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Tuesday, January 9, 2001 by

Campaign finance reform

Petition drive not only avenue for change

The Clean Campaign of Austin has begun an effort to reform Austin’s campaign finance laws once again, but the chair of the city’s Ethics Commission hopes the group will work through the commission rather than via the petition route. Clare Barry, who lost a City Council race against Will Wynn last spring, is one of the leaders of the movement—which does plan a petition drive—along with campaign finance veteran and former candidate Linda Curtis. Barry said Fred Lewis from Campaigns for People, Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, and Gary Dugger, former Railroad Commission candidate, are also involved.

Barry told In Fact Daily, “It’s important to let candidates with grass roots support have access to public funding earlier in the campaign—not just in the runoff.” She said that the group would like a candidate to gather 500 signatures on a petition and collect $5 from each in order to qualify for public funding. “Then you would qualify for $16,000 of public funding. After that the city would match contributions at two to one, with contributions limited to $100 ” per donor, Barry said.

Any candidate who chose not to sign the contract with the city would not be eligible for matching funds, but would be allowed to collect contributions of $200 per person, she said. “We don’t have all the details worked out yet, but hope to by January 20.” Barry said the group would like to place its proposal on a city ballot in August to coincide with a charter amendment election relating to single-member districts.

Ginny Agnew, who chairs the city’s Ethics Review Commission, which deals with complaints about ethical violations during campaigns, said, “The lesson that we should have learned from the Austinites for a Little Less Corruption campaign is that there is no more awkward way to reform campaign finance law than by referendum. We have created a morass of legal confusion with the current charter provision—which is unenforceable. Through the vehicle of citizen referendum, you just don’t have the same checks and balances as you do otherwise.”

Curtis led the 1997 petition drive for Austinites for a Little Less Corruption to reform City Council campaign financing. When City Clerk Elden Aldridge ruled the petitions insufficient, the group filed a lawsuit that wound up in a trial before U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks. The judge ruled in favor of the petitioners, ordered an election be held, and wrote a scathing opinion that was probably a factor in Aldridge's eventual forced retirement. When the measure got on the ballot voters approved it overwhelmingly. Curtis later repudiated the reforms saying they were flawed, but noted the election had been a first step in a long-term effort to clean up elections. ( In Fact Daily, March 17, 2000 and May 23, 2000) Curtis could not be reached for comment Monday. Agnew said the commission has struggled to deal with the contradictions between the city’s Fair Campaign Finance Ordinance and the charter provision and is currently working on recommending a new charter provision that would reconcile the two laws and make them enforceable. “We’re very open to citizen input from anyone, but we wish it could be done that way and not by citizen referendum,” Agnew said.

Agnew, an attorney, explained some of the problems created by conflicts between the charter provision and the ordinance. Both the ordinance and the charter provision “speak of a contract which candidates enter into with the city, but it’s unclear whether it’s the same contract or if they’re creating a different contract with different terms. Under the preexisting law that’s the only way you would be eligible for funding from the city was by entering into the contract. You’d only be eligible if you’d abided by the contract and got into a runoff and then you’d get a proportionate share of the fund. And how much that is varies from election to election.” The ordinance sets a limit on contributions and expenditures and requires candidates to participate in city-sponsored forums, she said.

However, the next biggest problem with the voter-approved charter provision is that it “envisions sanctions or penalties that can be imposed for failure to comply with the charter that are not legally enforceable,” Agnew said. For example, the charter refers to criminal penalties, but the wording does not meet the statutory requirements for defining a criminal act. “They have tried to empower us (the commission) with criminal enforcement powers that we don’t have,” she concluded.

The commission’s goal is to present a revised charter provision to the City Council for its consideration this spring, she said. The commission has been somewhat hamstrung by three unfilled vacancies, but Agnew is hoping new commissioners will be named soon.

Any proposal for a charter change would require voter approval, whether it comes from the commission or through a petition process.

Wynn, Barry and Curtis all ran in Place 5 last May. Wynn scored the knockout without a runoff with 50.53 percent of the vote. Barry came in second with 25.25 percent and Curtis garnered 13.15 percent. Wynn spent $45,000 of his own money in the race, along with $36,000 in contributions. Barry collected only $14,000 and Curtis collected even less.

