Review of similar cities finds legal structure in Austin has different look
Some want city attorney to report to council to give voters louder voice.
Most of Austin’s peer cities have city attorneys who report directly to the City Council as opposed to the city manager, which is how Austin has framed its legal structure.
The finding, through a staff review completed last week, has added context to lingering debate about whether Austin should adopt the same setup.
Earlier this year, a Charter Review Commission recommended adding an item to the November ballot to make the city attorney a council-appointed post, but council members passed on putting the idea to a vote this year. Such a move would have been a redo of a 2012 charter amendment that 51 percent of
“I’m disappointed that it didn’t make it on the ballot this year, but I think the council supports it; I think they didn’t put it on the ballot for other reasons,” said Fred Lewis, an activist who served on the charter commission.
Council members this year bypassed nearly all the charter commission’s recommendations, indicating they didn’t want to distract voters from a $925 million bond package already on the ballot.
The audit finalized last week
found that, of eight other large cities with city managers rather than strong mayors, five have city attorneys appointed directly by their city council and two, Fort Worth and San Antonio, have city attorneys appointed by the city council upon the recommendation of the city manager.
Besides Austin, the only peer city where the city manager
appoints the city attorney is Phoenix. Austin, Phoenix and San Antonio were the only cities reviewed where the attorney reports to the city manager, rather than the council.
Regardless of to whom the attorney reports, most city legal departments said their client was the “municipal corporation,” meaning all council members, board members, commission members, department directors and the departments themselves, the audit said. Austin’s charter says that the city attorney represents “all of the officers and departments of the city.”
None of the cities reviewed, including Austin, has a separate attorney specifically to advise policymakers.
City Manager Spencer Cronk, who took the reins in Austin in February, declined to weigh in Friday about how the city attorney’s role should be structured, saying via a spokesman that it’s not actively a policy topic.
Lewis has frequently clashed with city attorneys and has this year sued the city regarding the composition of the Planning Commission and a ballot initiative to make comprehensive land-use rewrites subject to a vote. He complained that Austin’s attorneys don’t advise the council enough about differing legal views and said he hoped, counterintuitively, that would change if the city attorney reported to the politicians themselves.
“There are some fine people in the attorney’s office and some fine lawyers, but there’s too much politics,” he said. “To me, it needs to be reorganized and put under the council, because then the public can hold the council accountable.”
Mayor Steve Adler speaks with acting city attorney Anne Morgan during a break in a “mock council” session in 2015. A review of peer cities shows Austin is one of only three big cities whose city attorney does not report to the City Council.