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Bastrop’s attorney quits, Pine Forest case on hold

Thursday, July 28, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Seeing the proverbial handwriting on the wall, Bastrop’s longtime attorney, Jo-Christy Brown, resigned, effective immediately, at Tuesday night’s Bastrop City Council meeting. Brown’s tenure has been controversial since at least last December, when the public began to complain about the outsized legal fees the city was paying.

City records indicate that Brown personally received more than $400,000 in legal fees from Bastrop in 2015 and at least $150,000 so far this year. She also oversaw the hiring of other outside counsel to litigate the city’s numerous lawsuits. As the Austin Monitor pointed out in April, Bastrop spent more than $1 million on legal fees over the 15 months starting on Jan. 1, 2015.

Brown’s departure was a victory for Council Member Gary Schiff, who advocated for hiring in-house counsel this winter and spring but could not get fellow Council members to second his motion prior to the May election. It was also a victory for new Council Member Deborah Jones, who promised to work to reduce the city’s outside legal fees when she was elected in May.

Jones had put an item on Tuesday night’s agenda to consider, discuss and possibly take action “regarding JC Brown, city attorney.” However, Brown handed Council her resignation following an executive session before that item came up.

The Bastrop Council discussed and actually voted on allowing Mayor Ken Kesselus and the acting city manager to hire an attorney immediately. However, an Austin American-Statesman reporter questioned the legality of such an action, and according to the newspaper, Council then rescinded that action. But the matter is expected to be on next week’s agenda.

Jones told the Monitor on Wednesday that she was most proud of the Council action directing that all legal invoices be open records from Tuesday forward, despite pushback from certain attorneys.

One of the most expensive cases Bastrop is dealing with is the suit the city brought against Robert Leffingwell, with whom the city had a contract to develop the Pine Forest subdivision. The city’s lawyer in that case, William Charles Bundren of Frisco, has received fees of at least $458,000 to represent the city, Bastrop County and the Bastrop Independent School District since Jan. 1, 2015.

But on Wednesday morning, Bastrop’s case against Leffingwell was suddenly put on hold. Judge Carson Campbell, who had been hearing the case, decided to refer a motion to recuse himself to the administrative law judge for the region. Ben Wetmore, Leffingwell’s attorney, filed the motion, which cited a colloquy among the lawyers for Bastrop, Leffingwell and the property owners association in which the judge “disclosed that he would be siding for the plaintiffs. … Judge Campbell said that he would be rendering judgment for the plaintiffs, even though no evidence or witnesses had by then been presented by the defendants.”

Wetmore also cited the affidavit of Paul Burt, a member of the property owners association, who alleged that he saw the judge speaking with plaintiffs and lawyers for the plaintiffs without anyone from the defendants’ side being present.

“Mr. Burt’s affidavit has brought into reasonable doubt the impartiality of Judge Campbell’s impartiality in this case. Additionally, the fact that the footage” that might have showed such a meeting “was destroyed at the direction of local authorities and not consistent with an official records retention policy also suggests that something was being concealed,” Wetmore alleged.

Austin attorney Bill Aleshire, who represents several members of the Pine Forest Property Owners Association who intervened in the lawsuit, told the Monitor after the hearing that Campbell referred the matter to the administrative judge for the region, who appears to be Judge Olen Underwood of Conroe. Campbell told the lawyers to wait for that judge’s decision.

Aleshire said that after a couple of hours, Campbell came back to the attorneys and said that the administrative judge had asked to see more documents than simply the recusal motion. Campbell then told the attorneys that they were free to go, according to Aleshire. He noted that Bastrop’s attorney, Bundren, had argued against the motion for recusal, but to no avail.

It is not clear when there will be a resolution to the question, but with Brown’s departure and the possibility of the city hiring a new attorney next week, there could be settlement talks.

Photo courtesy of the city of Bastrop. The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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