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Anti-lobby complaint filed on Long Park golf plan

Friday, December 5, 2014 by Mark Richardson

A complaint filed Thursday with the City of Austin alleges violations of the city’s No-Contact Rule between the developers of the proposed Walter E. Long Park golf courses and city employees. Community activist Brian Rodgers filed the complaint after obtaining copies of emails between the developers and city staff through a public information request.

Rodgers, through his attorney Bill Aleshire of Riggs, Aleshire and Ray, alleges that city staff and the developers had several improper communications during the so-called “no-contact period” under the Anti-Lobbying and Procurement ordinance (City Code 2-7-103). If the complaint proves to be true, the city would disqualify Decker Lake Golf LLC as a bidder on the project.

“There’s a reason for the anti-lobbying ordinance,” Rodgers said. “It keeps the fox out of the henhouse. It’s to keep a lobbyist and others from putting undue pressure on staff members and on Council members. If there wasn’t a no-contact rule, then every vendor would be down there trying to push their proposal ahead of others, trying to get inside information.”

According to the complaint — sent by email Thursday to the City Attorney’s office, City Manager Marc Ott, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, City Council members and several other officials — employees of Decker Lake Golf made improper contact on several occasions with employees of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department during the no-contact period. That period began April 14, when the city issued a Request for Quotations, or RFQS, for the project and Nov. 6, when Council voted to lift the ban on contact.

According to the ordinance, during the no-contact period, the city must designate a single contact through which all communications regarding the project must be filtered. In this case, Terry Nicholson, a senior buying agent in the city Purchasing Office, was that designated point of contact. According to the City Code, the Purchasing Officer makes the determination if the complaint is valid.

The project, in which Decker Lake Golf plans to build two PGA-quality golf courses on a 735-acre tract of city parkland, was up for a vote at Council on Nov. 21. However, due to water use and other environmental concerns, Council members voted to postpone the issue until their Dec. 11 meeting.

Aleshire said the current Council has no business voting on this project.

“This needs to be in front of the new Council,” he said, noting that it is too big and expensive for the current Council to approve now and let the new Council deal with later. “This needs to be their (the new Council’s) decision.”

In the complaint, Rodgers says emails show that on several dates during the no-contact period, Decker Lake officials Joe Ogilvie and Gary Bellomy were in contact with PARD officials, including but not limited to golf division manager Kevin Gomillion and director Sara Hensley.

Rodgers cited an email dated Oct. 13 in which Bellomy requested that Gomillion add information from an attached page (which the city did not release) to a presentation he was planning for Council on the golf course. Gomillion answered the next day, assuring Bellomy that he would include it. The complaint provides at least 12 other examples alleging improper communications by city staff, the developers or both.

As further evidence, the complaint shows a Sept. 17 email between Hensley and Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras about the pressure the developers were putting on PARD staff. In discussing a delay in briefing Council on the golf courses, Hensley wrote, “OK. Just note that Gary Bellamy (sic) will most likely be trying to get messages to Marc (Ott) and Council about this.” Lumbreras answered, “Let’s hold off on any further communication until I fully brief Marc on this.” Hensley replied, “Understand and agree. I just wanted you to know this guy [Gary Bellomy] is really pushing Kevin [Gomillion].”

It was also clear that city staff members were well aware (or at least should have been) of the no-contact period. One three occasions, emails from Gomillion to other city staffers indicated that he was aware of it and warned other employees to only communicate with the developers through the Purchasing Department point of contact.

Council voted Nov. 6 to lift the no-contact period on the project. At that time, Council Member Mike Martinez said they were doing so in order to bring transparency to the project. He explained that lifting the no-contact provision would allow Council members to ask questions about the proposal and give answers to the community before they make a final decision.

A spokewoman for the City of Austin said late Thursday afternoon the City Manager has not seen the complaint and had no comment. The Austin Monitor attempted to contact Decker Lake Golf and its attorney, Richard Suttle of Armbrust and Brown, for comment on this article. However, calls were not returned by our deadline.

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