Have Connections, Will Pay

Council Watch

This will be Councilmember Max Nofziger's last term if the speculation of some local soothsayers bears out, a prospect that forces the question, "Just what would he do for a living?" The former flower salesman is pondering his options. "I don't know if there's anything else I can do," he says. "I've been practicing my guitar. Maybe I'll do that."

He need not worry: He can always become a city lobbyist.

Corporations are always in want of a well-versed city insider, as many of Nofziger's predecessors and former bureaucratic counterparts can attest. Take, for example, Frank Cooksey, mayor from 1985-1988 and now a lawyer at Hilgers and Watkins.

Cooksey brings to mind an old adage: Politicians never die, they just change business cards. He returned to city hall a little more than a year after his mayoral term ended, he says, as a representative for small land developers with zoning-change aspirations. But his big break came in 1993, when Austin CableVision (ACV) hooked Cooksey up as a lead lobbyist for franchise renewal negotiations with the city's Electric Utility Department (EUD).

Recently, he successfully pressured the EUD into numerous concessions on its cable attachment ordinance, which lays out pole attachment regulations for communication companies. Most notably, the EUD tossed out plans for a per-pole attachment fee and penciled in a clause to allow such a fee only if expressly permitted by state or federal laws in the future, costing the EUD potential revenue.

Also a member of the city's Electric Utility Commission in the early Eighties, Cooksey says success as a city hall lobbyist is largely "a matter of having a network of associations and acquaintances." He also attributes his accomplishments to a rare comprehesion of bureaucratic and legal complexities. "I understand city government better than most people. I've been involved with government in one way or another since 1978."

Is his circuitous job history unethical? "Not in the least," he replies. "We're furnishing what we think is an important issue that deals with the community."

Tom "Smitty" Smith, the director of Public Citizen, a government watchdog organization, disagrees. "The problem is that these former city officials have extraordinary access not only to council but also to the city staff, and have insider information that they can and frequently do use to influence the opinion of decision makers. This puts them at a distinct advantage over the average citizen."

Inside information has proven beneficial to Gene Watkins, who made the switch to the private sector in 1993 after serving for five years as the director of the city's Neighborhood, Housing, and Conservation Office (NHCO).

Two years have passed since he stepped down from his city job, but if you've been out of town you may have serious doubts that he ever left. Councilmembers and city staff still turn to him for advice on affordable housing issues and fall in line like cadets when he comes courting NHCO reserves, as he is currently doing for a proposal to revamp downtown's historic Stephen F. Austin Hotel.

Representing the current hotel owner and other investors including himself, Watkins wants the city to cash out a CD account that he helped set up during his tenure as director. Under the proposal, the $6 million in proceeds will be lent to the investors, who will rent out apartments for $510 a month. They promise a return to the city equal to the interest that NHCO is currently earning from the account.

Watkins is also an investor in two other recently approved affordable housing projects that will garner upwards of $2.2 million in federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) dollars from the city (The Meadows at Walnut Creek and SCIP II - Scattered Cooperative Infill Housing). Less than a year after leaving the city, he was still hard at work on city issues, but this time advising Advanced Micro Devices on their affordable-housing-for-tax-abatement deal. At the time, some councilmembers questioned whether Watkins was in violation of the city's lobbyist ordinance, since it restricts lobbying by city officials until a year after they've left office.

Public Citizen, which pushed for councilmember Brigid Shea's campaign finance reform ordinance that passed last December, would also like to see the lobbying restriction prolonged to two years, hoping that the extension would help balance the disadvantage that city insiders have over the average citizen.

Other city officials-turned-lobbyist or representative include:

* Cloteal Haynes. A former planning supervisor for the city's housing department in the mid-1980s and now a lead consultant for Haynes, Eaglin, & Waters, she represents the Anderson Neighborhood Development Corporation (ANDC), the group working on SCIP II. Her company also has seven subcontracts for construction at the new airport, more than any other company, totalling $635,000.

With 20 years of affordable housing experience behind her - she's also worked for HUD in Washington - Haynes says she's "valuable. I know how to plan [affordable housing] and how to get financing for it." She resents the assertion that her past employment with the city aids the cultivation of city contracts, saying that "connections" didn't get her anywhere. "I don't believe I got a contract because I was a former city employee, I got it because I can do the job."

* Jerry Harris. A land-use lawyer for the city in the early 1970s and the City Attorney from 1976 to 1981, Harris brings his experience back to city hall on a regular basis. After leaving, he says, "I kept my ears and eyes open for someone who might be able to utilize the experience I had."

It worked. According to lobbyist activity reports, he's the city's busiest lobbyist. Now a partner in Brown McCarroll & Oaks Hartline, Harris has helped numerous companies over the years get development permits, and currently represents Motorola and 3M, among other giants.

* Jeff Friedman. Both a mayor and a councilmember throughout much of the 1970s, Friedman says he "represented a lot of businesses in the Eighties because I did some zoning stuff." He also negotiated with the EUD on behalf of Austin CableVision, which secured a 15-year contract with the city in 1981.

Recently, Friedman has worked for Carrollville Limited, a group of investors interested in bringing professional baseball to Austin before the council voted to help build a new stadium for the AAA-league Phoenix Firebirds.

* Diana Granger. While not yet a lobbyist, the former city attorney says she may one day be, now that her year-long hiatus from the city recently ended. "It just depends on the nature of the work that I'm requested to do [by my clients]." Now with the Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld lawfirm, Granger is advising Georgia-based Southern Electric International on the proposed acquisition of the city's Electric Utility. n This Week in Council: Vote on whether to hold a bond election to pony up $10 million for the baseball stadium. Also, the council will decide whether to provide expanded water service to Freeport's Lantana tract. n

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Council Watch
Council Watch
Council Watch
Council approves spending $15 million on the Convention Center Hotel; City Manager Jesus Garza presents the Draft Policy Budget; and Roma Design Group announces its vision for the south shore of Town Lake.

Kevin Fullerton, July 7, 2000

Council Watch
Council Watch
The council approves on first reading an East Austin apartment complex 500 feet away from a plant where toxic chemicals are stored, but some council members are promising to scuttle the project if it comes back for final approval.

Kevin Fullerton, June 30, 2000

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle