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Building professionals distraught over proposed city lobbying changes

Wednesday, September 30, 2015 by Jack Craver

Area engineers and others in the building industry showed up to a Monday meeting of the Ethics Review Commission to voice concerns over a proposal that would likely require many of them to register as lobbyists because of their regular interactions with city officials.

A final draft of the changes is still a ways off, with the commission likely to discuss the issue further at meetings on Oct. 13 and Oct. 27. In between those dates, the commission’s working group will continue to assess a current draft as well as to evaluate another draft that has been produced by the Audit and Finance Committee, which has also been discussing the proposal.

Engineers, architects and contractors have said the proposal, which calls for those involved in projects to register as lobbyists, “casts too wide a net” and would create onerous paperwork requirements that would drive up the cost of development and hinder communications between developers and city officials.

“Everything that we submit to the city – whether it be plans, comments, comment responses, emails – they’re all available as open records,” said Bailey Harrington, an engineer. “If people are having trouble with transparency and getting a hold of these records, I don’t know how engineering firms submitting a large amount of paperwork to the city to report our documented meetings and documented notes and stuff like that would be any easier for a regular citizen to obtain.”

Commissioner Brian Thompson, who was appointed to the panel by Council Member Leslie Pool, a leading proponent of lobbying reform, acknowledged that the commission needed more dialogue to understand the problems that some of the proposed reporting requirements posed to those in the development industry.

“We had a lot of people who said, ‘I went to school to be an engineer, I didn’t go to school to be a lobbyist,’” he said. “This is a community where I think we need some education and outreach.”

Fred Lewis, the resolution’s principal author, told the commission that it was hard to negotiate with critics who he said wouldn’t meet with those drafting the proposal. He also challenged the assertion that many of the developers who are not currently registered as lobbyists are not engaged in lobbying.

“When they spend 500 hours a month talking to city officials, negotiating with them, it really starts to sound like lobbying,” he said.

Another supporter of the measure, David King, pointed out that Austin has far fewer registered lobbyists than Portland, Oregon, a city significantly smaller than Austin but to which it is often compared. According to data on both cities’ websites, Portland has 197 lobbyists, compared to Austin’s 80.

One of the challenges faced by the working group is to determine which actions taken by city officials should be defined as “discretionary.” Those are the decisions that could be influenced by lobbying, in contrast to the many actions that city officials make in accordance with relatively inflexible rules.

At the last meeting of the full commission, a number of commissioners had signaled concern that they were being hurried through the process of reviewing the resolution by Pool’s plans to quickly advance the proposal. On Monday, Thompson stressed the important role that the commission should play in the process, saying that Council will likely pass a resolution whether the commission helps or not.

“I think there’s too many people on Council who ran on this issue to think that something’s not going to pass,” he said. “We need to remain a part of the sausage-making process.”

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