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Opposition to lobbying resolution organizes

Friday, October 23, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Some of Austin’s most influential members of the development, engineering, architectural and contractor communities have banded together to address mounting concerns over proposed revisions to the city’s Lobbying Registration Ordinance.

The list of organizations concerned about the language in the currently proposed ordinance is impressive. A letter sent out this week to City Council was signed by heads of the American Institute of Architects Austin, the Central Texas chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Associated Builders and Contractors of Austin, the Austin chapter of Associated General Contractors, the American Council of Engineering Companies of Texas, the Austin branch of the Greater Austin Contractors & Engineers Association, American Society of Civil Engineers, Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, the Real Estate Council of Austin, the Austin chapter of the Structural Engineers Association of Texas and the Travis Chapter of the Texas Society of Professional Engineers.

As outlined in the letter, the group is concerned that the current language in the resolution sponsored by Council Member Leslie Pool and drafted by attorney Fred Lewis is much too broad and categorizes anyone who speaks to staff on a discretionary matter as a lobbyist.

AIA Austin President Stuart Sampley spoke to the Austin Monitor about what this means.

“It’s not about lobby reform. It’s about specifically excluding people in the design and development community from the ability for (participation in) civic service,” said Sampley.

The problem is detailed in the letter: “Hundreds of design professionals, craftsmen, and administrators must interact and communicate with City staff in order to do their job, as it is nearly impossible to take a public (City, County, State, or Federal) or private project through the City of Austin permitting system without speaking to City staff at length. Having those professionals register as lobbyists would not provide any community benefits or more transparency. In fact, such information about who is working with city staff on a project is readily available to the public on the city’s AMANDA database website.”

Those concerned about the ordinance worry that the current threshold would, for example, apply to things that are clearly not lobbying – such as a contractor talking to a city inspector – and estimate that the current resolution language could expand the number of registered lobbyists in the city from about 100 to something closer to 10,000.

According to Pool, that is not the case. In a post on the City Council Message Board, Pool wrote, “Simply meeting with staff on a discretionary issue does not constitute lobbying in and of itself. … If you’re paid (more than $2000/quarter) to influence an outcome (of an application/project/proposal/issue) and you communicate directly with a city employee/Council Member in an attempt to have them render a decision in your favor, then you’re likely lobbying.”

Pool also spoke with the Monitor.

“I think they’re not understanding what we’re talking about,” said Pool. “Simply seeking information doesn’t make you a lobbyist, but if you are trying to change somebody’s mind that has the discretion to make a decision, then that is lobbying.

“I’ve said publicly: This doesn’t change anything about the way that y’all are doing business. We just want you to register if you are lobbying. You just need to be clear that you are. It doesn’t change anything about how you operate at the city,” Pool continued. “This is really just to get folks to register and to embrace the fact that if you lobby, that’s not a negative.”

The letter also expresses concern that the proposed ordinance would “ban Austin’s design professionals from civic service.”

The group of organizations asserts, “Trained and experienced professionals help navigate the rising complexity of a growing Austin by educating our community on complex topics including land code and permitting, urban planning, sustainability, resilience, and design for public health. Our current ethics rules for boards and commissions, when effectively enforced, already prohibit any conflicts of interest by design professionals serving on boards and commissions.”

“We want to be part of this process,” Sampley told the Monitor. “We’re a major stakeholder in this. Basically, this is an attack on our community, and so we have to be there to defend it.”

Pool told the Monitor that commission reform was needed, but it would be addressed in a separate resolution.

“My thinking right now is that if you lobby on a land-use commission, unless we have some really strict recusal and clear guidelines on conflicts of interest, that shouldn’t be happening,” said Pool. “There are plenty of (engineers) and architects and landscape architects who don’t lobby who can serve, and it’s clear that our boards and commissions require their involvement. But by the same token, if you lobby in the arts or for music issues, you shouldn’t be on those commissions either.”

Though Pool told the Monitor that she didn’t want discussion of commission membership to “cloud the other issues,” as it wasn’t part of her resolution, current city rules already prohibit lobbyists and their employees from serving on the city’s boards and commissions. Whether or not commission rules change, an expansion of the number of registered lobbyists in the city will also expand the number of people prohibited from serving on the city’s boards and commissions.

Fugle, ørnsø 073” Photo by Christoffer A Rasmussen (Rasmussen29892 at da.wikipedia) – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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