Tuesday, November 17, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Lobby reform rules move forward

On Monday, members of City Council’s Audit and Finance Committee unanimously approved a revised version of Council Member Leslie Pool’s resolution proposing changes to the city’s lobby registration ordinance.

In contrast to previous public discussions of the topic, Monday’s conversation showed that Pool and a group of land-use professionals led by architect Stuart Sampley had worked out their differences.

Pool proposed several amendments that she reported receiving from Sampley last week. Sampley’s proposed wording appears to eliminate the concern expressed by many design and land-use professionals that they would be required to register for simply doing what the city land-use code already requires them to do.

Pool amended her proposal to include the Sampley group’s suggested language, which added the following description to actions that would not be considered lobbying: “communicating for the purpose of achieving compliance with the existing laws, rules, regulations and procedures, including communications that show qualification for an exception of general applicability that’s available under existing laws, rules, policies and procedures.”

Perhaps the most important change deleted a sentence that said, “Decisions on building permits and site plans are discretionary per se.” In addition, the new language makes it clear that clerical and administrative personnel are not included among the city employees covered by the lobby law.

The original language of the resolution, written by attorney Fred Lewis and proposed by Pool, defined a discretionary matter as including any decision that can be appealed to Council or a city board or commission. Additionally, that language included a statement that “discretionary administrative variances and alternative compliance” in the Land Development Code would be discretionary. Pool’s new version removed that reference.

Pool also told her colleagues that “employee lobbyists” would not have to report their activities or pay fees.

Nick Moulinet, who attended the meeting on behalf of the Real Estate Council of Austin, told the Austin Monitor, “I think the important part for us at this stage was the addition of the exclusionary language because what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to identify is something that will eliminate 95 percent of our coalition from having to register as lobbyists because of their day-to-day activities. I think we’re satisfied with the language that’s in there, that does that. There is a lot of work yet to be done, and we’ll be part of that process.” Moulinet is a principal at the Bury design and engineering firm.

Moulinet and Sampley both told Council members that they were satisfied with the changes.

The new ordinance also would require each office in the city to keep track of every visitor. Pool initially proposed adding a section that would require visitors who appear before a city official to sign in with the department or agency and provide the name of whom they represent and the subject matter they plan to address. “These paper sign in sheets should be posted in an organized manner weekly on the Internet on the city’s website. All records shall be kept by the city for at least four years,” according to that section.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair objected because of the administrative burden such a process would place on city staff.

Pool initially wanted to direct the city manager to implement the proposed changes by July 1, 2016. However, City Clerk Jannette Goodall told the committee that even though the direction would be to the city manager, her staff would be doing the work.

Goodall said her staff is currently spending a great deal of its time on getting campaign finance regulations up to date. “There is no way we could meet a July 1 deadline,” she said, referring to the job of putting all the information about who is talking to whom on the city’s website.

Troxclair attempted to remove the section directing city staff to keep the log of everyone who speaks to them, but she could not get a second for her motion. Pool agreed that city employees could just keep paper copies of their visitor lists until the city clerk’s office is able to digitize the information and put it up online.

The resolution approved Monday is expected to appear on the Council agenda in December. If Council approves the resolution, staff will be asked to draft an ordinance, which would return to Council, not the Audit and Finance Committee.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee: a sub-group of the Austin City Council. It's members are charged with oversight of city fiscal operations and anything that falls under the purview of the Office of the City Auditor.

lobbying: Lobbying, in short, occurs when someone attempts to influence the decisions of government officials.

Real Estate Council of Austin: 501(c)6 for "more than 1,700 commercial real estate professionals representing the top leaders in the Central Texas business community." RECA is a donor to the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent of the Austin Monitor.

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