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Groups criticize Paxton for suing commissioners

Friday, July 6, 2018 by Jo Clifton

The people who urged Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to file suit to remove eight members of the Austin Planning Commission on Monday have nothing but praise for Paxton; however, other more business-oriented groups are not pleased with the legal action, expressing the opinion that the attorney general has waded into a local issue.

So, far, the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Austin Board of Realtors, and AURA have expressed their disagreement with Paxton’s decision to take legal action against eight volunteer members of the commission.

In a letter to Mayor Steve Adler and Council in November 2015, attorneys Bill Aleshire and Fred Lewis began complaining about the fact that the commission had more members in real estate-related professions than the city charter allows. When that effort had no impact, they complained to District Attorney Margaret Moore, and she eventually referred the matter to Paxton’s office. On Tuesday, Lewis released a statement thanking the attorney general “for reviewing this matter thoroughly and filing suit to enforce Austin’s Charter to prevent development-related domination of the Planning Commission.”

Julie Fitch, vice president of external affairs at the Downtown Austin Alliance, said in an emailed statement: “This is a local issue that should be handled at the local level. Continuity on the City’s Planning Commission, especially as deliberations about CodeNEXT continue, is vital to ensuring that the process moves forward in an efficient and positive way. We applaud the City for defending these community volunteers against these allegations.”

Emily Chenevert, CEO of ABoR, praised the commissioners for volunteering their expertise as well as hundreds of hours of their time to make important decisions, particularly as related to the CodeNEXT process. In a written statement, she said, “The extensive time put forward by the Planning Commission stands to greatly impact the future of Austin, and we want them to remain focused on the critical issue of affordability in Austin and not the politics in question.”

AURA, a group that advocates for greater density, better public transportation and affordable housing, released the following statement: “AURA is appalled that Fred Lewis and Austin’s anti-housing groups have succeeded in enlisting (Paxton) to target Austin’s all-volunteer Planning Commission. The slap in the face to hundreds of hours of work by dedicated volunteers is intolerable.”

The group urged City Council to defend those who have been sued, adding, “Paxton is intent on dismantling local regulations that seek to uphold environmental protections and community health. Paxton’s suit against the Planning Commission is but the latest example among the litany of state-level attempts to erode local control. He has fought to overpower Austin for years, on issues such as paid sick leave, tree ordinances, and plastic bag bans. Austin’s anti-housing groups would make our city vulnerable to Paxton’s right-wing vendetta in order to stymie hundreds of hours of volunteer work to increase affordability and address displacement.”

They also said that “Lewis and Austin’s anti-housing groups will work with seemingly anyone to put shelter further out of reach for hardworking Austinites. His Faustian bargain with Tea-Party demagogue Ken Paxton is a new low. It comes on the heels of an anti-CodeNEXT petition campaign spearheaded by these same groups and financed by corporate billboard lobbyists intent on dismantling Austin regulations, aimed at subverting the political representation granted to working-class Austinites by the new 10-1 City Council system.”

Lewis has denied that his attempts to remove Planning commissioners have anything to do with his attacks on CodeNEXT. He has been trying to remove commissioners he perceives as development professionals since 2015.

This story has been updated to reflect the participation of District Attorney Margaret Moore.

Photo by John Flynn. Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

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