11.24.11

State Bar finds County Attorney Jana Duty committed professional misconduct

Posted in County Attorney, District Attorney, Had Enough Yet?, Williamson County at 11:12 am by wcnews

Williamson County’s County Attorney Jana Duty was found to have committed professional misconduct by the State Bar or Texas. It should be mentioned that she was found to have committed misconduct in only one of the 24 instances she was charged with.  The Statesman has the story, Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty reprimanded by State Bar.

The State Bar of Texas issued a reprimand to Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty this week related to her release of confidential information from an executive session of the county Commissioners Court, according to a court document.

The reprimand does not restrict Duty in her duties as county attorney, and the agreement reached between Duty and the State Bar means there will be no public trial, as Duty had previously sought.

Duty said Wednesday that the information she released was included in a lawsuit she filed to try to remove County Judge Dan Gattis from office and that she had justifiable reasons for doing so. That lawsuit, which was dismissed in January, alleged that Gattis had improperly hired outside attorneys to represent the county without the approval of the Commissioners Court.

The State Bar found Tuesday that Duty “committed professional misconduct,” according to a court document. The grievance was one of 24 complaints that the commissioners had initially filed against Duty with the State Bar in the spring. They accused Duty of violating State Bar of Texas rules governing professional conduct concerning competent representation, confidentiality of information and truthfulness in statements to others.

As the article goes on to state this is just another chapter in the sage that’s been going on between Duty and the county commissioners “for more than a year”. This should be the end of this chapter.  But the next chapter will likely start in a few weeks.  That’s when Duty is likely to file for DA to run against incumbent John Bradley, in the local GOP Primary.

Should be quite a race.  One has just been found to have committed professional misconduct, and the other kept a man behind bars for a crime he did not commit,for at least an extra six years, at a cost to the state of nearly $500,000.

10.10.11

How do these people keep getting elected?

Posted in 2012 Primary, Commissioners Court, County Attorney, District Attorney, Election 2012, Had Enough Yet?, Williamson County at 12:58 pm by wcnews

All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.
Thomas Jefferson

In Williamson County it’s rare that an incumbent running for reelection to a county office is not reelected. There are many reasons for that.  The reasons why are not simple and the solution is not easy.  It’s always hard to oust an incumbent, it takes a lot of money, as well as a determined organization and effort to get the job done.

Recent events in Williamson County – a man sitting in jail for 25 years for a crime he did not commit – have highlighted the need to replace our elected officials.  This post is an attempt to answer the question that is asked often in Williamson County, “How do these people keep getting elected?”

There are two ways to unseat an elected official, in the primary election, or in the general election.  In Williamson County the Republicans hold every elected office, and rarely is there any effort to challenge an incumbent in a primary. Most primary fights are for open seats.  The last successful ousting of an incumbent was in 2008, for Precinct 1 Constable.  It was a down ballot race, by a wealthy challenger, against an incumbent who had lost the backing of some elected officials in his own party.

Williamson County has been a majority GOP county since the mid 1990s, and became a one-party county not long after that. Oher than a near miss of winning the Precinct 1 Commissioners seat in 2008, there’s been little for Democrats to cheer about in county elections for some time.  But what this shows is that there will be no accountability until incumbents start getting beat for reelection.

As it stands in Williamson County, once elected to a county office, that person stays in office until they decide to leave, and that’s wrong.  The Commissioners Court is dominated by those who cater to businesses and corporations that enter into contracts with the county on construction and infrastructure projects.  Since it’s a one-party court there’s little transparency or accountability, and any attempt to shine light on their back-room dealing causes infighting and lawsuits.

When it comes to judicial elections it is hard to recruit candidates against sitting judges or attorneys because of tacit fear of retaliation.  Those with legal experience that live and work in Williamson County fear that if they run for office against a sitting judge they will no longer be able to get fair treatment when appearing in front of that judge after challenging them.  The way many see it, there’s little to be gained from the months of advertising, having your name on signs throughout the county, if that will be held against you, and your clients, when in court.

