Mayor, City Council subject of county attorney inquiry

William James

Travis County Attorney David Escamilla will lead an inquiry into whether Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and city council members violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by discussing how they plan to vote before general council meetings.

“The complaint alleges that the Mayor and Council have coordinated a regular series of private gatherings of Council members in numbers less than a quorum to conduct private discussions, thereby avoiding the public notice and meeting requirements of the Act,” Escamilla said in a statement.

According to the Act, every meeting conducted by a government body must be open to the public unless it is meant to discuss a personnel matter, land acquisition or legal counsel.

Brian Rodgers, local activist and open government proponent, levied the accusations after he said he withdrew his name from consideration to run for Austin City Council because of frustration at the council’s activities.

Rodgers said he believes Leffingwell meets in his office with two council members at a time, one hour before each general meeting. Rodgers said the mayor met with only two members at a time to avoid establishing a quorum, which would have violated the Act.

The Austin Bulldog, an investigative blog, released on Tuesday a conversation between Rodgers and Council Member Chris Riley. Rodgers said Riley told him most council members finalize their votes before going to the Thursday meetings.

“No one in the council denies that they do this, and they will have to stop meeting in private,” Rodgers said. “When Riley told me that the council already knows how they’ll vote on Thursdays, I sat there angrily thinking about how community activists pour their time and energy into making our city a better place to live — unaware that the council’s votes are set before they even walk into the council chambers.”

Riley denied the accusations.

“In my experience, there is absolutely no intent on the part of any member of the Austin City Council to circumvent the Open Meetings Act,” Riley said in a statement.

Leffingwell released a statement assuring the City Council’s willingness to cooperate with any legal proceedings.

“We’ve been advised by the City Attorney that meetings between individual Council members do not violate the Open Meetings Act, but we will cooperate fully with the County Attorney’s review,” the statement said.