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Campaign fund charges fly

Wednesday, July 20, 2005 by

Council members cite need to change City Charter

Former City Council candidate Wes Benedict and his campaign treasurer, Art DiBianca, have issued a claim that every member of the Council—except Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas—collected more than the legal limit in contributions from non-City of Austin residents in recent or previous campaigns.

Without confirming Benedict’s numbers, most of the Council said Tuesday that abiding by the limits on non-Austin campaign contributions is very difficult, if not impossible. A majority indicated that they favor changing the law, with most saying they would support creation of a committee to propose changes to the City Charter. Mayor Will Wynn, however, is looking for a groundswell of public opinion against the ordinance before he would be comfortable putting the matter on the ballot again.

Benedict, whose analysis of Council Member Betty Dunkerley's reports caused her to return about $13,000 to non-Austinites, now says that Council Member Brewster McCracken took in more than $67,000 from non Austinites during his 2003 campaign. McCracken denied the charge last night, saying there was "a massive gap" between his figures and Benedict's. Austin's campaign finance rules prohibit a candidate from accepting more than $15,000 from non-Austinites, or $25,000 in case of runoff.

McCracken said his figures show he accepted $14,695 for the May 2003 election and an additional $9,365 for the runoff against Margot Clarke from non-Austinites. But Benedict and DiBianca disagree. They say McCracken received $3,150 from organizations and $64,180 from individuals not eligible to vote in Austin and that both of those categories should be counted within the $15,000/$25,000 limit.

They also claim that Mayor Will Wynn got more than $31,000 and Council Member Raul Alvarez accepted more than $23,000 during the 2003 campaign. In addition, they claim that new Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Jennifer Kim received more than $25,000 apiece in non-city contributions for the May election. All of these Council members say they tried to screen their contributions to prevent such an occurrence. Each of them also say the rules which voters approved as part of the City Charter in 1997 make compliance difficult and confusing.

“We had a contribution system where we recorded everybody who had a non-City of Austin address or who had an Austin address that indicated non-City of Austin," said McCracken.

“In general, the whole campaign finance ordinance is apparently in need of some revisions. We need to put some more restrictions on PAC activities. Those have gotten where they're supplanting campaigns in a way. We also need to look at contribution limits. Those were set in 1997,” but both cost of television advertising and postage has gone up since then,” he added.

“Also, what we’ve learned from the City Attorney’s Office is that the current ordinance is not enforceable, so we need a charter revision to make it enforceable, to change the contribution limits and also to put some limits on PAC activities,” McCracken said..

As for Dunkerley, who was out of town this week, Benedict and DiBianca say that she still has more than $5,000 in non City of Austin contributions above the $15,000 limit. Dunkerley Campaign Manager, Mark Nathan, said "I think Mr. Benedict is actually raising a valid concern, although it's not the one he thinks it is. As per usual, Benedict's tone is accusatory, and I fully expect he'll call for the entire City Council to resign in disgrace and be replaced by Libertarians.” Benedict is Executive Director of the Texas Libertarian Party.

But, Nathan said, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that any Council member ever intended to break any campaign finance rule.

”The truly valid concern Mr. Benedict is raising here, though, is the fact that Austin's cap on ‘out-of-town’ campaign contributions is ridiculous and arbitrary,” he said. “When six out of seven Council candidates hit the cap and have to return contributions from supporters who may live 50 feet on the other side of the city limit line, the cap is obviously too low and too ill-conceived.”

But Benedict found his discoveries to be “troubling.”

“In many cases these six candidates won their seats by outspending their opponents,” he said. “Now we see that a lot of the money was obtained illegally."

When informed about the allegations, Wynn said, “This is news to me. We had substantial controls some in place, even though it is very difficult to determine where somebody lives. We’d get checks from a post office box, so we would try to run a letter to that P.O. Box, asking ‘where you live?’ And we wouldn’t get an answer, so we sent many, many checks back because we had no idea where they were from.”

