Saturday, February 26, 2011

Rigged Game: Prosecutors should shut down Austin City Council's 'walking quorum'

Slightly off topic, but my old pal Ken Martin at the Austin Bulldog has blown the lid off the reason I simply quit local work in Austin on police accountability issues or anything else: Votes at the Austin City Council are a rigged game, with special interests dictating outcomes behind the scenes and councilmembers deliberating and making decisions outside public processes that might give average citizens a chance for meaningful input. The Austin Statesman gave the Bulldog props in this story today by Tony Plohetski.

Through a series of open records requests, Martin revealed that the Austin City Council for many years - dating back, unsurprisingly, to Mayor Kirk Watson's tenure - has operated what's colloquially known as a "walking quorum," getting around the Open Meetings Act by deliberating privately in one on one or one on two sessions with the Mayor before actually meeting in public. Previously, the City Council held "work sessions" the day before council meetings where issues were discussed openly in public, but the walking quorum made that unnecessary - they just deliberated behind the scenes and showed up with their votes all decided. And it showed. Citizens might comment at the meetings, but commitments for votes had already been made and public input came to have less and less impact on council decisions. The fix was in, and you could smell councilmembers' disdain in the air for anyone who thought their contrary opinion should be considered before a decision is made.

By comparison, the Texas Legislature is literally a bastion of democracy. Why? Because they have rules on when legislation can be considered that they actually must follow or their bills get killed with a "point of order." At the Austin City Council, such rules are a joke and as you can tell by the emails (some of which are excerpted at the end of Tony's article), that councilmembers are laughing and snickering at their constituents from behind the veil of secrecy they've cast over the decisionmaking process.

This is illegal and the Mayor and Councilmembers who participated in the walking quorum should be prosecuted for violating the Open Meetings Act. I'm tired of Austin city politics being a rigged game. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, please, put a stop to this crap. Or if he won't, Attorney General Greg Abbott should step in to do so.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the recognition, Scott.

I've written a dozen stories about the open meetings situation so far and I'm not half done yet. I can assure you this problem facing the city council is not going to go away.

Your readers can find those stories at

Anonymous said...

Calling the Texas legislature, in any context, a "bastion of democracy" is manure. Most obviously, you should consider the counterexample of multiple-votes cast by members on behalf of other members on the House floor (link below). There's also (1) the highly dubitable claim that committee members don't reach a consensus behind closed doors, despite the potential point of order that can be raised; (2) points of order have to be raised immediately after a mistake is suspected to have occurred; (3) Points of order are ruled upon by the chair, and (4) substantively, items passed by the House are sometimes inconsistent with democracy

As a final note, I'm not really troubled by council members criticizing constituents. Other than a juicy gossip story, I'm not sure what we've found in the criticisms of constituents other than the universally obvious facts that (1) council members get angry with constituents, and (2), council members should have looked more closely at the Texas Public Information Act to decide where they'd state their feelings.

Anonymous said...

Sir, you state that "commitments for votes had already been made". That's a strong statement and troubling, if true. Is there proof of this claim in the emails that have been released? And wouldn't there need to be proof of commitments made by a quorum of the body for it to warrant prosecution, as you suggest? I don't know the law, I'm asking...

I do agree that the personal criticisms are embarrassing for council members and they certainly should have known better.