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Friday, July 25, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano
Ingle accuses Land Development Code panel member of ethics violation
Neighborhood activist Mary Ingle heightened the controversy around the city’s Land Development Code rewrite process Thursday by alleging that a member of the committee working on the rewrite has violated city ethics rules.
In a sworn complaint, Ingle alleges that Melissa Neslund, who serves on the city’s Land Development Code Advisory Committee, has violated city code by failing to register with the city as a lobbyist. She addressed the complaint to the city’s Ethics Review Commission.
Neslund vehemently denies the allegations.
Though Ingle is president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, she was acting as an individual, on her own behalf. Attorney Fred Lewis is providing pro-bono legal counsel for Ingle.
In this case, the provision that the committee have no lobbyists as members is explicit. When the Austin City Council formed the committee, Council Member Bill Spelman pushed for a change to the bylaws that would allow lobbyists to serve on the committee, but withdrew the item when it became clear it would not pass. (See Austin Monitor, Feb. 1, 2013)
“Basically, the evidence is that, if you look on the City Council’s agenda’s, she is representing developers in a number of instances in front of the City Council. And you’ve got to realize, these are public acknowledgments of representation. I’m sure there are many more that are not reflected in the web documents,” said Lewis.
While the citations Ingle provided do show Neslund appearing at City Council and Zoning and Platting Commission meetings on behalf of landowners or businesses, it appears that is not sufficient to require registration under the city’s definition of a lobbyist. Section 4-8-2 states “LOBBY or LOBBYING means the solicitation of a City official, by private interview, postal or telephonic communications, or any other means other than public expression at a meeting of City officials open to the public under Chapter 551 (Open Meetings Act) of the Texas Government Code . . .”
Ingle asked that the ethics commission bar Neslund from serving on the committee. She also called for an investigation into the businesses relationships of all the members of the advisory committee.
“We can do a better job. This current process to revise our land development code is flawed… This is a bad start to a process that will affect generations of ordinary citizens,” said Ingle. “Our laws should be enforced.”
An attorney familiar with the city code said that Ethics Review Commission did not have jurisdiction over the resolution that formed the committee, so it could not remove a member of that committee. The City Council could take that action, however.
Neslund, who works as a land development planner at Bury+Partners, told the Austin Monitor that the allegations were not accurate and untrue.
“I am not a lobbyist. I do not undertake lobbying activities. Basically, my job and my role here is to process land development cases through the city of Austin. I do not, and have not, through any of my processes, lobbied. My firm doesn’t lobby. I don’t lobby for my clients. And if at any point a project I am working on needs lobbying, we refer them to land use and entitlement attorneys. Period,” said Neslund.
Lewis says that Neslund’s LinkedIn page “makes it very clear that she is trying to influence governmental bodies in the city of Austin and that she tracks, and tries to influence legislation and ordinances.”
“When she says that she does that, there is a reasonable basis to believe that’s a lobbyist, and she should register,” said Lewis. “Frankly… we’ve had a lobbyist registration for a long time, but for some reason people that most people would say are lobbyists, and that the law says are lobbyists, just don’t register.”
In her complaint, Ingle cites various instances in which Neslund has represented
At a news conference held Thursday afternoon, Ingle said that the problem was larger than just one member, saying that the membership of the committee was “almost exclusively members of the real estate community” with financial ties to the real estate industry or motives to please the city staff.
Neslund says that she was appointed to the committee because of her education, experience with urban planning and work with Austin’s land development code in particular. She points out that the same resolution that dictated that there be no lobbyists on the committee also stipulated that members be selected based on expertise in the fields of urban planning, architecture, household affordability, neighborhoods, construction, project review and permitting.
Neslund says that is why she was appointed to the committee and she has no plans to step down from it.
At the news conference, Ingle was joined by other neighborhood representatives, including Daniel Llanes, who said that the process needed to be restructured in order to include all stakeholders, “not just those who profit from development.”
Ingle, too, said that the complaint was only a small part of what she saw as a bigger problem with the Land Development Code rewrite.
“I would like to stress that this is not a personal issue with this member of the advisory committee. I feel compelled to speak out because this committee is participating in a tainted process,” said Ingle. “Our current code, laws and rules apply to all of us. This is a single example of greater problem with the City of Austin and its procedures and processes.”
Editor Jo Clifton contributed to this story
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
City of Austin Land Development Code: The city's Land Development Code regulates building and development in the city of Austin. As part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the code is currently undergoing a rewrite in what is called the "CodeNEXT." That process is expected to be completed in 2016.
CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.