Wynn agreed with his colleagues on the need to address the current campaign ordinance. “It's bad on several fronts," he said. "The technicalities of trying to decide whether or not somebody lives in the city are one of those central problems."

Council Member Raul Alvarez said he instructed his campaign manager carefully on screening the checks for out-of-town contributions. “That's one of the challenges with the system we have. You deal with so many small contributions you maybe don't have the time to do all the checks and call each one to see if they live in the city, “he said.

Alvarez said he was also not convinced that Benedict and DiBianca had their numbers correct. "The system we have would be good if we had single member districts because you don't need to raise a hundred thousand dollars to run in one-seventh or-eighth of the city," he opined. However, he said if the city is going to maintain the at-large system, raising the limit to $250 should be considered.

"We returned a bunch of money,” said Leffingwell, adding that said his campaign returned all the money in excess of the limit that they knew was from out of town. He said such a process was extremely time-consuming. "I definitely think we need to investigate changing the campaign finance laws. They’re the most restrictive at any elected officials around that I know of–state, federal, much more restrictive than the cities are.”

Council Member Kim reiterated the difficulty of assessing who lives within the city limits and who does not. She said she had returned thousands of dollars in contributions, including some that she handed back to people as soon as they gave them to her because she could see they had an address outside Austin. For checks that indicated an Austin address, Kim said her staff tried to check, but added, " there is no easy way,” to do that.

"Apparently, Wes is asking for us to return funds. There are no funds. It's all been spent,” she said. “Plus, I lent the campaign money. Going forward, we need ask what is the purpose of this limit. I was elected by the voters of this city and I'm going to serve them.” Kim also pointed out that many people work in Austin and have a stake in the community even though their address may be outside of Austin.”

Kim said she loaned herself $6,500 during the final days of the campaign. That was in addition to the $1,200 she had loaned the campaign previously, She said the campaign now owes her $7,700. She will not be able to raise any more money until her next election cycle nearly three years from now. In the final days of the election, Kim raised nearly $42,000, including the loan. However, she spent nearly $69,000 during the final 10 days of the campaign. She said she favors creation of a charter revision committee, as long as it is balanced.

In contrast, opponent Margot Clarke, who got $91,000 in matching funds from the city, raised a bit more than $10,000 and spent more than $50,000. Clark's final report shows that she still owes herself nearly $27,000.

DiBianca commented, "These Council members had better return the excess money right away." Benedict has filed suit against the APA PAC and the Real Estate Council of Austin PAC for actions taken during the 2003 election.

County hears squawks over proposals

Travis County has finally has dipped its toes into the stream of water quality regulation and found there are some fish in the pond that would be just as happy if it didn’t.

The Texas Landowners Conservancy, a group of Travis County landowners, made a concerted effort during the legislative session to push back both the Save Our Springs Ordinance and the efforts to regulate proposed by the Southwest Travis County Dialogue. Yesterday, Ted Stewart and others from the Landowners Conservancy told the court it has no business getting into the water regulation business.

“I’m here to tell you that you are ill advised to proceed forward,” retired attorney Larry Nieman told the court. “You simply do not have the statutory authority. I know that is not a pleasant bit of news for you, but I honestly believe in my heart that this court has the obligation to do what is lawful under the statute.” Nieman has specialized in real estate law.

Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman outlined interim land development rules before the Commissioners’ Court yesterday. A moratorium on preliminary subdivision plats expires at the end of this month. The interim rules would be a stopgap measure that would eventually be replaced with a stronger land development code. Most of the measures come out of recommendations of the Southwest Dialogue.

The Southwest Dialogue, facilitated by Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, was intended to address and preserve the Hill Country nature of Southwest Travis County. For the first time, Travis County seriously entertained using Senate Bill 873, adopted in 2001, which gave counties some of the same land regulatory authority that cities have.

