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Commission opts to proceed with complaint against Historic Landmark commissioner

Thursday, September 3, 2015 by Jack Craver

Few members of the Ethics Review Commission indicated at a Monday hearing whether they believed that ArijArif Panju, a member of the Historic Landmark Commission, violated city conflict-of-interest rules over votes he took on a policy affecting his neighborhood. The commission nevertheless voted 10-1 to proceed to a final hearing on the matter on Sept. 28. Commissioner J. Michael Ohueri was the lone vote in opposition.

Attorney Kent Anschutz filed the complaint against Panju last month in response to a vote Panju took on the Blue Bonnet Hills Historic District case on July 27. Anschutz’s complaint reasons that because Panju owns one of the 109 homes in the district, he had a financial interest in the outcome of the vote and should have therefore recused himself from any related proceedings.

Panju – an attorney who litigates free speech issues for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest group – provided a spirited response to the complaint, attacking its merits on a number of legal and philosophical points. First, he pointed out that the Historic Landmark Commission, to which he was appointed by City Council Member Don Zimmerman, does not have any authority to promulgate zoning requirements; it simply makes recommendations. Therefore, he argued, no decision taken by the commission could be reasonably interpreted to have a direct impact on his property.

Second, Panju pointed to a clause in city ordinance that exempts city officials from conflict-of-interest provisions if their interest in the decision is “remote or incidental.” According to Panju, any potential financial interest he has in the case is no different from that of the hundreds of other neighborhood residents, meaning that his interest is “remote.”

“I don’t have a substantial interest in the whole neighborhood,” he said. “My property equals 0.83 percent of the neighborhood. If 0.83 percent is not remote, I don’t know what is.”

The only purpose for the complaint, he said, was to bully him for his skepticism of historic preservation initiatives.

“This is the exact type of nonsense that makes its way into an ethics complaint as a way to shoehorn viewpoint discrimination,” he said.

Anschutz said the percentage of property owned by Panju was irrelevant. “He has a substantial interest in a piece of property that is going to be affected, probably in his mind, negatively, by that zoning,” he said.

Panju’s argument appeared to resonate with Ohueri, who expressed concern that punishing a city official for taking a vote on area-specific zoning might mean that officials would be barred from participating in decisions affecting the parts of the city they know best. Would Council members who live in areas targeted for Homestead Preservation Districts be barred from voting on the measures?

“I think the whole purpose of the 10-1 districts was that Council members who live in those areas could vote (on issues affecting) those areas,” Ohueri said. “I think we’re setting a bad precedent to invite more complaints like this.”

Commissioner Brian Thompson, however, said that it was not the commission’s job to make policy decisions. Its duty, he said, was simply to determine whether there had been a violation of existing law.

“All he was asked to do was to recuse himself,” said Thompson. “If there was a gray area there, he should have recused himself.”

Panju suggested that there were other members of the Historic Landmark Commission with greater conflicts of interest relating to the case but who were not targeted by complaints because they were on the other side of the issue.

One of those commissioners, Emily Reed, had served as a consultant for the campaign to establish the Local Historic District. Reached for comment, Reed told the Austin Monitor that she had been an unpaid volunteer adviser to the initiative. At the first meeting of the newly appointed commission in July, Reed initially indicated on a form that she had a conflict of interest in the case but later crossed out her name, reasoning that she did not have a financial interest in the issue.

Reed thus participated in the first meeting in which the issue was discussed, but she recused herself from subsequent discussions of the district at two later meetings. She said she made that decision “out of an abundance of caution.”

The other commissioner Panju cited was Terri Myers, whose signature appears 109 times on the historic district application packet. Myers told the Monitor that any work she did that impacted the application was completed more than eight years ago, when she was hired by the Fairview Park Neighborhood Association Travis Heights-Fairview Park Historic District Project to survey the Fairview Park and Travis Heights neighborhoods.

At the time, the neighborhood association was seeking to gather the information necessary to create a historic district. Myers said she recommended a far bigger historic district than what was ultimately presented to the city.

“What they came up with,” she said, “was not anything that I had recommended.”

This post has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Arif Panju’s first name and the project that Terri Myers worked on.

Corrupt-Legislation-Vedder-Highsmith-detail-1” by artist Elihu Vedder (1836–1923). Photographed 2007 by Carol Highsmith (1946–), Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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