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Council flees posted meeting place for interviews

Friday, November 3, 2017 by Jo Clifton

City Council continued to try to hide the names of candidates for city manager on Thursday, taking the unusual and possibly illegal step of leaving the location advertised for its executive session with the candidates and meeting in a place forbidden to the general public and the media.

Although the official notice from the meeting indicated that it would be at the Austin Airport Hilton, Council members left that location and boarded buses to go to another location within the airport, according to Austin American-Statesman reporters Elizabeth Findell and Philip Jankowski.

According to the newspaper, the decision to move from one location to another may have been in response to the Statesman‘s attempts to identify candidates by bringing along a photographer to the hotel.

Three attorneys who spoke with the Austin Monitor questioned the legality of posting a meeting for one location and then moving it to another.

Austin attorney Bill Aleshire said the notice provisions of the Texas Open Meetings Act do not allow a governmental entity to post notice of the meeting for one place and then move it to a different location.

Writing in an email, Aleshire said, “if they are meeting in more than one place, they must include that information on their meeting notice. In other words, they can’t just post the ‘place’ for an open meeting; they must also post the ‘place’ for any meeting, including a closed meeting.”

Several Council members said that they had been advised by the city Law Department that there is nothing illegal about changing the location of the meeting.

Council Member Leslie Pool said, “The comment coming out of the Law Department was that what we did was within legal parameters.” When the Austin Monitor asked Pool whether she thought at the time that it changed locations that Council’s actions were legal, Pool responded, “I didn’t know. It didn’t seem like it to me, but I was assured that it was by our Law Department.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo also indicated that she was relying on advice from the Law Department. She said she felt confident that Council was on firm legal ground when it moved the meeting, but added, “But I’m certainly listening to the community’s concerns those who are writing to us.” She said she had only received a couple of emails on the topic, but she was also paying attention to what Austinites were saying about the matter on Twitter.

A spokesman for Mayor Steve Adler declined to comment on the matter, referring the Monitor to the Law Department. The Statesman is suing the city for the names of the candidates, a matter not related to the site of the executive session.

Aleshire wrote, “I am heart-sickened that Mayor Adler and all of the 10-1 Council members would go along with such an extreme tactic to literally hide from the public. I can only believe that they are getting the same bad legal advice they got when the prior Council was told they could use ‘1-on-1 and 2-on-1’ meetings between themselves to discuss Council business – resulting in Mayor Leffingwell and the entire Council being put on prosecutorial probation for 2 years by the County Attorney for violation of the ‘walking quorum’ conspiracy provision in TOMA.”

Houston attorney Joe Larsen agreed, saying, “I don’t see how you move a meeting like that. When you post a meeting, the meeting is posted to take place at a certain place and that place has to be publicly accessible. When they moved their meeting, they violated what they had posted and the meeting, as I understand it was in a place the public” could not access. “I understand that they were in executive session but the session has to take place in … the same premises as where the public can attend.”

Austin attorney Doug Ray said he and his law partner, Buck Wood, agreed that holding a meeting in a room that was not accessible to the public was not a violation of the open meetings law. However, the fact that they posted the meeting for the Airport Hilton, a very specific location, but then left the Hilton and went to another part of the airport is a potential violation of the law. However, he said he did not think the question had been litigated.

City spokesperson David Green said, “Today’s meeting was conducted appropriately. Any further questions regarding the city manager hiring process should be referred to Russell Reynolds,” the search firm that found the candidates and convinced Council that their names should be kept secret.

The Statesman has identified the following candidates: Howard Lazarus, former public works director for the city of Austin and current Ann Arbor city administrator, Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso, Minneapolis City Coordinator Spencer Cronk, former Tulsa City Manager Jim Twombly, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, Chief Operating Officer Maura Black Sullivan.

Council is expected to narrow the field to about three finalists and then seek the advice of the City Manager Search Advisory Task Force before making a final decision. It is not clear what legal authority the task force would use to claim an exception to the open meetings law. Former Council Member Bill Spelman, a member of the task force, said Thursday, “If anyone were to ask my opinion, I would gladly back off,” from a meeting that would include just task force members, “and prefer that all the finalists be interviewed by the public in an open meeting.”

Photo by Joe Mabel [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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