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Comprehensive Plan faces potential legal hurdles over contributions

Thursday, February 4, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

As the city prepares to start the second part of its Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan Community Forum Series, issues stemming from part one were presented Monday at a meeting of the Council’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee.


At the Comprehensive Plan Community Forums, citizens get an opportunity to voice their opinions about Austin’s challenges, strengths, and future. Monday night Citizen Task Force Member Mark Yznaga told the committee that despite positive responses from some in the community, problems related to organization, community involvement, and, most importantly, access to resources are hindering the task force’s ability to create a comprehensive plan worth passing and implementing.


“The resources issue is actually quite severe,” Yznaga said. “We have no materials to use. We have to have something to leave behind in somebody’s hands to explain things. People need to understand why we’re doing this, why it matters, what it’s going to do, and why they should care.”


“We’ve been sending emails and messages on Facebook,” Task Force Member Perla Cavazos told the committee, “but that only goes so far. For the community forums, city staff had developed a flyer that we distributed to promote those meetings, but after that we didn’t have something, which is why some of us informally created a flyer.”


Cavazos said that some Task Force members have been printing surveys with their own money.


According to Yznaga, the problem is a legal one. Two months ago, he said, it was brought up in a task force meeting that it may be illegal for a city-formed committee to accept contributions from outside sources, that even accepting free access to printing could be against the law.


“The task force wanted to set up a committee for the purpose of bringing more resources into the Comprehensive Plan,” Yznaga told In Fact Daily, “and the chair of the committee raised the issue of whether it’s legal for us to raise contributions. We asked city legal staff whether or not we could accept contributions, but we still haven’t heard the answer yet.”


Yznaga said the task force is in need of in-kind contributions, television public service announcements, radio ads, printing billboards, and buttons, anything that can help get the word out about the Comprehensive Plan so that the response rate is as high as possible.


“It’s strange for a city this size not to have professional PR/design help,” he said. “We could certainly use it, but we don’t have any resources. We need something to make the plan more robust. We need to get the message out, to touch the community in any way we can, because honestly, most people don’t even know this is taking place.


“You name it, we need it.”


Council Member Sheryl Cole called up Assistant City Attorney Brent Lloyd to address the task force’s contribution concerns, and he said that city lawyers are currently looking at the issue and would be ready with recommendations at the group’s next regular meeting, set for next Tuesday, Feb. 9.


After the meeting, Lloyd told In Fact Daily that the fact that the Citizens Task Force was created by Council resolution – and that its authority is limited to what is set out in that resolution – could present legal problems with their collecting contributions. But “that issue would be easy to deal with,” he said. “Change the resolution; give them that authority.”


“But there are other issues we need to look into with regard to some sort of a city body that’s raising money on its own,” he continued. “We need to look into whether that’s a problem, and if it is, whether there are ways around it. Whether a fund could be created where people could donate money, and that money would be put into that fund for particular purposes administered by staff. Or whether it could be done through an outside foundation. It’s just figuring out the best way to get there.


“We’ve got people in the law department who work in municipal finance, and we’re looking at the best way to allow that to happen. Most city boards don’t collect money on their own and then spend it, but there are ways to create funds and use outside foundations, things that are set up to receive money. So it’s just figuring out mechanically how to get there.”


Though wary, Yznaga thinks staff attorneys will figure something out. “I would suspect in this budget cycle they’ll figure out a way to allow us to take contributions,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense that they wouldn’t. I don’t understand what the legal ramifications are; I was pretty surprised to hear it was an issue. I guess they just need to work out the way it would flow.


“But we need an answer soon,” he said.

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