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Ethics commission shelves lobbying complaint against Austin Pets Alive! employee

Monday, October 3, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The Ethics Review Commission has opted not to move forward with a lobbying complaint against a member of the city’s Animal Advisory Commission who also works in a governmental affairs job for Austin Pets Alive.

Last week the ethics commission voted 4-4 on a motion that would have forwarded to the city attorney the complaint filed by Leslie Padilla against Katie Jarl, who has served on the Animal Advisory Commission since 2019 and worked for Austin Pets Alive since January 2021. The tie vote fell two votes short of the number required to move the complaint out of the preliminary hearing stage.

Padilla said she filed her complaint based on the likelihood that Jarl was involved in substantial lobbying activity for APA in 2021 when it was negotiating with the city for a long-term lease for the Town Lake shelter property. After talks that stretched through most of the year, an agreement was reached in November 2021.

City laws bar a lobbyist registered with the city from serving on boards and commissions, with criteria for registration involving how much money a potential lobbyist was paid in a quarter and if their total time spent lobbying on city actions totaled 26 hours in a quarter.

Padilla first filed a letter of complaint with the city clerk’s office in May 2022 after receiving more than 200 pages of emails and other documents in response to her public information request about Jarl and one of her co-workers in the shelter negotiations. She filed her ethics complaint in June.

“The time period I’m concerned about is when she started working for APA as a director of government affairs and policy. This is important in this case because … the city was trying to negotiate a new license agreement for use of the Town Lake animal shelter,” she said. “The key question here is the threshold for when a lobbyist must register.”

Jarl and her attorney said her lobbying work is focused mostly on the state level with many of her colleagues handling most of the talks with City Council members and city staff throughout 2021. Jarl said she was on occasion included in meetings related to city business including the shelter talks, with an informal audit of the meeting time and time spent on electronic communications totaling less than 16 hours in each of three fiscal quarters covered by Padilla’s complaint.

“I take ethics laws very seriously. I have been registered as a nonprofit lobbyist with the state of Texas for the last decade. I review those rules every year,” she said. “I have actually been working on city ordinances a very small amount over the last 12 to 15 years as well and I have reviewed that code and statute many times, and every single time because city work is such a very small part of my job … it just has never reached the threshold.”

Commissioners and Jarl confirmed that Padilla’s documentation presented many instances of lobbying activity with city officials and staff, yet not enough to clearly prove the need to register with the city that would have made her membership on a city commission a possible criminal activity.

“The burden is entirely on the complainant at this point, and our standard to vote this forward is probable cause, not could it possibly be this or possibly have happened?” said Commissioner Debra Danburg, who voted against moving the complaint forward. “The burden is on the complainant to demonstrate this as probable events without any other standard than probable.”

Commissioner Sidney Williams, who voted to move the complaint to the city attorney, said the likelihood that Jarl spent time beyond scheduled meetings and emails on city-related matters made it possible that the city attorney should be asked to open an investigation.

“We just have to have a reasonable belief that it has occurred, and so what we are struggling with is a definition regarding certainty, but this is the lowest standard out there,” he said. “We need to take a look at these facts and just bear in mind that there doesn’t have to be evidence that (the violation) actually occurred.”

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