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Charter Review Commission wants another vote on Council-appointed city attorney

Friday, January 26, 2018 by Jack Craver

Austin is one of only 6 percent of Texas home-rule cities with a city attorney who is unilaterally appointed by the city manager, with no input from City Council.

As a result, critics contend, there is a lack of accountability for the city’s top legal official. They argue that Austin would be better off following the lead of the majority of the state’s home-rule cities (73 percent), whose city attorneys are appointed by Council, which is of course accountable to the voters.

Members of the Charter Review Commission, who are charged with proposing changes to the city charter – to be ratified by voters in November – appear to all agree that the situation should change.

However, a previous Charter Review Commission in 2012 came to the same conclusion, only to see voters reject its recommendation that the city attorney be appointed by Council. By a razor-thin margin, the proposal failed: 49.37 percent in favor to 50.63 percent against.

The narrow defeat has not deterred members of the current commission, who on Monday night discussed the pros and cons of the various systems that exist for appointing a city attorney.

There are other options besides simply assigning the appointment to Council that would nevertheless reduce the power of the city manager. In some cities, the city manager either selects or recommends a candidate, but Council has to vote to approve the decision. In some cities with strong mayor systems – a system that some members of the commission believe Austin should adopt – the mayor selects the city attorney, who is confirmed by Council.

Criticism of a manager-appointed city attorney echoes similar complaints some activists make of Austin’s system of government, which unlike most other large cities, delegates a great deal of discretion to the city manager, who serves as the CEO of the city bureaucracy and is in charge of hiring and firing the heads of city departments.

Commissioner Roger Borgelt, who has advocated putting in place a strong mayor system, said that he had talked to former Council members and mayors recently and that, “to a person,” they agreed that the city attorney system needs to change.

Commissioner Ingrid Weigand said it was unlikely that the commission would recommend moving the city to a strong mayor system, but that at the very least a city of nearly 1 million people needs “more of a balance” between the city manager and elected officials. She referenced concerns that city attorneys have not looked into certain legal questions or completed reports requested by Council due to pressure from the city manager.

Commissioner Jessica Palvino, who prepared a report on the matter, acknowledged that she was initially skeptical of putting Council in charge of hiring the city’s top legal official, worrying somebody appointed by politicians “might be too entangled in politics.”

After researching the issue, Palvino shifted to favoring a system in which Council plays a greater role.

“I don’t know that there’s a perfect system,” she conceded. “It will need constant attention and re-balancing.”

One way to try to “insulate” the city attorney from Council politics, suggested Weigand, would be for the attorney’s term in office to not coincide with Council terms.

Photo by John Flynn.

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