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Debate over lobbyists on city panel heats up

Thursday, January 31, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Pressure continued to mount Wednesday against a proposal to include lobbyists in a pool of would-be candidates for the city’s Land Development Code Rewrite Committee. At a City Hall news conference, a wide range of advocates from nearly every walk of Austin civic life joined Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo to speak out against the idea – which will appear on this morning’s Council agenda.


Meanwhile, it appears as though item sponsor Council Member Bill Spelman will not back off an attempt to push the idea through a split Council. “The stakeholder process has got to involve all stakeholders,” he told In Fact Daily Wednesday afternoon.


Without the proposed amendment, he said, “We will be systematically excluding a class of stakeholders from participation in the stakeholder process…the people who know the code best, who work with it every day and will be most affected by any changes in the code. That’s what democracy is all about. You include everybody. I’m not talking about having them take over the process at all,” he said, but having three lobbyists on a panel of 11 members.


At Tuesday’s work session, Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, his co-sponsors on the item that would allow lobbyists on the task force, joined Spelman in what sounded like definitive terms. For Cole, Spelman’s proposal could open up what is already a small pool of ethnically diverse, zoning-savvy candidates.


Leffingwell seemed interested in drawing from the experience that lobbyists might bring to the table.


One of those is Alice Glasco, a lobbyist who was the head of the Development Review Department before retiring. The other name heard as a possible candidate was Metcalfe Wolff planning expert Michele Rogerson-Lynch. She is also a former city planner.


With Council Member Mike Martinez seemingly against the idea, Council Member Chris Riley seems to be the swing vote. On Tuesday, Riley appeared to be for the idea. He made a point to underscore the legality of lobbyists’ service on a city task force. “Under current city code, lobbyists would have been allowed to serve on this task force, is that correct?” Riley asked Assistant City Attorney Brent Lloyd.


Lloyd replied that Riley was correct.


That was before Wednesday’s news conference. There, representatives of groups including the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Austin Interfaith, the Workers Defense Project, and others – including political consultant David Butts – gathered to express their concerns.


Former City Council candidate, Republican, and former representative of the Real Estate Council of Austin Dominic Chavez was also there to speak out against the idea. “For having been in that business before…it was something that you accepted that, if you’re going to be in that profession, you give up your right to participate on this level,” he said. “I firmly oppose this proposal.”


Tovo and Morrison also continued to hammer the idea. Tovo continued to differentiate paid lobbyists from neighborhood activists and their kin. She said that “like any other constituent” lobbyists have a right to “be here to share their expertise and their information and to make their opinions known.”


“Unlike the neighbors and the small business owners and the individual property owners who also hold meetings with their representatives, the lobbyists are paid for their activities here at city hall – and that’s an important distinction,” Tovo said.


Morrison said that she was at the press conference to “echo the bottom line that it doesn’t make sense to have people whose livelihood depends on the Land Development Code and our laws being at the table, playing a leadership role in rewriting those laws.”


She pointed to recent unanimous action in a non-binding resolution against the results of the Citizens United Supreme Court case. “It’s easy to say that we’re against it at the federal level,” Morrison continued. “When it comes down to an absolutely critical issue for the City of Austin, we need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”

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