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Fight brewing over putting lobbyists on Land Development panel

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Three Council members expressed concerns at Tuesday’s Council work session about their colleagues’ proposal to allow paid lobbyists to serve on the Land Development Code Rewrite Committee.


The issues raised by Council Members Laura Morrison, Mike Martinez, and Kathie Tovo revolve around legality and conflicts of interest. It all falls under the broader category of concern over undue influence by development interests in a process that has the potential to redefine how the city approaches zoning and land use.


Another issue brought forward Tuesday as part of this discussion could have wider implications. During the back-and-forth, Tovo wondered whether the members of the city’s regular boards and commissions would be subject to Austin’s revolving door policy. If they are, it could limit city commissioners’ ability to do business with the city – a fact that could prove troublesome for more than a handful of those volunteers.


The task force that works on the land development code will not quite be in the same category as a full-time board or commission member. As a body with a time limit, the group will have the technical mission of a task force. Those groups are not legally subject to the same rules as the rest of the city’s advisory bodies.


The current squabble is over an item brought forward by Council Member Bill Spelman and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole that would allow lobbyists to serve on the land development code committee.


Morrison, Martinez, Spelman and Cole are all known to be considering a run for Mayor in 2014. So it is not surprising that an issue involving lobbyists should bring about such public consternation. 


Tovo went after the idea that lobbyists who are paid to represent interests do not belong on the committee. She tried to differentiate that group from other interested parties who visit Council offices on behalf of a pending item. Tovo argued that Council members could fill the committee with architects, engineers, and the like – individuals who might offer the same insights as lobbyists.


She said that she was deeply worried about the prospect of lobbyists on the committee. “I would say very concerned is an understatement,” Tovo added later.


Morrison agreed. “I think it’s an extraordinarily bad idea for us to change the way we do things and put registered lobbyists on (the committee),” she said. “I don’t think there’s any way to separate the livelihood of these lobbyists – their livelihood is basically representing clients to enhance financial gain under the laws. And we are now saying that those folks whose livelihood relies on that are going to be in the leadership position to rewrite those laws and I think that is wrong.”


Martinez noted that the effect that lobbyists have on a development process is measurable. He pointed to the process that produced the waterfront overlay ordinance. “It’s a very specific example of a policy codified where some folks had lobbyists at the table and some didn’t,” he said. “Therefore you see some sub districts of the overlay with 35 feet of height and some with 96 feet of height. They will tell you, matter-of-factly, those with 96 feet of height had paid lobbyists.”


For his part, Spelman noted that it would be important to have input from every interest involved in the city’s zoning process. He also pointed out that lobbyists represent an experienced pool from which the city could draw. “They know more about the land development code than anybody else…they are frequent users of the land development code…they have interest in the land development code making sense – being easy for them and their clients to use,” Spelman argued.


“And because I think they can offer us good advice. I don’t think they should be in charge of the process by any means at all, but I think that having two or three or four of the people who know the code extremely well from the point of view of the user, of somebody who is trying to develop property is in a better position than almost anybody else to help us work through some of the problems in the code.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell served – along with Mayor Pro Tem Cole – as a co-sponsor of the item. He echoed Spelman’s remarks. “I think it’s important that we get all perspectives,” he said. “A lot of questions have come up about our land development code. Many of these developers are users of our land development code, (and) they know it probably better than anybody else.”


Leffingwell also noted that lobbyists have to register with the city and that, through that process, interested parties would be able to determine their conflicts of interest.


A host of concerned groups, including Public Citizen and Texans for Public Justice will hold a news conference today at City Hall to urge Council members to vote against the resolution.


Veteran community activist Susana Almanza of PODER told In Fact Daily that she believes that the city already has a policy that bans lobbyists from city boards and commissions. “We feel that there’s already guidelines for that, and we feel that that should be the continuation,” she said. “I’m pretty afraid that if you get lobbyists on there, they’ll start writing rules for their clients.”

Council Member Chris Riley appears to be the fourth and deciding vote on the matter. At Tuesday’s work session he underscored the idea that banning lobbyists from the land development rewrite committee would actually be a departure from usual city policy. “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 told Riley that he was correct. But there will be a lot of political pressure on the four proponents of the change to give up their plan.

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