Associate City Clerk Rose Sickel said petitioners must collect 51,000 signatures to place a charter amendment item on the ballot. That’s about 10 percent of the city’s 513,072 registered voters. She said in order to qualify for the Aug. 11 election, petitions would probably need to be presented to the City Clerk’s Office by mid-May. The Council must call an election at least 60 days before the vote, she said.

However, Barbara Hankins, chair of the city’s Charter Revision Commission, said she believes a charter election is not likely until November. She said the Council is still waiting for complete census data before taking up the single-member district question again. Linda Dailey, executive assistant to Council Member Danny Thomas, said that new census data is expected this spring. She reiterated that Thomas would favor a mixed system, with some members elected at large and others from districts. Dailey said the new City Hall is being designed for 11 council members, “just in case that’s approved by the voters.”

Builder surprised by Board of Adjustment

Vote on Spicewood Springs Road setback

Only one protester appears in person

Not so long ago, putting a new office building on Spicewood Springs Road would have drawn a capacity crowd at the various Austin City commissions.

But last night, a request for variances to setback requirements for a homebuilder’s office at 4700 Spicewood Springs Rd. failed with hardly a murmur of protest. As Board of Adjustments Chairman Herman Thun told his colleagues, people now understand that the old Cedar Chopper Road cannot revert back to residential. Thun has lived in the Balcones/Spicewood Springs neighborhood since 1982.

“I think the Northwest Austin Civic Club or the Balcones Civic Association would have been down here 15 years ago. They would have had this auditorium loaded for bear,” Thun said. “I think even they have recognized that this strip of land has changed dramatically, and it’s no place where you would expect single-family residential ever again.”

Homebuilder Patrick Heyl had already won approval for a zoning change on the 1.5-acre tract from single family to LO-CO, with a height limitation of 30 feet. The property has 200 feet of frontage along Spicewood Springs. He intended to put a home-like office—one intended to advertise his custom homebuilding business—on the site. Doing so would require variances of setbacks on two sides of the property. B.J. Cornelius of Site Specifics, who represented Heyl, said the variances were needed because the slope of the property and the trees rendered almost half the site useless for development. The overlay requirements, Cornelius said, were the result of extensive discussions with the neighborhood. No single-family homes are located within 200 feet of the site, he added.

Discussion of the proposed variances was brief. Only Norm Bruekle, who owns the adjoining property, spoke to contest the variances, and then only because he wanted a privacy fence (to which Heyl readily agreed). There were a few questions about the significance of the drive into the property but little else, leaving Heyl surprised when the board voted 3-2 against the variances. Vice Chair Betty Edgemond and Commissioner Barbara Aybar voted no, while Thun, Laurie Virkstis and Wanda Penn voted in favor of the variances. Five positive votes are required to grant a variance.

Edgemond and Aybar gave no clue during the meeting as to why they were against the variances. Those who protested the variances in writing said that there were already too many businesses along Spicewood Springs and that those businesses created light pollution and traffic congestion. Another wrote that the variances split a property that was intended for residential usage.

“The Spicewood Road has been a picturesque road since early times,” wrote LeRoy Deaton. “Do we have to destroy every beautiful canyon in Austin?”

Cornelius told commissioners she had attempted to contact everyone who objected to the project. She added that those who opposed the project were opposed to commercial development on Spicewood Springs Road in general. After the hearing, Heyl and Cornelius said they were likely to reconfigure the variances and ask the board again to grant exceptions.

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Stratus meeting . . . The subcommittee of the Environmental Board considering the proposed development agreement with Stratus Properties is scheduled to meet at 11:30 a.m. in Room 220 of One Texas Center . . . Changes to Airport Advisory Board . . . The current board will meet at 5 p.m. today to consider changes to the board ordinance requiring members to fit into certain categories (pilot, resident of Austin-Bergstrom Airport area, civil engineer or architect, attorney, real estate appraiser, business person, and person from the banking or financial community) . . . City Hall . . . Architect Antoine Predock will present his design for City Hall at Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs Road, tonight from 7 to 9 p.m. You can see architectural renderings at the current City Hall, One Texas Center’s lobby, 505 Barton Springs Road, and at seven Austin Public Library locations. The design is also at the Austin City Connection, . . Commission complete . . . With the addition of Liz-Garza-Goins and Jane Manaster, the Historic Landmark Commission now has a full roster. Both were appointed in December.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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