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Ethics Commission recommends controversial lobbying ordinance

Thursday, November 12, 2015 by Jack Craver

To the delight of city ethics reformers and over the strong objections of developers and real estate professionals, the Ethics Review Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend to City Council a resolution aimed at overhauling city lobbying rules.

The recommended language was the result of months of back-and-forth among Council Member Leslie Pool, the measure’s chief backer; the commission; and critics of the measure from the development community. A revised draft crafted by a commission working group incorporated some of the concerns expressed by developers, which didn’t seem to upset the proposal’s backers all that much.

Fred Lewis, an attorney and longtime ethics activist who Pool tapped to draft the resolution, told the Austin Monitor after the meeting that he was happy with what was approved. In her remarks, Pool commented that the effect of the proposed changes has been overblown by “emotional” testimony.

“You may think that my proposal will change the way our development community interfaces with the Council, and there is nothing in my proposal that does that,” she said. “We are simply requiring them to register.”

But she also criticized the development community for not engaging more with her and Lewis. Although groups opposing the measure had finally met with her last week, she said that meeting was preceded by a number of last-minute cancellations.

Stuart Sampley, president of the Austin chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said that the resolution unfairly targeted development, design and architectural professionals and misrepresented their day-to-day interactions with city officials as lobbying.

Casey Dobson, an attorney representing a coalition of 11 development-oriented groups, also argued that the proposal unfairly suggests that the current land development process at City Hall is corrupt.

“The integrity of our process has been upheld by the courts,” he said. “So I push back gently that we have a lack of integrity that needs to be addressed at the city of Austin development review process.”

Many of the interactions between developers and city employees that the proposal would deem lobbying are little more than architects and engineers seeking guidance on compliance from the city, he said. “It’s technical people talking about technical stuff,” he said, referring to development details such as curb cuts and the locations of doors.

Dobson also suggested that an ordinance that too broadly defined lobbyists could run afoul of the First Amendment.

Commission Vice Chair Peter Einhorn suggested that opponents of the measure felt their roles in the development process were being described as nefarious. But that’s not the case, he said.

“To me, lobbying is how policy is made,” he said. “It’s part of the process. The way that we ensure that it’s fair is through transparency.”

The recommendations from the working group urged city staff to explore a number of potential negative effects of stricter lobbying requirements. Commissioners cited concerns that an ordinance that forced many more developers to register as lobbyists could negatively impact boards and commissions, since city code currently bars lobbyists from sitting on them.

“Some of the folks who would have to register under this system might be the folks with the most knowledge,” said Commissioner Brian Thompson, who headed the working group. He suggested that the problem could be solved by “beefing up” rules and definitions regarding conflicts of interest that should compel commissioners to recuse themselves from discussions of certain issues.

The recommendations also asked staff to consider whether there were certain levels of city staff who lack the discretionary power that lobbying would seek to influence. Those with business before the city would then know that talking with such officials would not be considered lobbying.

Pool said the Audit and Finance Committee will address the resolution for the third time on Nov. 16. She hopes the measure will be on the agenda for Council at its last meeting of the year, on Dec. 17.

Photo by Anne Swoboda made available through a Creative Commons license.

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