Local political operative David Butts, whose clients include Mayor Steve Adler, has enlisted the Travis County Democratic Party to step up his attack on a Nov. 6 ballot question on whether an independent auditor should review all of Austin’s municipal operations.
Michael Searle, who formed Citizens for an Accountable Austin to petition the city to put the efficiency study to a general vote, has enlisted several of the city’s most prominent progressive Democrats to support him, including Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance; First Amendment attorney Bill Aleshire; and attorney Fred Lewis, a member of the city’s Charter Review Commission.
Lewis said he is surprised and disappointed by the vitriol directed at the effort by people who have been political and ideological allies in city fights past. They have attempted to direct attention away from the need for an efficiency study and its popularity with the general public, he said.
“I think it’s people who have had an interaction with the city who believe in a performance audit,” Lewis said. “Anyone who’s ever done business with the city comes to think the city could be run better, whatever the reason.”
Opponents, most prominently David Butts, a longtime and successful political consultant and lobbyist in Austin, have portrayed Searle and his political action committee as part of a covert conservative effort to undermine city control of its own public services.
On Sunday, the County Executive Committee of the Travis County Democratic Party came out in opposition to Proposition K, as the efficiency study question will be listed on the November ballot.
Butts told executive committee members at the meeting that the efficiency study is being funded by people connected to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the state’s most prominent conservative think tank, and the libertarian billionaire Koch brothers.
The goal, Butts told the group Sunday, is to “privatize the provision of the central public services, in an attempt to gut, to attack our city.” He said Searle’s group had “contempt for the right of local government to exercise local control.”
Nonsense, Searle said. From the start, workers for Citizens for an Accountable Austin were very public about the group’s intentions, asking citizens to sign their petition if they believed an independent audit was a good idea, he said.
More than 32,000 people signed petitions, thousands more than were needed for the ballot question to be legally certified. Could there be a greater exercise of local control of the government, Searle asked, than putting the efficiency audit to a vote?
Lewis said he was aware of Searle’s politics when Searle first approached him about the petition drive and knew that he had formerly served as chief of staff for Ellen Troxclair, the single conservative member of the 10-person city council.
He pointed out that it would be tough for an efficiency audit to be used to “gut” local control when its recommendations would be considered by a council so heavily weighted toward progressives.
“I believe Michael Searle to be an honorable guy with honorable intentions,” Lewis said. “For the life of me, I don’t see how anyone across the political spectrum could object to an outside, independent audit. What disappoints me is, there is so much tribalism and partisanship in this city, we can’t seem to focus on the merits of the audit.”
This partisanship surfaced during a fight over how Proposition K would be worded on the ballot, a fight won by Adler and a council majority at a meeting in August. The council changed the fairly straightforward language suggested by the petition to this:
“Without using the existing internal city auditor or existing independent external auditor, shall the city code be amended to require an efficiency study of the city’s operational and fiscal performance performed by a third-party audit consultant, at an estimated cost of $1-$5 million.”
Troxclair lost the fight against what she said was politically prejudiced, misleading language. Aleshire then asked the Texas Supreme Court to intervene on the ballot language question, but the court declined.
It was at that August meeting that Butts first suggested Searle was fronting for a conservative cabal, funded by so-called “dark money,” or political contributions made by donors whose identities are protected by law.
The question of whether or not Searle and Citizens for an Accountable Austin violated a city ordinance by declining to reveal donors’ names was raised again Sunday in the headline of a story by the Austin American-Statesman.
The answer to the question, according to a city official who spoke to The Texas Monitor, and Lewis, who helped draft the ordinance, is no.
The ordinance, passed in 2016, requires donors of more than $500 for the purposes of electioneering communication or express advocacy for a clearly identified candidate or ballot measure 60 days or less before an election to be identified.
The Austin Civic Fund, a nonprofit group for which Searle serves as treasurer, reported to the city that it gave $137,080 to Citizens for an Accountable Austin to conduct the petition drive. Individual donors to the Civic Fund are not available.
Nothing about the filing is in violation of the ordinance, David Green, city public information officer, told The Texas Monitor. The money given to Citizens for an Accountable Austin was earmarked for neither a candidate nor a ballot measure, which came months later.
Lewis, who helped draft the “dark money” ordinance, agreed. The ordinance was created, he said, with a relatively narrow focus of preventing unnamed sources from funding “express advocacy and electioneering” on behalf of political candidates. Funding a petition drive to press for a question on a public ballot doesn’t fit the bill, he said.
The ordinance, however, has never been tested, Green said. For all of the talk of “dark money,” Butts has, to this point, not filed a complaint with the city against Searle’s group.
Nor have Adler or state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, referred to in the Statesman story as “prominent local Democrats” with fears of “dark money” in the audit debate.
The Texas Monitor contacted the offices of Adler and Hinojosa to ask why they have not filed a complaint. Neither has responded.
Butts’ conservative conspiracy theory has rankled those who say he has implicated them without evidence. Robert Henneke, general counsel for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told The Texas Monitor, “The petition effort was not supported in any way by Texas Public Policy Foundation.”
Don Dyer, implicated because he is chairman of Texas Public Policy Action, affiliated with TPPF, told The Texas Monitor, “Despite the fact that I told the Statesman I am not contributing money to the Austin Civic Fund, they still attempted to paint me as a villain. Why? Presumably to deflect from the activities of city officials and their lobbyist. What are they hiding? Their efforts illustrate the very need for the audit.”
The Statesman story acknowledged that its review “of hundreds of pages of tax documents, public business filings and court documents turned up only tenuous associations between the PAC and the foundation.”
There are, however, well established associations between Butts, once referred to in a newspaper story as “The Invisible Man,” for doing his political work in the shadows, and the current council majority.
Butts directed Adler’s first mayoral campaign in 2014. He has guided more than a dozen winning campaigns for city council in the last 20 years, including current council members Greg Casar, Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool and Kathie Tovo.
Aleshire, who has been on the same side over the years with opponents of the efficiency audit, made his legal reputation fighting for government transparency. On this issue, he said, his fellow Democrats are wrong.
“When the Travis County Democratic Party opposes an efficiency audit of the city, it shows why our party may never get back voters who are angry at the cost and waste in government,” Aleshire told The Texas Monitor. “The Democratic Party should stay focused on getting our candidates elected. Opposing Prop K won’t help.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].