The city has retained veteran Austin ethics attorney Ed Shack to investigate questions about the legal residency of a Mansfield City Council member, City Attorney Allen Taylor said Monday.
The council decided Nov. 24 to seek an outside investigator or team to look into whether Place 6 Councilwoman Wendy Burgess had lived outside the city at any time in violation of the city charter. The council has final say and could remove her from office, which would require a special election to replace her.
Taylor said he retained Shack last week on authority granted by the council. He said Shack, a popular consultant on election and ethics issues, will assemble a team for the investigation.
Shack, a former staff attorney for the Texas Secretary of State’s election division, has the expertise as well as the geographical separation to provide a thorough investigation while avoiding any appearance of political bias in the process, Taylor said.
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“Their offices are in Travis County and they work statewide, and they’re not tied to any particular group up here, which was the mayor’s directive to me,” Taylor said. He said he expects a final report on the inquiry’s findings before Christmas, at a cost of between $10,000 and $30,000.
Burgess, who was elected in May to her second three-year term, wasn’t immediately available for comment Monday afternoon on the selection of Shack or the investigation.
The council voted 5-0 for the inquiry, with Burgess and Councilman Cory Hoffman abstaining. Hoffman cited business reasons.
“The council is committed to an open and transparent process to make this determination,” Mayor David Cook said.
The council authorized Taylor to select and retain an investigator, but Taylor emphasized that Shack would report only to the council, not to him or to city staff.
The issue began with the arrival of an anonymous letter at City Hall on Nov. 7. It contained documents questioning Burgess’ home address, including a deed signed March 20 by Burgess and her husband, Precinct 7 Constable Clint Burgess, for a property in the Rendon area, just west of Mansfield.
Burgess defended herself at the council table during a discussion before the vote. She said that she has owned and sold multiple homes and travels a lot for her business but that she has always lived at a home in Mansfield.
She bought the Rendon property, she said, “for longhorns and horses and ducks” because of her daughter’s interest in veterinary medicine. “She wants to be a large-animal vet,” Burgess said. “That is exactly why I did it.”
The charter requires that the mayor and council members live within the city limits not only during their service but at least 12 months before the date they would take office. The council’s final authority on the issue is set in the city charter, which states the council “shall be the judge of the election qualifications of its own members.”
Taylor said that if the investigation findings indicate that Burgess has not maintained her residency qualification, the council needs to know by mid-January so it can schedule a special election to run concurrently with the general election in May.
A separate election would cost between $15,000 and $20,000, City Secretary Vicki Collins estimated.