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.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By El­iz­a­beth Fin­dell efind­ell@statesman.com

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

vot­ers re­jected.

“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.”

CON­TRIB­UTED BY STEPHEN SPILLMAN

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.

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