Wednesday, February 3, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County courts controversy with CTRMA appointment

Sparks flew at Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday over the reappointment of Charles Heimsath to serve on the board that supervises regional toll road projects.

The 3-2 decision poured cold water on a late-hour effort that bubbled up last week to sink Heimsath’s quest for a new term at the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

The vote also touched a nerve with Commissioner Brigid Shea.

“I’m ashamed that (the court) reappointed someone who appeared to have admitted in open court to violations of the Open Meetings Act,” Shea told reporters after the decision.

Shea explained that she was referring to a statement that Heimsath, who has served on the board since 2009, made on Thursday when he was interviewed in front of the court, along with co-applicants Amy Pattillo and Pete Phillips.

When asked about the hundreds of unanimous votes the CTRMA board has taken in support of the agency’s policies, Heimsath explained that on any given item, there is “a lot of discussion that goes on before it comes to a vote in the board.”

The Texas Open Meetings Act places strong restrictions on official business being conducted outside of publicly posted meetings by voting members on elected or appointed boards.

Heimsath noted that at least some of the pre-vote discussion happens at board meetings but away from public scrutiny.

“We have executive sessions where we deal with difficult issues,” he said. “And what’s presented in the public doesn’t necessarily reflect all the discussion that has gone on behind the scenes. And, frankly, it probably shouldn’t in some cases.”

Shea said the comments were enough for her to report them to County Attorney David Escamilla. Late Tuesday afternoon, Escamilla told the Austin Monitor that he had not yet received Shea’s formal complaint but expected her to file it sometime this week.

When that happens, Escamilla said, “We’ll take it and review it to determine what, if any, action is called for.”

Shea wasn’t alone on Tuesday in her active opposition to Heimsath’s reappointment. Six members of the public gave brief testimony urging the court to appoint a new face to the CTRMA board.

Attorney Fred Lewis, who organized a diverse coalition at a press conference last week calling for change at CTRMA, repeated his complaint that the board has taken more than 500 votes since 2011, all ending with unanimous approval.

“Dissent is good,” Lewis told the court. “Different perspectives are good when you’re asking for public accountability. Independence is good. This board is not functioning right.”

Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance and Keep MoPac Local – who was also at last week’s press conference – asked the court to appoint Pattillo to the position. He explained how Pattillo, a patent attorney, would add diversity in more ways than one to a board dominated by real estate and land development professionals.

“Speaking as a white guy, six of the seven current board members are white guys. We could certainly benefit from some gender balance as well,” Bunch said. “None of the current board members represent consumer interests, neighborhood groups, bus riders, public transit advocates or ordinary commuters. We need some diversity on this board. The voting record speaks to that in spades.”

After the public testimony, Commissioner Margaret Gómez made the motion to reappoint Heimsath, which was seconded by Commissioner Ron Davis Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.

Shea raised the question of the possible violation of the Open Meetings Act and asked to postpone the vote pending a response from Escamilla’s office.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt tried to accept that as a motion and asked for a second but was stymied by the parliamentary rules, which first required a vote on Gómez’s standing motion.

When the court took that vote, Gómez, Daugherty and Commissioner Ron Davis supported Heimsath’s reappointment. Both Eckhardt and Shea opposed it.

Afterward, Eckhardt said the CTRMA has a “justified reputation” for being a murky agency. “Its lack of transparency – and its lack of diversity – is at our feet,” Eckhardt said.

After that, Gómez spoke to Shea’s concerns about possible illegal activity at CTRMA. She said, “If there are such things, take it to the district attorney, and let’s stop talking about it.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that Commissioner Ron Davis seconded the motion to reappoint, not Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

CTRMA: The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority. A governmental agency created, according to its web site, in 2002 to "improve the transportation system in Williamson and Travis counties." The site also notes that the agency's "mission is to implement innovative, multi-modal transportation solutions that reduce congestion and create transportation choices that enhance quality of life and economic vitality." In addition to other responsibilities, the agency oversees a set of toll roads in the region.

Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS): An advocacy organization. According to its web site, Save Our Springs "works to protect the Edwards Aquifer, its springs and contributing streams, and the natural and cultural heritage of the Hill Country region and its watersheds, with special emphasis on Barton Springs."

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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