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Action ramps up in appraisal district suit

Monday, December 17, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Action continues to ramp up in the battle between the Travis Central Appraisal District and firms representing property owners seeking hearings to lower the appraised value of their properties.

Last month, Texas ProTax Austin, Five Stone Tax Advisors, 46 commercial property owners and 113 residential property owners filed suit against the Travis appraisal review board and chief appraiser Marya Crigler.

In response, Crigler filed a motion seeking dismissal of the suit, claiming that the ProTax suit was a SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation. The motion contends that the plaintiffs are inhibiting Crigler’s right to free speech.

One of the immediate effects of such a legal filing is to stop all discovery, so the plaintiffs may not get records or depose Crigler or others involved in the case. Attorney Bill Aleshire will argue in court next week that discovery should proceed. He said a hearing is scheduled for Thursday on his motion to compel the Travis appraisal review board to provide documents for litigation.

Much of the argument between the appraisal district and the companies appearing on behalf of property owners seeking to lower their appraised value has to do with how their hearings are scheduled. The plaintiffs claim deliberate mistreatment by the appraisal review board, alleging that Crigler is scheduling hearings in such a way that the plaintiff tax companies cannot participate.

In addition, they claim that the scheduling should be done only by the chair of the Travis appraisal review board, not by Crigler.

Crigler’s motion argues to the contrary, saying, “Plaintiffs seek prospective injunctive relief against the Chief Appraiser to prevent her from providing assistance to the TARB and scheduling appraised protest hearings as permitted” by the tax code.

Crigler’s lawyer on this motion is Andrea Chan of the Houston law firm Olson & Olson LLP. Neither Crigler nor Chan could be reached for comment last week.

Aleshire and his client said the review board is not scheduling ProTax’s hearings in the same way and with the same frequency as other hearings are being scheduled.

Crigler’s response says that the appraisal district and its review board “used the same procedures and guidelines for the protests filed on behalf of” ProTax and Five Stone’s clients as for “the other 140,428 protests received for the 2018 tax year.”

Aleshire explained, “The lawsuit is over hearings that were scheduled and never heard and (the protests) dismissed.” He notes that many taxpayers will get no hearing before the end of the year when their taxes are due, forcing them to decide whether to pay more than they feel they owe. Aleshire himself is one of those taxpayers.

On Thursday, Aleshire filed a supplemental petition to his original lawsuit, adding a claim that the appraisal review board violated the Texas Public Information Act by refusing to turn over public information requested by ProTax. ProTax had requested “copies of the notices of the meetings, the minutes of the meetings, and any backup or explanatory material that was provided to the board members for the meetings and the secretary’s notes for the not yet approved or published minutes of the last meeting,” according to the motion.

The review board refused to turn over those records, instead sending a request for an open records ruling to the Texas Attorney General’s office. The attorney on that matter, Julia Armstrong of Armstrong & Armstrong of Taos, New Mexico, requested the opinion.

According to Armstrong’s letter, “Since filing the petition, ProTax has engaged in a pattern of behavior evidently intended on finding examples of alleged wrongdoing by the ARB. ProTax agents regularly show up at the appraisal district offices, whether or not they have hearings scheduled, and enter rooms where protest hearings are underway, where they observing (sic) and sometimes photograph the proceedings. Its representatives have accused the ARB in the process of failing to provide fair hearings.”

In fact, a ProTax agent took a picture of one ARB panelist obviously sleeping on the job that was featured in a local television news report. The report noted that after the chair of the board received a complaint, she rescheduled hearings for taxpayers who may not have gotten a fair shake due to the sleeping panelist.

It is the ARB’s opinion that the public information act requests “relate to the allegations contained” in the ProTax lawsuit “and are intended to broaden the plaintiffs’ claim” for Open Meetings Act violations, “which could likely result in the joinder of the ARB’s chair in the suit,” according to Armstrong’s letter seeking the opinion.

The plaintiffs had already accused the appraisal review board of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act related to an earlier meeting.

Photo courtesy of the Travis Central Appraisal District.

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