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Tuesday, August 14, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Reagan going to court over sign rule secrecy

Billy Reagan, the owner of Reagan Signs, the best-known billboard company in the city of Austin, is looking forward to going to court later this month to try to find out why the city won’t let him see communications between CodeNEXT consultants and members of the city’s Law Department. And more importantly, what’s in those communications.

Attorney Bill Aleshire, who represents Reagan, filed suit against the city in June when the city refused to release records related to changes proposed for billboards in the third and final draft of CodeNEXT.

Reagan has sued under the Texas Public Information Act. The lawsuit points out that there were no changes in sign regulations proposed in the first and second drafts of CodeNEXT. However, without public discussion or a hearing on the matter, Aleshire says, the third draft of the Land Development Code rewrite suddenly proposed two changes that alarmed the industry.

Under current sign regulations, if the billboard is taken down, the billboard owner has the option to relocate it to another spot. However, the third CodeNEXT draft does not allow for a billboard to be moved, which would obviously damage the billboard company’s bottom line. In addition, the CodeNEXT draft eliminates a provision allowing a sign or billboard company to appeal city actions to the Board of Adjustment.

Leading up to Council’s decision to scrap CodeNEXT and start a new process next year, Mayor Steve Adler cited a lack of transparency in the process, and in a recent motion, Aleshire quoted the mayor about that lack of transparency.

Aleshire quotes Adler’s Aug. 1 statement, which says, in part: “Oversight, engagement, and transparency are core values of our city, but when people stop being honest to achieve a political end, it hurts our city and our democracy. We need dialogue that is more like Austin, Texas, and less like what we are seeing in Washington D.C. … As a Council, city staff and community, we must restore trust in a process to revise our land development code, and that means we need a new and different, clear and concise path that can move us forward.”

After Reagan asked for communications between the CodeNEXT consultants and city staff, the city asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office for permission to keep those documents secret.

Paxton’s office ruled in the city’s favor, but Reagan argues that “the city did not let the Attorney General see all the records the city withheld; instead the city showed the Attorney General only what the city claimed is a ‘representative sample’ of what they refused to disclose to Billy Reagan.”

Reagan is asking a Travis County district court to issue a writ of mandamus to compel the city to provide the information to Reagan.

At the hearing, the parties will be arguing over whether the court should order the city to allow Aleshire to look at those records without disclosing them to his client in order to facilitate arguments about whether the records should be public. A spokesperson for the city said the Law Department had no comment at this time but they might have something to say closer to the date of the hearing, which is expected to be Aug. 28.

Although those documents might seem irrelevant now that Council has declared CodeNEXT dead, that is not really the case. At last week’s Council meeting, Council Member Greg Casar asked City Manager Spencer Cronk, “So my first question is around if the manager could make clear to the community what the expectation is of what’s going to happen to all of that work, and whether or not you are going to keep looking at and using (the work), so we don’t pour down the drain all of that – everything that we’ve learned and put together, and whether you would … see value in continuing to look at how well what we put together works.”

Cronk responded, “There will be a lot of information and data that has been collected that will continue to be used. I am not – there’s no intention to, you know, start anew. … We’re going to take what we have, but there is going to be a different look in how it’s being used. But I certainly have every intention to build off of what we have really done in the past years. So I really want to thank staff for that work, but I do want to just specifically answer that question that we will be using that information. It may come out differently, but it’s certainly going to be a baseline.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Bill Aleshire: A former Travis County judge, Aleshire has since been involved in a host of causes. These include the 2011 controversy over what Travis County Attorney David Escamilla eventually found to be Austin City Council violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, as well as a law suit over City of Austin historic property tax exemptions.

CodeNEXT: CodeNEXT is the name given to the land development code rewrite process undertaken in the early 2010s by the City of Austin.

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