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Ethics Commission begins to examine proposed lobbying changes

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 by Jack Craver

The Ethics Review Commission is under pressure to deal quickly with proposed changes to city lobbying rules.

On Monday, City Council Member Leslie Pool, the chief backer of a resolution directing the city manager to draft a substantial revision to the city lobbying ordinance, urged the commission to set up a public hearing on the matter before she addresses it at a Sept. 23 meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee. The “ambitious timetable,” she said, is aimed at getting the changes into law before the spring election cycle gears up next year.

“Council members can start raising money in May ’16, so that’s why we’re trying to keep this moving forward,” she said.

The commission agreed that a working group will meet privately on Sept. 8 to determine when to hold a hearing to allow public comment on the proposed lobbying changes. Pool’s hope is for the item to be on Council’s agenda for its Oct. 1 meeting and for there to be final action on the proposed ordinance in January or February.

Ideally, Commission Chair Austin Kaplan told the Austin Monitor, the working group will hold a public hearing before the Audit and Finance Committee meeting, and then the full Ethics Review Commission will again address the issue at its meeting on Sept. 28. Although the commission is required only to meet quarterly, it will be meeting on the 28th to hold a final hearing in an ongoing ethics complaint, at which point it can address other issues, including the lobbying ordinance.

The Monday meeting took much longer than some who had come to discuss the lobbying ordinance hoped. After listening to Pool’s comments at the beginning of the 6:30 meeting, the commission delayed further discussion of the issue until about 10 p.m. Heidi Gerbracht, vice president of public policy for the Austin Real Estate Council, had been waiting since the beginning of the meeting for the commission to discuss the issue and voiced her displeasure.

“Tonight I’m largely here because I understood that you all were going to lay out in specific terms when the public would be welcome to come and talk to you all about what was going to go forward here,” she said. “And I heard most of your conversation just now, and I don’t know the answer to that question.”

A number of commissioners emphasized that they too had been unaware until recently that the resolution would be addressed so soon by the Audit and Finance Committee, and that they were simply trying to respond as quickly as possible to Pool’s request to get the ordinance moving.

“This is similar to what happened in 2014 with our whole ethics review process,” said Kaplan. “A Council member decided that that Council member was going to run with it, and we’ve got to keep up because we don’t have any legislative ability.”

The commission only briefly discussed the substance of the proposed changes. Attorney Fred Lewis, who wrote the legislation for Pool, described the proposed changes as necessary revisions to an ordinance that he said was so riddled with loopholes that it essentially makes registering as a lobbyist “voluntary.”

“Our system does not create transparency, it creates cynicism,” he said.

Geoffrey Tahuahua, vice president of public policy for the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, said he believed the lobbying ordinance needed to be updated, but that some of the proposed changes would be an unnecessary burden for those involved in the development process. He voiced concerns that architects, engineers and others will have to register as lobbyists simply to discuss details of projects with city staff.

“We’re going to start to run into some unintentional consequences,” Tahuahua said. “We had one builder who did the math, and it would cost him well over $100,000 to register his employees.”

Photo by Nic McPhee made available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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