There are many hurdles to running for office: time, family, fund raising and work just to name a few.  And none of this is meant to discourage anyone from running for office; however it shows why incumbents rarely face electoral challenge. We need well-qualified, hard working, courageous people to run for office; however, that alone won’t get the job done.  Along with candidates we must have an active and engaged citizenry that is committed to working to change the way our county is governed.

A couple of things to keep in mind. Politicians never unelect themselves, even the bad ones. And we can’t beat somebody with nobody.

The candidate filing dates have changed for the 2012 election. Candidates (other than precinct chairs) that want to run for office in the Democratic or Republican primaries must file between November 12th and December 12th, 2011.

It’s beginning to look like the political winds are starting to blow in a different direction, even in Williamson County.  An innocent man rotting in jail for 25 years for a crime he did not commit, and evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, is a reminder of the need for reform.  A District Attorney who delays the release of information and DNA testing that could exonerate that innocent man will do that.  A Commissioners Court doing what they can to help out a local judge accused of sexual harassment will do that. So will the defunding of education and the social safety, which GOP elected legislators for for this year. The list, of course, could go on.

Change is hard, and if the last 3 plus years have taught us anything, it should be that change won’t come unless there is sustained engagement and involvement by citizenry with their elected officials.

So, how do these people keep getting elected? How much more are you going to take quietly?

08.22.11

A tangled web

Posted in Commissioners Court, Corruption, County Attorney, County Judge, District Attorney, Had Enough Yet?, Williamson County at 10:19 am by wcnews

An interesting read from The Wilco Watchdog, Tough On Crime or Win At All Cost? The Past Often Dictates The Future. Here’s the introduction.

A discovery made in researching court records has upped the ante considerably on the need to declare a man who has been in prison almost 25 years innocent of murder. The document, which has not previously been cited or published by media, also begs for a fresh and complete investigation of the Williamson County commissioners court and its attempt to protect a lawyer who was involved in that murder case, as well as commissioners court’s apparent retaliation against the county attorney who tried to confront the protection practice.

And perhaps of greatest importance, especially in light of this new document, are the motives, actions and practices of Williamson County’s present district attorney, John “Marty” Bradley.

In 1987, Michael W. Morton, a Williamson County resident, was convicted by a Williamson County jury of murdering his wife, Christine, in 1986. On August 17, 2011, after a relentless effort by The Innocence Project and Morton’s attorneys, the Austin American-Statesman, the Houston Chronicle, The Texas Tribune, and other media, including electronic media, broke the news that Morton’s attorneys had been successful in having key evidence subjected to DNA analysis, with the result that Morton now appears not to have committed the crime. Other exculpatory evidence has also been brought into play by this development in the case. During efforts on Morton’s behalf to acquire and test the evidence, John Bradley, the current district attorney in Williamson County, went to extensive efforts to keep the evidence from being released and tested.

And now, close on the heels of that initial breaking news, there is additional and significant information which has not been previously published by media. Research has turned up documentation pointing to the conclusion that Bradley apparently is not alone in the effort to sequester key evidence. The prosecution team in that 1987 trial, and one member of that team in particular (second chair), has been identified by the new documentation as being in the center of the exculpatory evidence controversy.

In an aftershock related to the person in that second chair, the controversial conflict between County Attorney Jana Duty and the Williamson County commissioners court (which is still ongoing because of grievances filed by that court against Duty with the Texas Bar Association) is shown in a new light, pointing to a conclusion which supports Duty’s actions in trying to hold members of commissioners court, and County Judge Dan Gattis in particular, accountable for alleged improprieties which include, of all people, the person in the second chair at the Morton trial as well as District Attorney John Bradley.

Additional controversy in Williamson County is ongoing in another developing and fast-moving plot in which commissioners court appears to be attempting to exact retaliation on Duty and some members of her staff for their attempts to hold members of that court accountable for their actions. And a sidebar to the perspective involves commissioner court members apparently deciding to discontinue important, safety-net, social service and human service aspects of the county’s obligation to provide for the welfare of its citizens.

Click here to read the rest.

Further Reading:
Rick Casey: Bandana’s DNA bares DA’s bias.

