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Commission’s move to support PAC deemed an ethical slippery slope

Thursday, October 28, 2021 by Samuel Stark

At its monthly meeting Oct. 12, the Community Development Commission unanimously passed a recommendation to endorse the No Way on Prop A political campaign and join the list of endorsing organizations on the campaign’s website.

The author of the endorsement, Kendra Garrett, a second-term CDC member, said that Proposition A “reinforces poverty,” which stands opposed to the goals of the commission. Instead, she said, the commission should be “looking at things like reimagining public safety … that really nails down lots of ways in which we can support our community based on meeting their basic needs.”

“That’s what the purpose of this resolution (is) and I hope that the commission will vote to pass it,” she added. 

The board members unanimously passed the recommendation.

However, the Community Development Commission does not today appear on the list of organizational endorsements on the No Way on Prop A website.

That’s because, while the commission may be aligned with the goals of the campaign, the move raised questions about whether a city commission is lawfully permitted to align itself with a political agenda. And secondly, if it is lawful, is it ethical? 

“After checking with city legal, we found out that no city resources can be used for advocacy or election campaigning. The resolution (and action taken) will be voided,” Garrett told the Austin Monitor

In making the recommendation to endorse the political campaign and attempting to be listed on the campaign’s website, CDC was unknowingly in violation of city rules governing the political activities of members of boards and commissions. 

The rules say: “Board and commission members may take a position on a ballot item or a candidate, so long as they use no city resources to do so. Board and commission members may make communications that factually describe a ballot measure so long as the communication does not advocate passage or defeat in any way.”

Texas Election Code lists two circumstances in which a commissioner’s involvement with a political campaign may be considered unlawful. 

Firstly, “an officer or employee of a political subdivision may not knowingly spend or authorize the spending of public funds for political advertising.” And secondly, “an officer or employee of a state agency or political subdivision may not knowingly use or authorize the use of an internal mail system for the distribution of political advertising.”

Bill Spelman, former Council member and professor emeritus of public affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, told the Monitor that while the Community Development Commission may have thought its recommendation technically legal, “It feels like a slippery slope to me.”

I’d feel a lot more comfortable if the commissioners all got together for a beer after the meeting and decided to join a campaign as individuals,” Spelman said.

“Once an initiative has been put before the voters, I think the city should avoid taking an official position in any way. There are lots of ways board and commission members (and elected officials and city employees) can help on a campaign without bringing the city’s imprimatur into it,” he added. 

Save Austin Now, a political organization advocating for the passage of Prop A, emailed a statement to the Monitor about the CDC’s original decision:

“It is both concerning and not surprising that city officials and city appointees are using official resources to engage in political activity. City Hall has been ethically failing for many years,” Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek, co-founders of Save Austin Now, said. 

“At next month’s meeting, we will have an agenda item to void the previous action taken on that recommendation,” Garrett told the Monitor via email. 

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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