The excitement never ends during the Steve Adler era, even as that era draws to a close on Friday.
Yesterday, attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire filed criminal complaints against Mayor Adler for using City resources to endorse Council candidates Zo Qadri and Jose Velasquez, in a press conference/rally outside City Hall on December 1. The complaint was filed on behalf of Council Member Mackenzie Kelly and former candidate Linda Guerrero. Guerrero lost the recent District 9 (central city) race to Qadri by 343 votes.
It is a misdemeanor under Texas law for a public official to use public resources in “supporting or opposing a candidate for nomination or election to a public office.” Such a violation is a Class A misdemeanor with a penalty of up to a year in jail or a $500 fine.
Aleshire filed the criminal complaint with Travis County Attorney Delia Garza. He also filed the complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission which has the authority to issue civil penalties in such matters.
Aleshire filed an additional complaint with Garza alleging Adler violated state law against “electioneering. . . during the voting period and within 100 feet of an outside door through which a voter may enter the building in which a polling place is located.” Aleshire also filed for violation of a prohibition regarding use of “a sound amplification device. . . within 1,000 feet of a building in which a polling place is located.” City Hall is a polling place. Violation of this law carries only a financial penalty
Aleshire additionally filed a complaint with City Attorney Anne Morgan alleging that Adler also violated the City Charter. That complaint refers to a provision of the Charter which includes the language, “City officers and employees are prohibited from contributing or using city resources, equipment, or money for election campaigning.” Penalties include up to a $200 fine and also “forfeiture of office.” Since Adler is leaving office this would not apply to him, and it is unclear from our reading whether the forfeiture of office clause applies to the alleged actions of Adler.
On the face of it, it seems vividly clear that Adler used City resources at the event in question. Note the screen shot at the top of this story. First of all, the screen shot comes from the video archives on the City website. Both the Channel 6 (City of Austin TV station) logo and the City seal are clearly visible on the screen. A large City seal is also on the front of the podium from which Adler speaks. Behind him is the south entrance to City Hall with a sizable sign reading “Vote Aqui/Here.” Voting was underway, with early voting beginning that day. A tape measure might be necessary to determine if Adler was within 100 feet of the front door, but the Mayor was indeed “amplified,” and within 1,000 feet. In fact Adler checked the volume at the beginning of his remarks. And, the end of the video credits City staff who worked on the production.
That leaves the matter of whether Adler was:
- “supporting or opposing a candidate for nomination or election,” the state law; or,
- “using city resources, equipment, or money for election campaigning (emphasis added),” the City Charter provision.
Here’s a review of the press conference, or event.
Adler began by saying that it was the first day of early voting, then noted that “Zo” was in attendance. Then Adler offered this, “I’m happy to see Zo here today. We’re going to vote together. And, I want you to know that I am voting for Zo (noting that he, the Mayor, lives in District 9). I think he is smart. He is knowledgeable, and he is focused on the issues that I think are most important right now, and that’s housing costs and equity. He understands that meeting our housing crisis begins with Land Development Code reform.”
Adler went on to list a number of other reasons he was voting for Zo.
The Mayor then turned to the District 3 race to replace Pio Renteria. Adler noted that he doesn’t live in District 3, but added, “If I lived in District 3, I would be voting for Jose Velasquez because of his history of community organizing in that District, and, again, his recognition that one of the most important ways to deal with rising home prices in our city is through Land Development Code reform.”
Adler next talked about the Mayor’s race, saying both candidates were qualified and that, “I am not going to endorse a candidate for Mayor.”
While both mayoral candidates were probably relieved to hear it, that statement — in particular the word “endorse” — could potentially come up in any court or Ethics Commission proceeding. That would be the case if Adler — who has a history of being tricky with wording (here’s just one example) — tries to claim that he didn’t endorse anyone at the press conference; that he just said he was going to vote for Zo and would vote for Velasquez if he could.
Aleshire filed the criminal complaint with County Attorney Delia Garza, a former Council Member whom Adler endorsed for County Attorney. We assume that Garza will make a decision whether to move forward based on the merits of the complaint. It’s worth noting though, that when Garza ran for County Attorney Aleshire challenged her qualifications for the office. Among other things, he pointed out that Garza had let her law license lapse while she was on the Council. He also charged that she did not have enough legal experience to be County Attorney.
Garza responded, “I’m not surprised with his bullying behind his keyboard and I understand why he is intimidated by a young Latina lawyer. He wouldn’t be the first white man to try to intimidate women of color seeking a leadership position.”
Back to the current situation, Adler has not spoken publicly or to the media about the charges. If the charges move forward in any of the three venues, a likely defense strategy is the semantical approach mentioned above, claiming that he didn’t actually make an endorsement, i.e. wasn’t “supporting or opposing” a candidate.
In the court of public opinion there will likely also be charges that the complaint is petty. Another complaint might be that Aleshire waited too long. He was asked on Twitter why he waited until now to file the complaint. Aleshire replied, “I saw the press conference for the first time last Saturday.”
The view here is that the rules against City officials using City resources to campaign should be taken very seriously. It would be a terrible precedent if what Adler did is deemed acceptable. Then there would be no limit to the Mayor or Council Members using City resources — including the City’s television station — for their own political purposes; talk about increasing the power of incumbency. The laws and Charter provisions were put there for good reasons. Many Austin residents were doubtlessly disgusted when Donald Trump used the White House, and all its trappings, as a backdrop to give his 2020 acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention. The Mayor using City Hall, the City television station and website, and City staff to endorse Council candidates is very close to a local version of the same thing.
I can say that such laws and charter provisions were taken seriously back in the old days, when I was on the City Council. Everybody knew not to do it. In the rare cases when someone wanting to talk about campaigns visited me in my City Office, we would leave City Hall and take a walk — just so as to not use City Hall for that purpose. I didn’t even think about using Channel 6 to campaign and I don’t think any of my colleagues did either. That might seem quaint by Adler standards, but the laws and rules are still the same.
At least one Council Member still knows about the rules, Mackenzie Kelly. The others probably do too, as they have not been caught using City equipment to campaign.
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