07.19.11

Local GOP infighting begins, as primary season nears

Posted in Bad Government Republicans, Commissioners Court, County Attorney, County Judge, Money In Politics, Right Wing Lies, Taxes, Teachers, Williamson County at 11:35 am by wcnews

Now that the legislative session is behind us it’s time to start gearing up for the primary season in Williamson County, and with that comes GOP infighting. The 2012 season is gearing up to be a bonanza of backstabbing. From the vantage point of an outsider it looks as though not long after the 2008 GOP primary there’s been issues between the County Attorney’s Office, the Court At Law Judges and the Williamson County Commissioners Court (WCCC) –  see here, here, and here.

Then late in 2010 and early 2011 the County Attorney and WCCC started filing lawsuits and grievances against one other like they were going out of style – see here, here, and here.  The latest in the saga is information that has surfaced regarding the WCCC hiring lobbyists to pass legislation through the Texas Legislature and at the Federal level as well.  The tab is adding up, and is likley to exceed $200,000.  (Go here, July Archive for the WCEA blog.  Scroll to the bottom and start reading – Commissioner Valerie Covey and the breaking “Lobbygate” scandal – Part I.)

The lobbying story was broken by a blog of united Williamson County employees.  They are fed up with the WCCC’s claims of poverty, while they continue to spend lavishly, and run up historic levels of debt, (that is the GOP way after all). Meanwhile, county employee pay stagnates and the cost of their benefits – especially health insurance – skyrockets. The county employees are feeling the pain average workers have known for years.

From what’s been reported so far, nothing illegal has been done, save for some possible violations of the procurement act and possibly some record retention lapses. The reason this is just now coming to light is the way the WCCC handled the hiring of the lobbyists.  Essentially they hired a law firm, to hire the lobbyists, which kept the actual “hiring of lobbyists” off of the WCCC’s agenda, away from public scrutiny, and, they hoped, political liability.  Which is why the after-the-fact claims that this was such a financial boon for the county seem so suspect. (As well as initial claims ignorance of hiring lobbyists, which have since been refuted). From the AAS, Williamson officials defend hiring of legislative lobbyists.

The Williamson County Commissioners Court is facing criticism over spending more than $100,000 on lobbyists to help get a bill passed in the Texas Legislature that speeds up the environmental review process for transportation projects.

The bill, which was approved in the regular session, imposes deadlines for the Texas Department of Transportation to complete environmental reviews. Federal law requires an environmental review before the construction of a transportation project by federal, state or local transportation entities.

Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long said the new law was necessary because the Department of Transportation, when it had no deadlines, took several years to approve a review needed before the county could add a median on U.S. 183 between the San Gabriel River and Seward Junction. During the delay, from 2006 to 2010, she said, the costs of purchasing right of way increased from $10 million to $37 million.

“Had this legislation been in place, the county would have saved $27 million,” she said.

The other part to this story is what it says about the state of our political process and what is left of our democracy. Because as much as we may not want it to be true, what state Sen. Kirk Watson says is true.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who was one of the authors of the bill in the Senate, said the people whom Williamson County hired worked with his office and with House members. He said the legislation was important.

“We needed it so that these local elected officials who are on the front line of trying to make improvements on behalf of the counties could get deadlines imposed,” he said.

To get the bill passed, Williamson County had to fight “folks that know this system and know how to kill bills,” Watson said. “TxDOT can create a traffic jam other than on the highway.”

He declined to comment about whether the county needed to hire the lobbyists but said that “this is one of those things that if you’re going to pull out all the stops, it didn’t hurt anything.”

Of course that’s not, in any way, to condone what’s been done or to say that anyone involved in this should not be held accountable for what they’ve done. But it is to say that when we have a state, and local government, whose elected officials have to raise campaign cash from special interests to get elected, we shouldn’t be surprised or particularly outraged when, once elected, they use their power over tax payer money to enrich those who finance their campaigns. Again, not saying it’s right, just that this is how our current system works. And when those working within the system do what’s required of the system, that means we have to change our system, to change what’s going on.

