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Wednesday, May 31, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Visit Austin contract included lobbying Council

When the CEO for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, recently renamed Visit Austin, signed his employment contract with the organization last May, the contract included an addendum directing him to develop a strategy for lobbying City Council to enlarge the Austin Convention Center.

According to an addendum to Visit Austin CEO Tom Noonan’s contract, he would be eligible for a bonus in October partially based on devising a strategy for lobbying Council members based on each district’s specific needs.

Noonan told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday, however, that even though developing a plan to lobby Council and lobbying it were part of his contract, he never actually did that.

In the contract addendum, Noonan was directed to “prepare a specific ‘Value Strategy’ paper as it applies to ‘selling’ Council members and other key influencers on enlarging the convention center.”

Noonan explained that he never developed the strategic lobbying plan envisioned by the contract addendum because Council decided to appoint a task force to look at that question, among others.

Noonan said he had “some very entry-level conversations,” with Council members about expanding the convention center. However, Noonan said that when he arrived last May he immediately became immersed in budget discussions because it was time to extend the bureau’s 10-year contract with the city.

Attorney Fred Lewis, an expert on Austin’s lobby regulations, said he did not know whether it was legal for the ACVB to be lobbying Council. However, he said, “I do not think that tax dollars should be used by a quasi-government agency to lobby the city for a huge public expenditure. And I would say that whoever it was. I just don’t think it’s appropriate.”

Visit Austin shared the contract with the Monitor last week after activist Bill Bunch sued it, alleging violations of the Texas Public Information Act for failing to release the contract, among other things. The contract and the access to Noonan were facilitated by Elizabeth Christian Public Relations, which represents Visit Austin.

The addendum states that the strategy for convincing Council members to enlarge the convention center “would remain highly confidential among ACVB leadership. The strategy paper should address each district’s unique ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ motivations.”

Noonan should “be prepared to dig deep for this insight and compile specific ‘value statements’ by Council member/districts,” according to the addendum.

“Lead the thinking around answering one overarching question: What are the needs and wants of each Council member district and how can an enlarged convention center help deliver on those specific needs?”

After reading the contract addendum, Council Member Leslie Pool told the Monitor she was convinced that it did call for Noonan to lobby Council and she felt that he was advocating for expanding the convention center.

As for the creation of the task force, she said, “They were supposed to do a lot more than” focus on expansion of the convention center. “The primary intention was to give us more information on how we might deploy the (Hotel Occupancy Tax),” she continued.

Pool also provided the Monitor with a letter she received from former Mayor Bruce Todd (who is married to Christian), in which he urged Pool to support expansion of the convention center. She said she has not made a decision on the matter but seemed to be leaning against voting for the expansion.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said the possibility of Noonan receiving a bonus for lobbying Council was “a very curious situation.” She said, “The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau was created by the city of Austin and is funded largely through hotel/motel tax dollars so it is even more surprising that he would receive additional compensation for communicating with the City Council because they’re doing the work on behalf of the city of Austin.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair sent the following message to the Monitor on Tuesday: “This detail of the contract with the ACVB President, who is doing the job he was hired to do, is certainly something that the Council should examine. However, the most pressing issue in front of us is whether or not the Convention Center expansion is warranted and is the best use of taxpayer dollars, and I hope that this won’t distract from the Council’s ability to make a data-based decision on that question.”

Noonan’s contract was signed on May 16, 2016. It included a base salary starting at $300,000 a year and promised a $10,000 increase in the base salary if he “accomplished all items outlined in Addendum A,” from the date of the contract to October 1, 2016. In 2016, Noonan’s salary was $334,616. That included a bonus of $34,616.

Noonan stressed that the addendum also included developing a strategic five-year plan for ACVB. That included reviewing and modifying the existing plan “as needed with the development of new hotels, a new or expanded convention center, and a new city government in mind.” The old plan was developed long before the 10-1 Council took office.

Another part of Noonan’s tasks included developing a plan for the very large Professional Convention Management Association meeting that was held in Austin in January. Noonan noted that convention was highly successful.

In addition, Noonan’s bonus would be partially based on achieving an annual room booking goal. According to the contract addendum, the ACVB team was at 109 percent of its year-to-date goal last May.

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Photo by Ed Schipul made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau

Austin Convention Center: This city department operates the downtown convention center and associated events.

Hotel Occupancy Tax: A tax on the rental of a room in a hotel or other rental properties (including apartments) that cost 6 percent of the cost of a room.

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