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County sued over lease information

Tuesday, October 3, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Even though Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has ruled that Travis County must provide a copy of the 99-year lease of 308 Guadalupe St. between the county and Lincoln Property Company, the county has not yet done so.

In response, real estate broker Dani Tristan, who requested the information in July, filed suit Monday asking that a district court order Travis County to provide him with a copy of the lease. The transaction, at $430 million, is the biggest such deal in county history.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt announced the deal to much fanfare and praise on July 11, but did not give many details.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed by attorney Bill Aleshire, “‘Transparency’ is a political buzzword for certain politicians who don’t really practice it in their official duties.” The lawsuit goes on to criticize Travis County commissioners for delegating to Eckhardt the authority to negotiate and approve the lease without bringing it back to the court for a vote. Nevertheless, the lawsuit’s claims relate only to releasing a copy of the lease documents.

Eckhardt explained that she was totally unaware of wrangling over the release of the contract until the Austin Monitor brought the matter to her attention on Monday.

She said, “Those public information requests would have gone directly to the Purchasing Agent Bonnie Floyd,” noting that purchasing agents in Texas counties are independent of commissioners court.

When Eckhardt made the announcement, Tristan filed his public information request. At the request of Lincoln Property Company, the county asked the attorney general for his opinion on disclosure of the lease. The attorney general responded on Sept. 25, rejecting the request.

County Attorney David Escamilla said his office is the attorney for the county but not the one making a decision about what to release or not release. He read a portion of a response the county attorney’s office had sent to the plaintiff, Tristan, on Friday: “Contrary to your assertion, Travis County Purchasing has no objections to release of the lease,” but that the other party on the lease, Lincoln Property Company, was still making a decision about whether they would appeal the attorney general’s ruling.

When Travis County sent its request for an opinion to the attorney general’s office, Lincoln Property Company sent its own letter objecting to the release of part of the lease document, claiming that the release of one particular section “will cause substantial competitive harm to Tenant (Lincoln Property Company).”

Lincoln Property Company claimed that it would be put at “a substantial competitive disadvantage in ongoing negotiations” with (this portion is blacked out). It claimed that its competitors, including Trammell Crow Company, one of those requesting the information, could use the information against Lincoln for future projects. It also alleged that future sellers or ground lessors “may use information to improve their negotiating position” with Lincoln Property Company.

Escamilla said under the law Lincoln Property Company has 30 days to decide whether they want to appeal the ruling. If it decides it does not wish to appeal, at that point Travis County will hand over the lease. By his reckoning, the 30 days will end on Oct. 27.

Even though Lincoln Property Company only objected to release of one portion of the lease, the county attorney’s office said it has a legal duty to withhold the entire lease until it hears whether the company wishes to contest turning over all or any portion of the lease to those who have requested it.

Lincoln Property Company’s attorney did not return a call requesting information on Monday.

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