Issues like this will continue to come up as long as we allow special interests to control our political system. Some form of public financing of campaigns would be the logical place to start repairing our democracy.

The fear with what is taking place in this debate thus far, like with the phony debt crisis debate, is that once again we’re getting bogged down in process and minutiae, and not focusing on the big picture.  For decades there’s been a concerted effort to demonize government as the problem. That has trickled down to demonizing some of our most important public employees – firefighters, peace officers, and teachers – as greedy for wanting a living wage, benefits, and the pension they were promised when they were hired.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka recently said about public employees:

Quite frankly I find it America is stood on it head when we look at a group of workers and say they have something, and other people don’t and say… well… in America we should take it away form those that have  (laughter). Remember when we were at our zenith?  When people didn’t have something, we looked at it and said why not?  How can we get it for them, not take it away from those that do have it.

[...]

I’d ask everybody here that when you hear people making jokes about public employees, I wish you would stand up for them. Because they’re the ones that make the country function.  They’re in your hospitals, they’re in your towns.  They protect your house, they rush into a burning building.  They take care of your sick mother, sick dad. They’re there every single day.  They teach your kids and your grand kids.

It’s not just public employees, but workers in general, that have been under attack since the 1970s.  It’s always been workers vs. bosses and always will be.  The only way the workers can gain an advantage is by working together.  Since the 1970s, the bosses – corporations and the wealthy – have been successful at keeping workers fighting amongst themselves instead working together for their common good.  As this graph shows, As Union Membership Has Declined, Income Inequality Has Skyrocketed In The United States.

As most know, the GOP is a party that caters to the rich and the corporations.  They are not, generally speaking, a party that believes in equality, or democracy, in the work place.  They believe, by and large, that workers should be happy with what an employer chooses to give them.  And that is essentially what has happened in Williamson County.  The bosses (WCCC) believe that its employees are overpaid.  They are unwilling, not unable, to raise taxes, especially on the wealthy and therefore workers must pay the price.  The WCCC and their supporters have been on a tirade for at least a year, demonizing public employees, and it’s time for it to stop.

This is a fight between our county’s elected officials and the county’s public employees. Bosses versus workers. What’s unique is that it is also a political fight inside the GOP in Williamson County. It’s not likely this will end anytime soon and the only ones likely to suffer – if recent Williamson County history is any indicator – will be the taxpayers and public employees.

Further Reading:
What appears to be the bill in question that passed during the 82nd legislature, SB 19.
The Rise of the Wrecking-Ball Right.

05.25.11

What’s been happening in Williamson County

Posted in Commentary, Commissioners Court, County Attorney, County Judge, Precinct 1, Precinct 2, Precinct 3, Precinct 4, Williamson County at 10:35 am by wcnews

While the budget and more pressing economic issues in Texas and the nation have kept us busy lately, we’ve neglected what’s been going on locally here in Williamson County. With two freshman state Representatives and a state Senator that’s from Bryan, Williamson County has played a much smaller role this legislative session then in the recent past.  Below is a little bit of what’s been going on.

Earlier in the session during Texas House redistricting Williamson County found out that they would, as thought, get a third House district. The first attempt at a drawing that new district was ridiculous. After Williamson County Democratic Chair Brian Hamon’s testimony at the next hearing the districts in Williamson County were drawn in a more rational manner.

Of course a third district in Williamson County means there’s an open seat for 2012.  And certainly many will see it as an opportunity to move up the political ladder. The first opportunist appears to be Precinct 2 County Commissioner Cynthia Long. Via Mcblogger, Fight Club (Williamson County Edition).

