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Lobby registration arguments continue

Thursday, October 29, 2015 by Jo Clifton

An attorney working on revisions to the city’s lobby registration ordinance has accused opponents of the change of refusing to negotiate in order to prevent the process from moving forward.

Fred Lewis, the major architect of the proposed changes, told the City Council Audit and Finance Committee on Wednesday that opponents to the revisions – including the Real Estate Council of Austin and a group of about 30 engineers and architects who wrote a letter to Council opposing the changes – have refused to meet with him or with the ordinance’s sponsor, Council Member Leslie Pool.

Lewis told the committee, “To date, none of the signatories to the letter you received have provided any specific alternatives or suggested changes of any kind regarding lobby reform, in spite of repeated requests to do so from Council Member Pool” as well as from Brian Thompson, who chairs the lobby reform committee of the Ethics Commission, and a representative of the mayor’s office.

Stuart Sampley, president of the American Institute of Architects’ Austin chapter, is the leader of the group who wrote a letter opposing the proposal. He told the committee that it is difficult to get together a group of 30 people. He said he had tried to arrange a meeting with Pool, but because so many people were involved, it wasn’t possible.

Pool responded by calling her chief of staff, Amy Smith, to the room and asking Sampley to accompany Smith to her office to set up a meeting. Pool told him that she didn’t think it would be necessary for all 30 members of the group to attend. Smith later said that she had scheduled a meeting between Pool and Sampley for next week.

Sampley also said that because the subject matter is complicated, no one in his group was qualified to address lobby reform. He said they had hired an attorney and had just received that attorney’s draft proposal as an alternative to Pool’s proposal. He had the document in his hand as he was speaking, but he did not offer a copy to anyone on the committee or to Lewis.

Several sources have indicated that the group has hired well-known attorney Casey Dobson to represent it. Dobson successfully represented Melissa Neslund, a land-use professional, when Austin Neighborhoods Council President Mary Ingle accused her of being an unregistered lobbyist.

In a letter to Council, Sampley said that neither the state nor the cities that they have surveyed “had adopted the broad and far-reaching definition of lobbying and lobbyists that is currently being proposed.”

But Lewis told the committee, “Opponents to reform, such as engineers, argued that they should never have to register as lobbyists under city law since they don’t have to register at the state level. They are incorrect about state law. Since 1992, the Texas Ethics Commission has made it clear that under state law, engineers and others that are paid to seek to influence state agency decisions are lobbyists and must register and report.” He was quoting from Ethics Advisory Opinion No. 89, which described several situations in which an employee of an engineering firm is paid to communicate with an official of a state regulatory agency.

Lewis said that engineers, architects and others who work with city staff who are not lobbying would not have to register under the proposed ordinance. He said that unlike current city law, the proposal “has clear exceptions from lobbying for submitting required city documents, providing information, responding to requests from the city, for testifying in public, seeking to achieve compliance with city law, and other circumstances. … The city resolution includes only discretionary decisions, such as matters that can be appealed to the Council or boards. The resolution also excuses all building technical code, life and safety matters,” Lewis said. He said that, for example, plumbers and electricians would not be required to register.

One of the big problems, according to architects, engineers and other land-use professionals who complain about the proposal, is that their members who work to get projects through the city process without lobbying either boards or Council itself would have to register, which would make them ineligible to serve on city boards and commissions. There is currently another ordinance that states flatly that lobbyists may not serve on commissions.

However, Lewis told the Austin Monitor that he had talked to one engineer, Paul Bury, to let him know that the proponents were willing to agree to “some sort of moratorium” on the regulation that bans lobbyists from serving on city commissions. He said that would be in effect while the proponents work out revisions to the current rules governing conflicts of interest for commission members.

Sampley and his group told Council in their letter, “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.”

Lewis said, “I really believe if the architects, engineers and builders will come sit down with Council Member Pool and negotiate in good faith and do a reasonable give-and-take, that this can be worked out. If they don’t want to, we’re going to have to have a political war.”

Lewis, who is not being paid by the city to work on the ordinance, has formed a new nonprofit called Save Our City Austin Inc. According to an email he sent Wednesday, he is soliciting donations to hire “a first rate social media team to mobilize the public” to join the battle.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who chairs the Audit and Finance Committee, said that the Ethics Review Commission would take up the lobby registration question at a special called meeting on Nov. 10. The next meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee is Nov. 16, so members will have time to study whatever the ethics commission proposes, if anything.

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