After a public records court battle that lasted all of one day, Travis County officials late Tuesday released a copy of their 99-year lease with a developer who plans to build a mixed-use project on a prime downtown tract.
The release of the detailed agreement, which is expected to net Travis County $430 million, came a day after real estate broker Dani Tristan filed a lawsuit challenging the county’s initial refusal to hand over the lease — even though the attorney general’s office had ruled the record should be public.
“I’m delighted that this lease in its entirety is going to be made public,” said Bill Aleshire, an attorney who represents Tristan, “and sorry it took a lawsuit to get their attention.”
Travis County officials signed the lease in July with Lincoln Property Co. for the county-owned site at 308 Guadalupe St. The property, one of the last undeveloped blocks downtown, was made available to developers after voters in 2015 rejected Travis County’s bond proposal to build a civil courthouse on the site.
Tristan, along with the American-Statesman and a representative of Trammell Crow, another developer, requested a copy of the lease in July. Lincoln Property objected, saying the release of these public documents would put it at a competitive disadvantage.
In particular, a company attorney wrote in an Aug. 7 request to the attorney general’s office that releasing a particular section of the lease would hurt ongoing negotiations with a party whose name it redacted, jeopardize future negotiations and put the company at a disadvantage with competitors, including Trammell Crow.
Lincoln Property cited the standard set by the state Supreme Court’s 2015 Boeing decision, which allows companies and local and state agencies to block the release of information by claiming it could put them at a competitive disadvantage.
But the attorney general ruled against Lincoln Property on Sept. 25, saying the company had failed to demonstrate “specific factual evidence that substantial competitive injury would result.”
Even with the attorney general’s ruling, Travis County initially held off on providing the lease to Tristan and the others who had requested it. Assistant Travis County Attorney Ann-Marie Sheely said the county was “not permitted to release the information” while Lincoln Property determined whether it would appeal the attorney general’s decision.
“Travis County is not appealing; however, the affected third-party has that right,” Sheely said in an email to Tristan, according to the lawsuit that Tristan filed Monday. “Travis County Purchasing cannot disregard that process.”
Travis County purchasing agent Bonnie Floyd said the county never objected to releasing the information but was waiting to see whether Lincoln Property intended to sue over the attorney general’s ruling. Floyd said a company lawyer informed the county late Tuesday that it did not intend to do so, so the county moved forward with releasing the document.
Earlier Tuesday, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt called Tristan’s lawsuit “premature” and said it “seems like steamrolling to swat at a gnat.” Eckhardt said regardless of the suit, requesters would have had a copy of some portion of the lease by the end of the week.
“From a county standpoint, we don’t have any problem releasing the entire document,” Eckhardt said.
Aleshire argued that the county was not legally required to wait for Lincoln Property’s decision on whether it would appeal the attorney general’s ruling before officials released the lease.
“We are guessing that the section Lincoln Properties doesn’t want disclosed is the financial provisions,” Aleshire said. “But without disclosure of that, how will taxpayers ever know what the deal really is and whether it is really worth $430 million?”
WHY IT MATTERS
The Texas Public Information Act allows the public and news organizations to obtain records showing how public dollars and resources are being used. Such records form the cornerstone of government transparency and empower residents to hold their officials accountable. With Travis County releasing its lease with Lincoln Property Co., the public can see all the terms of the deal involving a prime piece of public land.
See the full lease with this story on mystatesman.com.