There’s a ridiculous little fight brewing up in WilCo that should come to head Tuesday evening. On one side, we have Georgetown Councilmember Pat Berryman and on the other we have Georgetown’s Mayor, George Garver. Normally, in a fight between two Republicans, I’d prefer to sit back and just watch the bloodsport from a distance that would guarantee no blood on my shoes. However, in this case I can’t do that because

1) I have a bunch of friends in Georgetown
2) Berryman is really acting as a stand in

It’s number 2 that really irritates me because Pat is really just a sockpuppet of teabagger WilCo Commissioner Cynthia Long, the same one who has taken money over the years from the developers who’ve been trying to get something going near 183/620. The fight began a few years ago with a simple request to have a bridge over 35 in north Georgetown (the Lakeway Bridge) rebuilt with money available to CAMPO through ARRA (the so-called Federal stimulus bill). This particular bridge is, I can tell you, a terrible piece of public infrastructure on which there has been at least 6 fatal accidents. Mayor Garver put the bridge on the agenda and Cynthia Long, who was serving as Vice Chair of CAMPO in 2009 made a few strategic moves and got that particular bridge project pulled even though it was shovel ready.

The two County Commissioners that are likely running for reelection appear to be trying to burnish their tea party credentials by taking on so-called government waste in the Hot Check Department of the County Attorney’s Office. Yes, the same County Attorney that filed suit to remove the County Judge earlier this year. And after winning reelection the Precinct 4 Commissioner has gone back to sleep.

And last, but not least, the WCGOP is re-drawing the Commissioner/JP/Constable Precincts in Williamson County, County officials to redraw precincts.

Redistricting can bring with it a long list of concerns and complications.

The county’s redistricting committee, which was formed in early 2011, said its goals for the process are: to balance populations at close to 25 percent; limit splitting of government lines; preserve existing precincts as much as possible; keep elected officials in their precinct; create geographically compact precincts; and use major roads and natural features as boundary lines.

“We’re trying not to change things more than necessary or without reason,” Semple said. “We’re not going to be able to do all these things.”

The committee includes commissioners Birkman, Precinct 1, and Valerie Covey, Precinct 3, along with Semple, other county staff and legal representatives.

“There’s a lot of complications. That’s why it takes so long to get a map,” Birkman said. “It most likely won’t be a straight taking from one precinct and giving to another … because that ignores [communities of interest].”

The county is seeking public comment on redistricting, and everyone is encouraged to participate. The current proposed map can be view at, www.wilco.org/redistricting.

04.23.11

GOP infighting continues in Williamson County

Posted in Bad Government Republicans, Commissioners Court, County Attorney, Williamson County at 4:00 am by wcnews

The Statesman has the story on the latest chapter, Williamson County commissioners file grievances against county attorney.

Williamson County commissioners have blamed County Attorney Jana Duty in the county’s decision to pay $375,000 to settle a lawsuit involving sexual harassment allegations against a former County Court-at-Law judge, accusing Duty of misconduct in her handling of the case.

The accusation was part of a list of grievances that commissioners sent this week to the State Bar of Texas. Since January the commissioners have been filing grievances, alleging that Duty violated several Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, which govern the action of lawyers.

Former Williamson County court reporter Kimberly Lee and former court secretary Sharon McGuyer sued Williamson County in November, claiming that former County Court-at-Law Judge Don

Higginbotham sexually harassed them and yelled at them during a three-month period in 2009.

The county settled the lawsuit in March.

Looks like no one wants to be be left holding the $375,000 political “hot potato” with an election year fast approaching.

02.01.11

GOP infighting in Williamson County

Posted in Bad Government Republicans, Commissioners Court, County Attorney, County Judge, Williamson County at 10:44 am by wcnews

After reading the latest article about the GOP infighting in Williamson County it’s clear that Republicans in Williamson County have nothing better to do then squabble and whine.  Now that our county elected “leaders” are using lawyers to fight amongst themselves, it’s clear they only dislike lawyers when Democrats hire them.  (To get caught up on the infighting in Williamson County it’s highly recommended to read these posts from The Austin Bulldog, here, here, here, and here).

Last week we found out about the latest in the soap opera, Commissioners send grievances about Duty to State Bar. Here’s an interesting quote from the article.

Judge Dan Gattis said the grievances were brewing for three or four months and began when the commissioners court was just not getting “good legal opinions” from Duty.

These grievances were brewing for three or four months. That’s about the time the big Judge Higginbotham sexual harassment bombshell was dropped.  That’s when it seems they, the Williamson County Commissioners Court, started thinking about filing grievances against her, County Attorney Jana Duty.  Although it seems clear that they were “not getting  ‘good legal opinions’ from Duty” for quite some time before they filed the grievances.

