don Zimmerman’s idea to relocate the proposed Travis County Civil & Family Courts Complex to East Austin drew fire Thursday.

After years of planning, Travis County Commissioners voted last month to place a $287 million bond on the November ballot in order to replace the 83-year-old Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse downtown. Genevieve Van Cleve, who is the leader of the campaign supporting the bond package, issued a statement about the fledgling city scheme to change the county’s plan Thursday.

“I am surprised that in the middle of Council Member Zimmerman’s first budget hearings, he took time out to interfere in a county project that he neither understands nor, apparently, supports. If he were genuinely concerned, the appropriate avenue would have been to reach out to the Commissioners Court before they voted to put the bond on the ballot,” Van Cleve told the Austin Monitor. “But, given that this man does not believe in governance, I’m not shocked that he doesn’t know how to govern.”

Zimmerman has said that putting the courthouse downtown “doesn’t make sense.” His resolution proposes that, instead of locating the courthouse downtown, “there could be significant savings to be realized if Travis County Commissioners Court would, instead, choose land in the eastern portions of Travis County – particularly the ‘Eastern Crescent,’ including, but not limited to, the vicinity of Lake Walter E. Long – which would have the impact of spurring economic development in the preferred development zone of Austin/Travis County.”

In a statement to the press released Thursday afternoon, Van Cleve said that she respected Council Member Ora Houston’s concerns about economic development. (Zimmerman has identified Houston as the lone co-sponsor for the plan.) However, Van Cleve explained that the proposal would “interfere with the County’s residents’ access to justice.” As she points out, 54 bus routes run by the downtown site, and just one bus runs out to Walter E. Long Park.

In addition, critics point out that Zimmerman’s proposition is unlikely to save the city money. Nancy Gray, with the Austin Bar Association, wrote, “The County purchased the block at 3rd and Guadalupe seven years ago for more than $22 million. The value of that property has increased substantially since then. Rather than saving taxpayers $50 million, as Zimmerman said in an interview yesterday, they would actually have to pay the County many millions in order to exchange property with such disparate values. The cost of building the courthouse would remain the same no matter where it was built. Construction costs are constructions costs. Period.”

Martha Dickie, who is the chair of the Community Focus Committee for the courthouse, told the Monitor that the county has spent years – and millions of dollars – planning the courthouse, and “there really is no question they haven’t considered.” She points out that the legal profession is a huge economic driver downtown, and 35 percent of the offices downtown are occupied by lawyers. Moving the location of the courthouse would be expensive, she said, not just because of the cost of planning, but also because support services would no longer be centralized with the other courthouses in the city.

Building the courthouse downtown, Dickie explained, will also allow the county to maximize revenue by selling parking and building another building next door with space to rent. That would not be available in a location farther out, nor would planned programming for night courts, legal self-help and libraries for those looking to solve legal problems.

“This isn’t some idea we hatched up last week. This is something that’s long been thought of,” said Dickie.

“There’s a movement of people who are building big tall buildings that would like that lot. … I think they’ve sort of lost track of (the notion) that courthouses and our system of justice are really at the heart of all communities in Texas. … What’s in the middle of the town square? What’s the middle of every county in every city? It’s the courthouse,” Dickie continued.

Zimmerman remains unconvinced by the arguments.

“They said they’ve spent a couple of years and a whole lot of money to put the courthouse downtown – as if that’s a reason we have to vote for it,” said Zimmerman. “My response to that is you should have spent a lot of money studying why it would be a good idea to put it in East Austin. But that’s not what they are doing. They have a certain agenda, they want the courthouse downtown, so the so-called studies they do is to affirm what they want to do.”

As for the disparate availability of transit, Zimmerman notes that people are “forced to go there from all around the county, and there are a great number of points all around this county that have absolutely no public transit,” and those people can’t find parking downtown.

Of course, those who have spoken out against his proposition have questioned Zimmerman’s motives as well.

“For an intolerant politician that hates to spend money, you have to wonder if Zimmerman’s really serious about this deal,” wrote Van Cleve. “The more likely scenario is that he is using his position on the council to actively campaign against this bond. I leave it to County Attorney David Escamilla and City Attorney Lee Crawford to determine if he’s broken any laws.”

Under the Texas Election Code, “An officer or employee of a political subdivision may not knowingly spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising.”

The law doesn’t prohibit speech, which is not advertising. It does, however, draw a line concerning whether public funds can go into something that is written. Written documents are considered advertising, and if paid city employees crafted a document and/or used city resources to distribute a document, that could run afoul of the law.

Though neither city nor county officials were aware of a complaint about Zimmerman’s proposition, which was framed as a land-swap resolution, it was distributed in a city press release on Sept. 8. A post about his proposed resolution on the City Council Message Board was more direct.

Written by Zimmerman on Sept. 8, the thread’s subject is “Oppose Nov. $287M Bond, relocate courthouse to east Austin.” On Sept. 10, Zimmerman returned to the thread and wrote, “One quick clarification, the subject should have been ‘Relocate proposed Travis County courthouse to east Austin,’ the previous subject was in error.”

Zimmerman told the Monitor that there is plenty of evidence that County Judge Sarah Eckhardt supports the bond and said, “If there’s not a concern for her to speak in favor, why is it a concern for me to speak in opposition? We’re both elected officials.”

Escamilla spoke with the Monitor. He didn’t comment on Zimmerman’s resolution, as his office has not received a complaint about it. However, he did point out that the Travis County Commissioners Court will consider hiring Tim Sorrells as special counsel at its next meeting to advise it on this very matter and help the county’s elected officials steer clear of breaking the law as the bond election approaches.

A city spokesperson told the Monitor that the city is aware of the problem and is looking into it, and wasn’t aware of any complaints being filed.

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