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Council weighs pros, cons of anti-lobbying rules for social service providers

Thursday, May 26, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Council members are considering waiving the city’s anti-lobbying ordinance in order to improve the social services procurement process. At yesterday’s meeting of the Health and Human Services Committee, representatives of various charitable groups expressed frustration with the level of access they’ve had to their representatives during the process, raising the question about whether they—unlike other contractors—should be allowed to lobby the Council. 

On May 9, city staff presented recommendations on the RFP process to the HHS committee. Those recommendations – which advocate continuing funding for only 23 of the 51 social service projects the city currently supports – were met with ire from many charitable organizations. 

Oralia Garza de Cortes, a leader with Austin Interfaith, an advocacy group that has expressed displeasure with the process and the city’s anti-lobbying ordinance, said the city’s interpretation of that rule makes speaking with individual Council members about social services proposals illegal for anyone in the city – not just respondents. 

“The only way a citizen in Austin can discuss funding for programs … is at an open hearing,” Cortes said. “This interpretation can’t be right because if it is, then the RFP process you’re approving denies all 790,000 Austin residents their First Amendment rights to petition their elected representatives. “

The 40 or so members of Austin Interfaith standing behind the speaker applauded enthusiastically. Austin Interfaith is an advocate for social service providers and programs but has not applied for funding from the city and, as Cortes pointed out, is not a representative for any groups that have.

“We are independent and we advocate for programs that better our community,” Cortes said. “This is about ordinary citizens being able to have conversations with their representatives that we elected. … The people of Austin deserve to be heard, and not just for three minutes every once in a while. We cannot silence citizens and then wonder why they do not turn out to vote. This ordinance needs to be fixed and amended.”

The Council members in attendance – committee members Randi Shade, Mike Martinez, and Laura Morrison and “visitors” Sheryl Cole and Chris Riley – were divided on the issue of waiving or amending the anti-lobbying ordinance, though all supported at least considering changes to the process.

Shade pointed out that the ordinance, “while it is very important and while it does protect us in many ways,” wasn’t around when the city last held an open-bid process for social service contracts more than a decade ago.

The city’s integrity officer, John Steiner, told the committee that Council can waive the ordinance with a second ordinance, but he expressed concern about what could result from such an action.

“What we would hate to see happen is someone who is actually connected with or acting at the behest of one of the respondents do that in such a way that they would effectively be a representative of the respondent,” Steiner said. “Staff’s advice for respondents has been very cautious because no one wins – the city doesn’t win; the communities being served don’t win; the respondents don’t win – if a solicitation of this importance is decided on some disqualification rather than on the merits of the proposals. Our concern is that in their zeal to do the good work that they do, they might get themselves disqualified.”

Mayor Pro Tem Martinez echoed that sentiment, saying he would entertain the idea of waiving the ordinance but wanted the audience to know that the anti-lobbying law “is there to protect the citizens, not the elected officials.”

Martinez preached caution. “If we start down the road on this one, what do we do on the next one?” he said. “And multimillion-dollar contracts come through this Council every week. I think we can deal with this but I want us to be extremely cautious.”

But Morrison said she would not support waiving the ordinance, instead recommending that staff be “less aggressive” with the advice they give people in the community “who just spontaneously want to talk about a proposal that they have no formal relationship with.”

Martinez disagreed with Morrison, saying easing enforcement of the ordinance could potentially “set up folks to file complaints against others in order to create a competitive edge.”

“I do not want to pit nonprofits against nonprofits,” he said. “We all care about these issues.”

Council will have time to consider the issue. They had originally planned to take action on the social service bids at today’s Council meeting, but instead set up a work session next Thursday at 9:30am to continue discussion on related issues.

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