What also seems clear from the lawsuit that duty filed to remove Gattis is that his shenanigans, of hiring outside attorney’s in an illegal manner, had been going on for quite some time too.  We have the County Attorney doing a bunch of things that could get her disbarred, and we have the County Judge doing a bunch of illegal things, for years, and all these “leaders” have just been letting it go until someone got their feelings hurt.

That’s what happens when we get single party rule – the Mayberry Machiavellis have taken over.

Something from the comments in the AAS article needs to be cleared up.

Why does it always seem that the Democrats support Duty?

..And this reply.

Yea right only Democrats? I believe she wins elections by over 60%. And Repbulicans appear to vote for her constantly. Looks like both parties like having an honest County Attorney. She does not follow the lead of the other “shady politicians” so now She is not a republican? Yea sure. Well,It is obvious she has what it takes to keep up what she promised us voters…

Democrats support none of these people.  All anyone has to do is look at the election results. Some of the Independents that voted for Obama, and Maldonado, etc.. likely voted for Duty in 2008.  But very few if any Democrats did, they all voted for Jaime Lynn. No this is just pure GOP infighting, the Democrats have nothing to do with this and the only ones to blame are the voters of Williamson County that keep electing these people, over and over again.

10.06.10

Commissioners cover their backs, re-vote to expand government

Posted in Bad Government Republicans, Commissioners Court, County Attorney, Williamson County at 9:36 am by wcnews

Just in case they may not have done everything exactly right last week, the WCCC decided to re-vote on thier actions last week.  Which was to stop using the County Attorney for legal advice and instead hire outside legal counsel.  Via the AAS, Williamson County commissioners vote again to hire their own attorney.

Williamson County commissioners voted Tuesday for the second time to hire their own lawyer and an administrative assistant instead of using the county attorney’s office for legal help, but the legal fight that has erupted over the move continues.

Commissioners voted to pay for the new attorney by amending the budget to take nearly $102,000 from the county attorney’s office. Commissioners had approved the same measure Sept. 28 but repeated it Tuesday because a judge issued a temporary restraining order against them after Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty sued them last week.

Most assuredly we have much bigger and more pressing issues to deal with in this county than this petty bickering. It’s long past time to bring accountability to our county government. Be sure and vote for Jim Stauber and Jeff Maurice in November.

[UPDATE]: More from KUT inteview with RRL editor Brad Stutzman, TENSION BOILS OVER IN WILLIAMSON COUNTY.

09.29.10

It can no longer be hidden, Williamson County must have accountability on the Commissioners Court

Posted in Commissioners Court, County Attorney, Election 2010, Precinct 2, Precinct 4 at 10:43 am by wcnews

Republican County Commissioners vote to grow county government, circumvent the elected County Attorney.

Via the AAS, Williamson County to stop using county attorney’s office for legal advice.

Williamson County commissioners will not be relying on the county attorney’s office for legal help anymore.

The commissioners created two positions Tuesday: an attorney and an administrative assistant who will handle the legal duties of the court, including negotiating and drafting contracts and interlocal agreements, attending executive sessions and handling public information requests.

The commissioners decided Tuesday that the salary and benefits would be $101,801 for the attorney and $50,309 for the executive assistant. Money to hire the attorney would come from cutting one position at the county attorney’s office, said Lisa Zirkle, the county’s director of human resources. Zirkle said the commissioners “would find” the money to hire the administrative assistant. [Emphasis added].

County Attorney Jana Duty has clashed with commissioners over the years on various issues.

Much of this stems from an argument last month, during the budget process, about a new social media policy that the commissioners believed was needed because of county employees who were exercising free speech on their own time.

Here are a few comments from the AAS article linked above:

Appears the County Attorney is now being “Griffinized”. The Wilco Commissioners Court is out of control. Former Constable Griffin was targeted for standing up to them, now it is Duty’s turn. So much for constitutional checks and balances by independent elected officials.