Stewart, who owns 1,400 acres above the Pedernales River, participated in the dialogue and eventually parted with the group over proposed regulations. He would eventually back efforts to stave off county measures with proposed legislation, which included setting the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as the final arbiter of all water quality measures, rather than local jurisdictions. Stewart called the goals of the Southwest Dialogue worthy ones supported by many people.

“However, the process that the county has used to achieve this goal… it’s been a very transparent attempt to confiscate property rights in the name of health, safety, welfare and water quality,” Stewart told commissioners.

Setting up land preserves and water protection is not the problem, Stewart said. Most landowners want water quality protection. Those goals, however, should not be executed on the backs of property owners without fair and just compensation, especially when development has occurred along the bluffs of the Pedernales upstream and downstream.

Stewart is meeting with Gieselman and Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols on his ranch this week. Stewart said he was hopeful the trio could come to some kind of compromise on the development issue. In the meantime, commissioners are expected to take some final action on the interim development rules next week.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

The power of the press. . . Nik the Goat, who lives with Joel Muñoz on West Mary Street in South Austin, has been the subject of both a TV news story and a John Kelso column (and now, here). In case you missed it, the City of Austin has been trying to evict Nik because the Muñoz yard does not allow the legal distance between Nik, a member of the livestock class, and people. When we visited Mayor Will Wynn yesterday, he immediately announced his intention to “pardon” both Muñoz and the goat. We’re not sure what the law says, but we are pretty sure the Mayor will need some legal help here. Wynn later emailed the following, “You may not be aware but Nik the Goat, Mr. Muñoz and the dearly departed Dopey the Goat (along with yours truly) are subjects in a play being produced at the Zach Scott Theatre entitled " Keepin’ It Weird." It is tentatively scheduled to open October 1. I was looking forward to sitting next to Nik at the world premier. He gets the aisle seat. Furthermore, I live downtown. There is frequently livestock within 100 feet of me that smell a lot worse than a goat.” Political consultant Mark Nathan and the editor of In Fact Daily, who both live in the 78704 zip code, believe the city might amend its ordinance to allow this part of the city to be a BPZ (Bubba Protection Zone), in which livestock would be allowed to live closer to neighbors. Nathan, with tongue in cheek, says a BPZ could "help preserve the unique cultural heritage of South Austin, with a particular emphasis on protecting the residency rights of goats, chickens, ferrets, parrots, ducks, turtles, the occasional llama, and lots of mangy old dogs." . . . Today’s meetings. . . The Environmental Board will hear a request from Bury & Partners for a variance related to Bee Caves West in the 6500 Block FM 2244 when it meets at 6pm tonight. Still unable to meet in City Council chambers, the panel will meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The Downtown Commission will meet at 5:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The S olid Waste Advisory Commission will meet at 6:30pm in Room 105 of Waller Creek Plaza. Two subcommittees of the Bond Election Advisory Committee also will meet today . . . Time to line up. . . The names of those who might want to take the Place 6 seat of Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas float in the wind and are whispered from one ear to another. Here are the ones we’ve heard this week in alpha order: Rodney Ahart, Albert Black, Sam Bryant, Ashton Cumberbatch, Deborah Duncan, Cloteal Haynes, Sid Johnson, Dewayne Loftin and Darrell Pierce. Although friends have urged her to run, Thomas’ Executive Assistant Sandra Frazier says she does not want the job. . . ADA Celebration . . Mayor Will Wynn will join disability rights supporters at this year’s Fun Run for Disability Rights this Saturday, commemorating the 15th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The event will be from 9 to 11am, starting at the Mary Lee Community Center, 1327 Lamar Square Drive. Persons may sign up the day of the event. Participation is free. The Fun Run is not a race — individuals solicit pledges from friends, co-workers, and family based on the number of laps they can run, walk, roll or otherwise get around the one-quarter mile track in one hour. All participants will receive—what else?—a free T-shirt.

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