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Shea's Contracts at Issue

Questions raised about candidate Brigid Shea's work as consultant and lobbyist

By Mike Kanin, Fri., April 6, 2012

Shea's Contracts at Issue
Photo by Jana Birchum

Who paid mayoral candidate Brigid Shea to do what?

Shea's lobbying/consulting record – and what it might mean on the campaign trail – was brought up last week by the Burnt Orange Report's Karl-Thomas Mus­sel­man. Now the question is whether it will stick to the former City Council member in her challenge to incumbent Mayor Lee Leffingwell. In the short term, it has certainly made the race a bit hotter.

Leffingwell had foreshadowed the charges at the Real Estate Council of Austin's March 27 candidates' forum, when he asked Shea how much she had earned in income from contracts from the city of Austin since her departure from council in 1996. Shea's answer was roughly $40,000 a year, and she later told the Chronicle that Leffingwell had unfairly implied she had been contracting with the city "the entire time I'd been off council. I retired in 1996, but didn't start on city projects until 5 years later in 2001 [and] worked on projects for about 10 years."

On Thursday, March 29, Musselman posted to BOR information reflecting that Shea had earned more than $500,000 from city contracts over that period, including for work she'd done as part of a rejected 2002 bid to construct (or plan) one version of the city's Water Treatment Plant No. 4 project. Shea fired back an email that night, claiming Mus­sel­man "seriously misrepresented the facts on WTP-4, to the point of deliberate distortion."

Shea has acknowledged that she did some work for the CH2M Hill engineering firm in relation to its failed 2002 bid to work on the plant. But she says the CH2M Hill group was the only one "urging the city to pursue sites away from West Travis County." And though the group hadn't picked a location by the time it lost the bid, Shea says, it would have looked east for alternatives. (In 2006, a proposal to site the new plant at Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Metropolitan Park in return for parks funding was withdrawn by the city after opposition from both the Austin Parks Foundation and some East Austin activists.)

Shea also confirmed that she did work for the Lower Colorado River Authority to the tune of more than $126,000 in earnings during the early 2000s, and for high tech company Vignette in the late Nineties. Shea says that on the LCRA project, she had been approached by then-LCRA General Manager Joe Beal, worked with the organization only after some serious reflection, and left in 2005 after the LCRA decided to build a pipeline that she believed would encourage sprawl development in northern Hays County.

In 2000, Vignette, a software development firm since purchased by OpenText, received $25 million from the city in economic incentives to move its offices Down­town and away from previous locations along MoPac. The incentives were controversial at the time, but supporters defended them as both moving the company into the city's desired development zone and creating jobs. Shea says that though she did work with the company, and registered as a lobbyist for them "out of an abundance of caution," she worked more as liaison between the city's environmental community and the company. Shea insists the resulting development package was a smart investment, and differentiates it from the incentive deals she's been critical of during her mayoral campaign – particularly the Downtown convention hotel fee waivers for White Lodging Services Corp. – because the Vignette deal brought a high tech firm to a still-undeveloped part of Downtown, while making allowances for a reduction in traffic and an $8 million contribution to the Waller Creek Hike and Bike Trail. "[We] need to be strategic about how we spend this money," she argues.

Commenting via email, Leffingwell campaign consultant Mark Littlefield asked, "Did Brigid the lobbyist have different values than Brigid the candidate? It's my understanding that as a lobbyist she helped win a big incentive package for a corporate client, but as a candidate she seems to be adamantly against the same kind of incentives. So I'm just trying to understand the rationale behind what appears to be inconsistent positions on big issues."

Shea responded that Littlefield is "obscuring" the facts about the Vignette deal "because he is a political consultant for Lee's campaign."

What lingers most may be the WTP4 issue, especially if the Leffingwell campaign succeeds in defining its terms. Little­field told In Fact Daily: "It appears to me that Brigid the city contractor had a very different view of WTP4 than Brigid the mayoral candidate. I'm having a hard time reconciling her past actions with her current position on the plant, which I know is a fundamental issue for a lot of her supporters."

Shea suggests that Little­field doesn't understand the nature of the contracts in question. She says the bid was for very early work on the project, not actual construction. She also says that there was, at the time, "a very legitimate view that the city might need more water." After peak water use hit its high point in 2001 and has dropped since, that view changed, and Shea's current position is that future need is yet to be confirmed.

As for her contracting work in general, Shea reminds her critics that her clients got what they paid for. "As for the salary I've earned over 11 years of working on city projects, the city has gotten a good rate of return," she wrote in an email. "On the ACWP [Austin Clean Water Pro­gram] project, I was chiefly responsible for securing $3.7M in federal grants for the water utility that they would not have gotten otherwise."

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