Austin taxpayers footing six-figure bill to investigate possible open meetings violations, little to show for legal work so far


After $344,000 in legal fees and the work of eight assistant county attorneys taxpayers are no closer to knowing whether Austin’s elected officials violated the Texas Open Meetings Act than they were when allegations were made 16 months ago.

Not to worry, Travis County Attorney David Escamilla told the Austin American-Statesman. While he wouldn’t say what has been done so far, why it has taken so long and what might yet be needed if a case is to be made, Escamilla says he is sure the citizens paying all the bills will be happy with the results.

While firmly not confirming it, Escamilla and his assistants have been mulling over a complaint made in February of 2011 by a city activist charging that private meetings of individual City Council members and Mayor Lee Leffingwell and individual e-mail exchanges violated the Open Meetings Act.

Local media followed with formal requests to see the e-mails exchanged among officials. To the shock and delight of the community, the e-mails revealed some of the same sort of backbiting and sneering you can hear on a middle school playground every day.

Elected officials then did what any good American would do under the circumstances: get good and lawyered up at taxpayer expense. The individuals named in the complaint got their own lawyers, just for good measure.

What followed was a case with a gestation period almost as long as the challenge to ObamaCare. The Supreme Court will almost certainly make its decision before Escamilla.

Maybe it’s just because Escamilla and his staff haven’t had the practice. A case against members of the State Board of Education, the only Open Meetings Act case that resulted in a prosecution in 10 years, took two years to investigate, the American-Statesman says.

And then there is the possible impact of an interminable case now in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals brought by 15 elected municipal officials contending the Texas Open Meetings Act violates their freedom of speech.

Cost and time have not suppressed the public’s interest in knowing what its government is doing. Requests of Austin’s Public Information Office for public records jumped by 32.4 percent, to 11,621 requests filed in 2011 from 8,779 in 2010, the newspaper says.

Taxpayers can expect to pay that bill, too.

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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