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Ethics complaint filed against HLC commissioner

Tuesday, August 25, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Less than one month after the first meeting of the new Historic Landmark Commission, ethics question are flying and a formal complaint has already been lodged. Kent Anschutz filed a complaint against Commissioner Arif Panju earlier this month, alleging conflict of interest in the Bluebonnet Hills Local Historic District case.

Panju told the Austin Monitor that the ethics complaint against him is frivolous and has no merit.

“People who are trying to push this rezoning are afraid of the transparency I will bring, so they filed an ethics complaint to try to silence me,” said Panju. “They don’t seem to care that their political connections or other connections on the commission benefit them. They turn a blind eye to that.”

In his filing, Anschutz alleges that Panju violated the city’s conflict-of-interest rules by voting on the Bluebonnet Hills Historic District case on July 27.

Specifically, Anschutz points to a section of the code that reads, “A City official or employee may not participate in a vote or decision on a matter affecting a natural person, entity, or property in which the official or employee has a substantial interest.” In the code, “substantial interest” is defined as “an interest in real property which is an equitable or legal ownership with a market value of $5,000 or more.”

That standard, says Anschutz, was violated because Panju owns a house within the boundaries of the proposed local historic district, which is in Travis Heights. Panju has, in fact, been one of the most vocal opponents of the district, and his scrutiny has been instrumental in catching procedural errors that have sent the proposal back to the Historic Landmark Commission on several occasions. That opposition, says Panju, is why he was targeted.

According to the complaint, “Commissioner Panju has been a vociferous opponent of the Bluebonnet Hills Historic District since November 2014. He has rallied neighborhood opposition to the proposed Historic District, organized a petition drive against it, and participated in at least five public hearings on the matter before the Historic Landmark Commission and Planning Commission.”

Panju says that he sees conflicts of interest in the Bluebonnet Hills case, but his involvement as a commissioner isn’t one of them. His fellow commissioners Terri Myers and Emily Reed have been involved in the creation of the local historic district. Myers, as he has pointed out in the past, worked on the Blubonnet Hills historical survey, and her signature appears 109 times in the application packet.

Reed has also worked on the historic district, as a consultant. Her name appears as a co-preparer of the official application that is currently up for review. And although she also voted at the July 27 meeting, no complaint has been filed against her.

Panju points out that his scrutiny of the historic district is what has sent it back to the commission for an improbable fourth vote, “when they should have gotten it right the first time, or the second time, or perhaps a third time.”

“I own one home, where I live, in the entire neighborhood. This has nothing to do with my house, and the city calculates that my house is 0.83 percent – less than 1 percent – of this whole local historic district,” said Panju. “The only thing ‘substantial’ is my effectiveness in bringing transparency into a completely broken process.”

Panju said that if owning less than 1 percent of a larger rezoning project is grounds for conflict of interest, the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission, which is populated with Mueller residents, is “a complete ethics violation.”

Anschutz, who is a resident of Travis Heights, has spoken in favor of the historic district at City Hall. He provided the Monitor with a prepared statement about his complaint:

“As a former assistant district attorney and former member of the Austin Public Safety Commission, I have a keen sense of what is fair and just in the conduct of governmental affairs. As a person serves in a position of trust in city government, they must follow the rules. Conflicts of interest and violations of ethics rules must be called out and addressed if the public is to have faith in the governing process.”

Preservation Austin Executive Director Kate Singleton also weighed in on the complaint. When she spoke with the Monitor, she stressed the importance of commissioners following the local and state ethics standards.

“It was clearly a conflict of interest. Mr. Panju owns property in the proposed historic district. … He’s an attorney, and I think this would be something he would be cognizant of … (and) would understand how important it is when you are serving on a board or commission to make sure you follow the law,” said Singleton.

At the commissioners’ Monday night meeting, where the local historic district was before them once again, Reed recused herself. Panju offered to hear the item but abstain, with a sign in front of him that said “Silenced for Demanding Transparency.”

Panju said that, as was the case during the July meeting, he hoped to participate in order to ascertain why, exactly, the commission was voting on the historic district for a fourth time. However, this time he proposed to sit silent as a statement.

That offer by Panju provoked a phone call to a city attorney. Initially, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said that the recusal and abstention would mean there would not be a quorum to vote on the case. Panju pointed out that an abstention is part of a quorum, saying, “You wouldn’t have enough votes to get the desired outcome, that’s possible, but you would have a quorum.”

Commissioners voted 3-2-1 to recommend creation of the local historic district, and it will move on without a recommendation due to a lack of quorum support. Anschutz’s complaint will now go to the city’s Ethics Review Commission.

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