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Lobby rules move forward despite objections

Thursday, August 27, 2015 by Jo Clifton

After hearing expressions of both support and concern, the City Council Audit and Finance Committee voted Wednesday to send Council Member Leslie Pool’s resolution to alter city lobby regulations to the Ethics Review Commission for further vetting. The vote was 3-0-1, with Council Member Ellen Troxclair abstaining.

Members of the land use professions expressed dismay that they might be required to register as lobbyists when they did not consider their activities to be lobbying. Others who served on city commissions were concerned that they would no longer be able to serve because of a separate ordinance that prohibits lobbyists from such service.

Engineer Papa Faye told Council that the two biggest clients for his engineering firm are Foundation Communities and the Austin Independent School District. “We don’t know the first thing about lobbying. However, as part of our work, we routinely ask for alternative compliance.” That means his firm has to talk to city staff, he said. But if it needed to lobby someone, Faye said, “we would have to hire a lobbyist.”

Hank Smith, who serves on the city Environmental Commission, told the Austin Monitor, “I’ve been doing engineering in Austin for 33 years, and I’ve never considered myself a lobbyist. But I do have conversations with staff members about cases and projects that are under review. That’s the best way to make the city more efficient,” he said, for consultants to talk with staff to work out various issues that the staff has. If those conversations were lobbying, Smith continued, “by definition, we would all become lobbyists.”

Smith offered this example: “Subdivision code says property lines have to be perpendicular to the right-of-way. If I lay it out, and it happens to fall in the middle of a 15-inch tree that I want to try to save, and I go to staff and I say, ‘Hey, can I move that to 75 degrees? … My house still fits, the subdivision still works, but I save a tree,’ they’ll say go ahead. But that doesn’t make me a lobbyist, nor my staff person a lobbyist.”

“We’re not trying to lobby and change the rules,” Smith said. He was waiting to testify before the committee but had to leave City Hall before the item was called up.

According to the city ordinance governing the Environmental Commission, those appointed should include members who have “demonstrated concern for and a desire to improve the status of the natural resources and living environment of the city” and members who have “professional expertise in geology, hydrology, civil engineering, land planning or ecology,” as well as urban forestry or landscape architecture.

The same ordinance says that not more than three members of the committee “should be employed in land development or related activities.”

Jim Schissler, an engineer at Jones and Carter Inc., told Council members that the proposed ordinance would result in labeling all professionals who serve on city boards, who have knowledge of the city rules and regulations, as lobbyists if they talk to city staff.

Schissler said, “I couldn’t see the cost and expense of having every person who works for me register with the city.” Schissler serves on the city Planning Commission, and before that he served on the Environmental Board.

Pool told him, “If you are seeking to clarify information, that would not constitute lobbying. Lobbying, as you know, is if you are seeking to influence a decision. … (But) if you are seeking to influence the decision of staff, that would be covered under this proposal. These are the issues that we want to talk about. We absolutely intend to address them as we move forward.”

Fred Lewis, who crafted the legislation for Pool, said, “What we have at the city of Austin is in some ways the worst of all worlds. … We have a law that everyone knows is porous, it’s ineffective and it’s really not enforced, and our lobby law encourages cynicism.” Backing him up was former state lobbyist Jack Gullahorn, who said he thought that bringing in a lot more people under the lobby ordinance would be “the first step toward transparency.”

Lewis urged Council members not to work on both the lobby ordinance and the ordinance prohibiting lobbyists from serving on commissions at the same time. However, the issues are intertwined, and it seems likely that they will be discussed together.

Pool’s original proposal would have directed the city manager to provide a draft ordinance within 30 days for review by the committee. However, after input from the public as well as members of the Ethics Review Commission, she changed the resolution so that the city manager would be directed to report back in 60 days.

In addition, the resolution directs the city manager to report back to the committee within 90 days on “alternative approaches to ensure the diligent and independent city prosecution of alleged lobbyist law violations.”

The commission will hold a meeting on Monday and work to schedule hearings and work sessions on the proposed ordinance, according to Ethics Review Commissioner Donna Beth McCormick, who chairs the task force on lobby regulations.

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