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Group calls for shake-up at CTRMA

Thursday, January 28, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

An unlikely coalition of activist groups is calling on the Travis County Commissioners Court to shake up the board of directors at the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

On Wednesday afternoon, attorney Fred Lewis led the group’s debut press conference in downtown Austin urging the court to turn down CTRMA Board Member Charles Heimsath’s application for reappointment.

The general message that emerged from the disparate interests of the gathered parties – which included Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance, Melissa Cubria of the Texas Public Interest Research Group and Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom – held that CTRMA leadership lacks professional diversity.

Explained Lewis, “Its board of directors are overwhelmingly from the real estate interests, or they lobby for real estate interests; have numerous potential conflicts of interest; and fail to provide the oversight and scrutiny of the agency that the public deserves.”

Indeed, six of the CTRMA’s seven board members have close connections to real estate and land development businesses. The odd man out – Williamson County appointee Robert Bennett – was the city manager of Round Rock before joining the CTRMA in 2003.

The board is made up of three Travis County appointees, three Williamson County appointees and a chairman selected by the governor. Of Travis’ three appointees, David Armbrust and Nikelle Meade are both attorneys who represent real estate clients, and Heimsath is a real estate market analyst.

On Thursday, the Commissioners Court will interview Heimsath and two other candidates for Heimsath’s seat on the board. Pete Phillips, a risk management consultant, and Amy Pattillo, a patent lawyer, have also applied for the position.

On Wednesday, Lewis said that the CTRMA board as it is “needs major accountability and ethics reform.” He added: “CTRMA records reveal that in the last five years, there have been 525 votes, and there has not been one dissenting vote by any board member on any issue. That’s why we say it’s a rubber stamp.”

Reached by phone after the press conference, CTRMA Executive Director Mike Heiligenstein told the Austin Monitor that he flatly rejects the idea that the board is a rubber stamp. “There’s a lot of good discussion before, during and after board meetings and in committee meetings. The important thing is that the board challenge the staff processes, and it does that.”

Heiligenstein also noted that the CTRMA ultimately answers to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, whose Transportation Policy Board is made up largely of elected officials. “We don’t dream up the projects. We don’t self-create,” he said. “We don’t have any wiggle room.”

Lewis’ coalition declined to single out Pattillo or Phillips for endorsement. “We aren’t here to choose,” said Bunch, who in addition to being the executive director of the SOS Alliance is also in the group Keep MoPac Local. “Just to make the point that we need somebody that’s not from the real estate industry and that we feel like Mr. Heimsath, since he’s rubber-stamped literally everything since he’s been on the board, does not qualify for being reappointed.”

Lewis quickly followed up Bunch’s statement by adding, “This isn’t really an attack on any particular member of the CTRMA. It’s an argument regarding the fact of its structure and its overall poor representation.”

Hall – an ardent anti-toll road activist who has written on transportation policy and spoken at tea party events across the state since 2005 – took the criticism a step further. She said, “There’s a culture of corruption happening at the (regional mobility authority) level, and there has got to be more oversight over these entities.”

That remark drew another follow-up by Lewis, who insisted, “Let me say this. What we’ve said that we all agree on – that at least I’m very comfortable with – is there are potential conflicts of interest for millions of dollars with land property. That is unacceptable. Whether it is corruption or not, I don’t know at this point. But there’s gonna be more research done.”

The Monitor reached out to County Judge Sarah Eckhardt’s office before the press conference. A spokesperson said, “We look forward to hearing what they have to say” but declined to comment further.

The Commissioners Court is tentatively scheduled to vote on its next board appointment at its regular meeting on Feb. 2.

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