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Spelman withdraws item to allow lobbyists on code panel

Friday, February 1, 2013 by Michael Kanin

At Thursday’s City Council meeting, Council Member Bill Spelman withdrew a controversial item that would have allowed lobbyists to serve on the city’s Land Development Code Rewrite Committee. But not before he delivered a measured and pointed set of remarks from the dais about the set of circumstances that forced his hand.

 

Oppostion to Spelman’s resolution mounted quickly early in the week. At their regular Tuesday worksession, Council Members Laura Morrison, Mike Martinez, and Kathie Tovo expressed their concern that lobbyists’ inclusion on the code task force would sour the process.

 

“I think it’s an extraordinarily bad idea for us to change the way we do things and put registered lobbyists on (the committee),” Morrison said at the time. “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.”

 

Stakes grew the next day when a wide range of local groups – including Austin Interfaith, the Workers Defense Project, the Austin Neighborhoods Council, and political consultant David Butts – called a news conference. There, joined by Tovo and Morrison, they attacked the idea.

 

From the dais on Thursday, Spelman spoke for about seven minutes. He closed with an attempt to change the image of the bad-guy lobbyist. “If you think about the kind of rhetoric that’s been applied to this problem for the last 48 hours, I think it’s wildly different from the situation that we experience every day.

 

“This is not about (identity-less Matrix bad guy) Agent Smith,” he contiued. “This is about Nikelle. This is about Alice. This is about Michelle – both Michelles. This is about Jeff. This is about Steve. This is about David and Richard. And most of you know exactly who I’m talking about, I don’t need to use last names, because these are people you are all familiar with.” (The last names, in order, would be Meade, Glasco, Lynch, Haussmann, Howard, Drenner, Armbrust and Suttle.)

 

Former representative for Real Estate Council of Austin member, and a former City Council candidate Dominic Chavez summed the building sentimment. “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.” Chavez was one of five candidates who ran against Spelman.

 

Early on, Spelman seemed to have the support to pass the measure. Council Member Chris Riley had done his best to illustrate that it would be legal for lobbyists to serve on the body. Mayor Lee Leffingwell had called for an inclusive process. And the inclusion of lobbyists in the pool of candidates would have allowed Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole a bit more leeway with an already narrow pool of ethnically-diverse, zoning-savvy candidates.  But in the end, overwhelming opposition forced Spelman to back down.

 

With Spelman’s motion withdrawn, Council members moved forward with most nominations for the committee. All of the named individuals – Jim Duncan (named by Morrison), Bill Herring (Leffingwell), Steve Oliver (Riley), Bryan Reese, and Chris Bradford (Cole) – are white males.

 

This development gave Spelman another opportunity to drive his point home. “I will not have an appointment to the land development code advisory group,” he said. “The person I had intended to appoint is no longer eligible…that would have been Michele Rogerson-Lynch. I’d also like to mention that Michele Rogerson-Lynch, had she been appointed today, woud have been the only woman on this group.”

 

Spelman asked for a couple of weeks to come up with another candidate. In addition to Rogerson-Lynch, Alice Glasco – who was also disqualified by the lobbyist ruling – was rumored to be his committee selection.

 

Later Thursday, Spelman told In Fact Daily that he thought that the argument against the item was framed by mayoral politics. Cole, Martinez, and Morrison are all rumored to be considering a run. “It was directed largely at Sheryl (Cole) for being willing to consider talking with developers,” Spelman added.

 

Morrison told In Fact Daily via email, “I appreciate that the resolution to allow paid lobbyists to serve on the Land Development Code Advisory Group was withdrawn. However, it’s important to note that this week’s discussion reflected a fundamental difference of opinion about how our government should operate. Any suggestion that it was a rhetorical exercise or political game playing minimizes the significance of this critical policy issue. The collective voices of Austin residents and 16 local organizations made it clear that it’s imperative we maintain a bright line separating financial interest from community interest.”

 

For her part, Cole still hoped for some level of diversity in the process. “In selecting an appointee for this important task force, each council member is weighing a lot of considerations – expertise and fairness, but also diversity,” she said via email. “We have fallen woefully short on having a diverse body of individuals on this task force. The city staff now has the ability to appoint four members of the advisory group, and I hope that they’re able to round out this body with their choices.”

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