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Ethics Commission reprimands Historic Landmark commissioner

Thursday, October 29, 2015 by Jack Craver

Two weeks after sanctioning City Council Member Don Zimmerman for campaign finance violations, the Ethics Review Commission reprimanded Arif Panju, after finding that he had violated city conflict of interest rules by participating in a discussion over a proposed historic preservation district that would include his own home.

The reprimand followed nearly three hours of debate and testimony on whether Panju should have recused himself from proceedings held by the Historic Landmark Commission relating to the proposed Bluebonnet Hills local historic district. Panju’s home is located within the proposed district, a fact that the commission determined amounted to a conflict of interest.

The commission voted 8-1 that Panju had violated ethics rules by participating in a hearing in July in which the Historic Landmark Commission voted to postpone action on the item. It also voted 7-2 that his presence on the dais during a subsequent discussion of the item in August had broken the rules, in spite of his abstention from both the discussion and the vote.

Commissioner J. Michael Ohueri, who opposed both motions, said he did not believe that it had been proved that Panju experienced a direct economic effect – negative or positive – from the historic district.

“That just hasn’t been shown,” Ohueri said.

Commissioner Matthew Lamon, who voted against the second motion, said that Panju had appeared to acknowledge his conflict of interest during the second meeting by refraining from the vote and discussion, even if he should have stepped off the dais.

Even those who voted against Panju both times struggled with the arguments over whether Panju could “reasonably” expect to be affected financially by the zoning decision, and whether a recommendation from the Historic Landmark Commission to Council amounted to a governmental decision that would directly impact Panju’s property.

Further complicating the case was the revelation at the meeting by Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky that Panju’s house was no longer considered a “contributing property” in the historic district because of new windows that Panju recently installed, meaning he would no longer be eligible to apply for tax abatements.

“It’s not as easy of an issue as I would have originally thought,” said Commission Chair Austin Kaplan.

The crux of the debate was the city’s “remote interest” exception, which allows public officials to take part in decisions if the impact on their assets is no different than the impact on the general public. Panju argued that he qualified for the exception because his home amounted to less than 1 percent of the property in the affected area.

He further argued that to determine he broke the rules would require a “radical” interpretation of law that would bar Council members from voting on projects in their neighborhoods.

Kent Anschutz, the attorney who filed the complaint, called that argument a “rabbit trail” designed to distract the commission from what he called an obvious violation.

“Please don’t leave your common sense at the door,” he said during his opening remarks.

Commissioner Brian Thompson took particular issue with Panju’s comparison of his actions to those taken on a controversial District 7 Planned Unit Development by Council Member Leslie Pool. Thompson urged his colleagues to vote to recommend removing Panju from the Historic Landmark Commission.

“Someone who has that understanding of the ethics rules should not be on the commission,” he said. “He clearly has no understanding of what ethics are and what the rules are.”

Earlier in the hearing, Panju and Thompson had engaged in a heated exchange in which Panju suggested that he was being targeted by Thompson and others appointed to the commission by Council members opposed to his politics.

“You don’t see anybody other than those with minority viewpoints getting dragged into the ethics commission,” Panju later told the Austin Monitor.

Anschutz told the Monitor that he had hoped the commission would follow Thompson’s advice and recommend removal. “In my opinion, Panju’s actions merit that kind of sanction,” he said.

No other commissioner voiced support for such a strong punishment, however. The panel voted 7-2 for a reprimand, with Thompson and Ohueri dissenting.

Few of those who agreed that Panju had violated the rules proposed clear guidelines for when a public official should step away from an issue. But Commissioner Donna Beth McCormick, a veteran neighborhood activist, told the Monitor that she would recuse herself from decisions over developments that were sufficiently close to her home to result in her receiving a notification from the city.

Planning Commission Chair Stephen Oliver, who was not involved in the case, told the Monitor that officials are supposed to recuse themselves from cases within 500 feet of their homes. He said he believed that living within a proposed historic district was therefore a conflict of interest, but that the fact that Panju’s home was not a contributing property led to a “gray area.”

Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Gabriel Rojas also spoke with the Monitor and agreed that the case would be tough to decide.

“I think there would be a very clear-cut conflict of interest if it was a contributing property,” he said. “But if it’s just in the general neighborhood, it’s more fuzzy.”

Panju, a constitutional attorney by trade, suggested during the hearing that sanctioning him was a “welcome sign” to a federal lawsuit. He declined to say afterward whether he would pursue litigation.

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