One week ago yesterday, County Judge Sam Biscoe announced the replacement for Sarah Eckhardt, who has now resigned to run for his seat. His appointment is an old veteran of local politics: Bruce Todd, former mayor of Austin and former county commissioner, himself. Oh, and Todd is also a lobbyist right now — not just any lobbyist, but one who has very recently lobbied the county. (No wonder multiple 2014 candidates are emphasizing better county ethics in their platforms.)
If anyone's surprised that Biscoe would appoint a lobbyist after the anger about lobbyists serving on a City of Austin committee, then you're not alone. Of the candidates to replace Eckhardt, most elicited no response from the public before the announcement was made. Todd's name in the mix, however, prompted many activists — even some Republicans — to write letters to Judge Biscoe discouraging the former mayor's appointment.
But Judge Biscoe didn't seem to care. He wanted his man and he got him. So what does that mean for county governance? Read on to find out.One of the most prominent items of Todd's old lobby agenda was advocating for SH 45, a highwawy that some residents want to reduce traffic, even though research indicates that it would be ineffective with that goal while also having a particularly negative environmental impact. Recently, the county had not been particularly supportive of SH 45 — Karen Huber was against it, and Eckhardt was, too. But Sam Biscoe is for it, and so is Republican Commissioner Gerald Daugherty.
This decision deserves scrutiny, however, for more than Todd's current occupation. Biscoe anticipated that reaction; he said, “If you think lobbyists are teh worst people in the world, you won't like teh decision.” But Todd's also an older politician, but one who hasn't held elected office in 15 years. He served on this very commissioner's court — but that was more than two decades ago. Biscoe and Todd were county commisssioners again in the 1980s.
Yes, the 1980s. The old guard is back.
The only thing appointment that might have appeared worse would be appointing Karen Sonleitner — then the court would have the exact same make-up as it did 10 years ago. But Sonleitner is considering a run for the seat, and Biscoe didn't want that. Of the 32 candidates for the interim appointment, surely one of them would be a fresh face with similar policy beliefs to the district while not running in 2014. Surely.
But Biscoe is at the end of a long tenure. He's announced his retirement at the end of this term, and he sees the new coming. Andy Brown and Sarah Eckhardt are both significantly younger than anyone else on the court, and they would both run a more modern and progressive outfit than Biscoe. The current state of county commissioner affairs is already being critized by candidates – if only so far for its lack of ethics regulation, specifically – and the appointment of Todd protects the old way before everything changes.
And it's working, too. For the next year and a half, Biscoe-Todd is in charge. Almost all of the 2014 county candidates, running obviously with an intent on changing county governance for the better, didn't want to talk about Todd's appointment. Andy Brown left no comment. Sarah Eckhardt left no comment. Neither did Precinct 2 candidates Garry Brown and Richard Jung.
The only comment I was able to obtain was from another Precinct 2 candidate — Brigid Shea, who clashed with Todd when she was on City Council. And even Shea would not explicitly give an opinion positive or negative about the appointment. “I can see given his experience why the judge would appoint Bruce,” she told me. Indeed.