Will the city hire outside lawyers to investigate the housing allegations? It’s unclear

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The city attorney’s plan to hire an outside lawyer to investigate a controversial housing deal will have to wait at least another week, and it is not clear whether city council will ultimately approve the contract.

District G Council member Greg Travis used a procedural motion known as a “tag” to delay the vote on the contract for another week at Wednesday’s meeting. The contract was also on the agenda last week, but the the city clerk said it had not been received in time for a vote.

Travis did not explain his reasoning for the podium label and there was no discussion of the item at the meeting.

Mayor Sylvester Turner had tasked City Attorney Arturo Michel to look into the allegations of former city housing manager Tom McCasland who said the mayor attempted to channel funds for affordable housing to a developer that he knows. Turner fired McCasland hours after his public accusations.

Two weeks later, Michel arranged to hire an outside firm, Butler Snow, to conduct the investigation. Michel reports directly to the mayor, who raised questions about the independence of an internal investigation.

Turner has promised not to interfere with Michel’s handling of the case.

After the meeting, Travis told The Chronicle that he tagged the article because he couldn’t stand it. The board member said he believed investigations by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the Texas General Land Office, which distributes Federal Housing Assistance Harvey, would be more independent than those overseen by the Legal Department. from the city.

Several board members said they plan to back a decision to return the proposed contract to the administration, a move that would delay a vote indefinitely. It was not clear who was leading this effort.

District F council member Tiffany Thomas, who chairs the council’s housing committee, said she plans to support such a referral but believes hiring outside lawyers is worth it because the public l ‘asked. Thomas said she didn’t think residents would ever view the city’s investigation as independent, even if they hire outside lawyers, as it was initiated by the Turner administration.

She added that she was supporting a break on the contract to see what the GLO finds in its investigation.

District B council member Tarsha Jackson said she supported referral of the contract to the administration, but reportedly voted against hiring the outside law firm, arguing it would still be considered by members of the public as an internal investigation.

If it is to be completely independent, the city should not be involved in hiring a consultant, ”Jackson said. “I don’t think that’s a good use of the money.”

She suggested that a community council could look into the allegations and said any investigation should go beyond the details of the deal at the center of McCasland’s allegations and also look at past administrations.

On Tuesday, District K council member Martha Castex-Tatum publicly asked if the $ 275,000 contract was needed since the GLO is already looking into the matter.

District J City Councilor Ed Pollard said he was not sure how he would vote to send the matter back to administration. He said he could see the pros and cons of each approach and was waiting to find out how his colleagues felt.

“I think it’s important to restore public confidence, and an independent inquiry can do that,” Pollard said, adding, “I haven’t heard a lot of correspondence from voters on this issue. correspondence regarding garbage, crime and illegal dumping.

Turner’s office said he would leave it to council members and was not involved in the deliberations.

McCasland publicly reported Turner for staging a “comedy” of a competitive process to award Hurricane Harvey affordable housing dollars to a predetermined developer. A co-developer of the mayor’s chosen project, called Huntington at Bay Area, was Barry Barnes, the mayor’s longtime former legal partner.

Turner has denied any wrongdoing. He then abandoned the deal, saying it had become a distraction for his administration and the city.

The mayor had previously argued that he lobbied for the deal because it was in a relatively wealthy city council area that has not seen affordable development for six years. He reportedly used $ 15 million of Harvey funds to help fund 88 affordable units, while the four selections recommended by McCasland and staff reportedly used $ 16.2 million to help fund 362 units.

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