AUSTIN (KXAN) — A local real estate broker is suing Travis County, alleging it has refused to release a 99-year lease for a prime plot of downtown land the county owns.
Plaintiff Daniel Tristan alleges the Travis County commissioners voted to give County Judge Sarah Eckhardt the power to negotiate leasing the property without bringing it back to the court for final approval, according to the suit filed in Travis County’s 250th Judicial District.
Travis County bought the undeveloped lot at 308 Guadalupe St. in 2010 for $21.8 million. County officials intended to use it to build a new courthouse, but voters rejected a $287 million bond for that construction. So, the county leased the land for an estimated $430 million in lease payments over the next 99 years.
After Tristan, a commercial real estate broker at McAllister & Associates, filed the lawsuit Monday, Eckhardt said he would likely receive most, if not all, of the contract this week.
“The county is fine with releasing the requested information,” Eckhardt said.
Tristan requested a copy of the lease on July 11, through the Texas Public Information Act, after the county’s lease with Lincoln Property Company was approved.
“This is likely the biggest transaction in Travis County’s history that was approved without a record vote of the Commissioners Court,” Tristan alleges in the lawsuit. “But, since the Court refuses to publicly release a copy of the Lease – not even one page of it – no one in the public knows for sure what’s in the deal.”
Instead of disclosing the lease, the county asked the Texas attorney general for a ruling. On Sept. 25, the AG’s office ruled no portions of the contract could be withheld and that “the county must release the submitted information,” the lawsuit states.
But, the lawsuit claims, after multiple attempts to ask the county to release the lease following the AG’s ruling, the county told Tristan on Sept. 29 that they are “not permitted to release the information at this time,” since Lincoln notified them that they are still determining whether or not they will appeal the AG’s ruling.
“When the county signs a contract with someone, especially one this big that involves $430 million of taxpayer money, the taxpayers ought to be able to see it,” said Bill Aleshire, who is representing Tristan in the lawsuit. “It’s that simple and thank goodness the public information act shows that it is to be disclosed.”
County Attorney David Escamilla said he doesn’t know why the lawsuit was filed since they are following the law in allowing Lincoln 30 days to appeal the attorney general’s ruling. The only way to appeal a ruling is to sue the AG – something Escamilla said Lincoln is still determining whether or not they’re going to do.
“Our personal opinion is, we’re fine, we don’t have an objection to releasing it, but we don’t want to be sued by Lincoln Properties for releasing something… and violating their third-party rights,” Escamilla said. “…We’re just caught in the middle of this and hope to get through it as quick as we can without any liabilities to the citizens of Travis County.”
The lawsuit also includes a copy of a discovery request, asking that any correspondence between the county and Lincoln prior to the lease’s approval be released.
“As part of this, also, we’re going to investigate what kind of discussion, if any, Travis County had with Lincoln Properties about whether this would be disclosed to the taxpayers or not,” Aleshire said. “I want to know whether or not the county officials [were] conspiring with Lincoln Properties to keep the financial provisions secret from the taxpayers. If they did, that’s outrageous.”