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Council OKs lobby ordinance on first reading

Friday, August 19, 2016 by Jo Clifton

After giving notice to those interested in City Council Member Leslie Pool’s revised lobby registration ordinance Thursday morning that he would like to postpone the public hearing on the matter, Mayor Steve Adler called up the ordinance item and dealt with it in just 63 seconds Thursday afternoon.

Adler asked the four people who had signed up to speak on the ordinance whether they felt the need to speak, and they all said no before he called the question. Council approved the item unanimously, with Council Member Ora Houston absent.

Attorney Fred Lewis and longtime state lobbyist Jack Gullahorn have been working with Pool and her staff to make sure that the new ordinance is easy to follow and is similar to state law. Lewis has been working on ethics issues for many years, and Gullahorn was the head of the Professional Advocacy Association of Texas after several years at the Legislature as a lobbyist himself.

Lewis and Gullahorn are at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, with Lewis a liberal and Gullahorn a conservative. However, Lewis said they both have an interest in lobby reform and that interest is widely shared by the public.

Adler said Thursday morning that he had received emails related to the subject and wanted those objecting to sit down with Pool and her assistants before the item comes back to Council for second and third reading and a full hearing in September. In addition, on Tuesday Pool had still been making some changes, so her colleagues had not had much time to see the full ordinance.

Architect Stuart Sampley, who has been chairing a coalition of design professionals concerned that the new ordinance would have a negative effect on how the industry does business on a day-to-day basis, sent Council an email Thursday morning explaining the group’s objections.

Architects and engineers want to be able to talk to employees of the Development Services Department about technical matters, he said, without being labeled as lobbyists, having to register as such or in some instances losing their positions on city commissions.

The design professionals object in particular to the following section of the ordinance: “Compensation or reimbursement for lobbying does not include compensation or reimbursement for the following: … (10) communicating for the purpose of achieving compliance with existing laws, rules, policies, and procedures, including communications to show qualification for a non-discretionary, non-appealable, exception of general applicability that is available under existing laws, rules, policies, and procedures.”

Their objections come down to just two words – “non-discretionary, non-appealable” – with Sampley and company arguing that everything is in fact discretionary within the Development Services Department. “In addition, these decisions can also be appealable, usually to one of the city’s boards and commissions and/or City Council,” he argued.

“Without removing this section, we believe that it could be interpreted that a majority of our design professional community will be required to register due to the day to day routine activities that require them to communicate with city employees on a regular and frequent basis to obtain interpretations of city code and information, ” Sampley wrote.

Lewis told the Austin Monitor on Thursday that Gullahorn had had a conversation with Sampley in June explaining Pool’s position. He said Gullahorn had also written a letter and invited the design professionals to meet to discuss the matter but never heard back from them.

For the proponents, the words are necessary, and their removal would gut the ordinance, Lewis said. The revision that the engineers and architects want “would swallow the entire reform,” Lewis said.

Lewis pointed out that the revised ordinance would require only one registration fee per firm, instead of one fee per professional, as is the case under the current ordinance. That change would cut down on cost as well as paperwork for lobbyists. In addition, he said, if there is a mistake in a form filed by a lobbyist, there would be no penalty if the lobbyist corrected the mistake within 14 days of discovering it, provided there is no complaint filed before that.

This item is expected to come back to a Council agenda following the adoption of the city budget in mid-September.

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