[...]

It is a strange way to organize a government, but having the voters decide who will provide the Commissioners with legal advice, is a far better system than a system—like they have now created—where the lawyer knows he can be fired if he gives the Commissioners any advice they don’t want to hear. The irony of this situation (and my prediction) is that, having rid themselves of an independent source of legal advice, the Commissioners are likely to get themselves in legal trouble.

It’s pretty clear now that when this crew on the WCCC runs into a roadblock they will do whatever they feel like to get the answer and results they want. (Click here to read some of how former Constable Gary Griffin was treated).  It should be obvious to every resident of Williamson County that some balance and accountability must be brought to our one-party county government.

If the two current commissioners running for reelection are returned to office (Cynthia Long and Ron Morrison), and the WCCC is returned intact, then we will get the exact same results – unaccountable and shady county governance. It’s time to bring accountabiliyt to our county government. That’s why we need to elect Jeff Maurice and Jim Stauber in November.

12.16.09

County, Texas AG sued by landfill contractor Waste Management, Inc.

Posted in Commissioners Court, County Attorney, Hutto, Landfill, Precinct 4, Williamson County at 1:44 pm by wcnews

As readers of EOW know the Williamson County Landfill has been a sad and sore subject for many in Williamson County over the last several years, (just click here to find out). That’s why seeing this is extremely disheartening, WM sues county, Landfill operator arguing public information request.  What started out as a simple request for public information has been turned into a proverbial “federal case” by the corporation that now runs the landfill owned by Williamson County.

Disposal company Waste Management has filed a lawsuit against Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Williamson County to try and keep information from being given out as part a Public Information Act request, saying it is an attempt by a direct competitor to gain a competitive advantage against the county landfill operator.

The request, filed by Hutto resident Kurt Johnson, is asking for “the sequentially-numbered tickets showing the individual loads of solid waste disposal events at the Williamson County Landfill for the full business day of July 14.” Johnson contends that WM may be using tactics “for its own substantial benefit.”

In essence what Johnson is trying to get at is whether WMI is, “creating a situation of self-dealing”. WMI contends that giving out information such as discounted tipping fees are “trade secrets”. From Johnson’s press release [.pdf]:

Johnson said he submitted the public information request after analyzing general financial information about the landfill and determined that the total reported revenues and tonnage only made sense if the tipping fees charged to commercial haulers were unbelievably low.

“If those substantial discounts are really happening,” Johnson said, “it’s a problem not only because the
landfill is a public asset owned by the county. It’s also a major problem because WMI gets to charge any lowball rate it wants to its own hauling company for waste deposited in the county’s landfill, creating a situation of self-dealing.”

Johnson continued, “The fact that WMI can determine the charges to its own hauling company shows
one of the major flaws in the landfill contract to which the county agreed back in March, and another major flaw is that WMI is trying to keep the financial information about a public landfill secret while no one representing the county is willing to step up and do anything about it.”

According to WMI’s lawsuit, the claim for non-release is being made based on the argument that the
discounted tipping fees are “trade secrets.”

“That argument would work if the county didn’t own the landfill,” Johnson said. “If WMI owned the landfill, then there would be no opening to even make the public information request.” According to Johnson, both current Attorney General Greg Abbot and former Attorney General John Cornyn have issued previous opinions stating the the public has a right to obtain such information.

Johnson added, “It’s going to be very interesting to see whether Precinct 4 Commissioner Ron Morrison
—whose precinct is home to the landfill—is willing to stand up and be an advocate for having this information released to his constituents. It also will be interesting to see whether Morrison and other members of commissioners court are willing to accept accountability for the provision in the landfill contract which made this kind of self-dealing possible without public scrutiny.”

The county, County Attorney Jana Duty’s office in particular, is responsible for not getting the requsest to WMI in time, (see here [.pdf]). The county and our elected leaders have had little to say at this point.  With election season upon us the county’s elected officials can’t be happy that the landfill is again in the news for the wrong reasons.  Many voters are waiting to see whose side those in elected office will be on.  The side of the people or the side of the corporation.

More below in the extended entry:
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