Then There's This: Loophole Development Code?

Lobbyists may get a crack at rewriting land-use regs

Planning Commissioner Myron Smith is joined by opponents of a proposal on Council's Jan. 31 agenda, which would let lobbyists help revise the land code. CM Laura Morrison stands at left.
Planning Commissioner Myron Smith is joined by opponents of a proposal on Council's Jan. 31 agenda, which would let lobbyists help revise the land code. CM Laura Morrison stands at left. (Photo by John Anderson)

UPDATE: Thursday morning, Council Member Bill Spelman pulled down his proposal to allow lobbyists to serve on an advisory group that will help rewrite the Land Development Code.

City Council is kicking off the new year with a proposal to let registered lobbyists in on a rewrite of the Land Development Code – something they've been wanting to take a knife to for many years. Pretty sweet, huh?

It's anyone's guess whether the Council majority will hang tough when it comes time for the vote on Item 29 today (Jan. 31). As of Wednesday, though, the measure appeared to be careening toward a 4-3 approval, clearing the way for up to four registered lobbyists to serve on an 11-member advisory group charged with recommending revisions to the code. (Seven panel members would be appointed by Council and four by staff.)

We're talking about developer lobbyists who eat, sleep, and breathe the Land Devel­opment Code on behalf of developer clients. And they make good money doing it. If there is a conflict of interest here, at least four Council members don't see it.

The proposal – which would reverse a December 2012 vote to prohibit lobbyists from serving on the advisory group – is sponsored by Council Mem­ber Bill Spelman, with co-sponsors Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Chris Riley is expected to provide the fourth vote. The three dissenting members – Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo, and Mike Martinez – have taken a principled stand against the measure, which made for a livelier-than-usual discussion at Council's work session on Tuesday.

Tovo said she was distressed to see the proposed resolution back on the agenda, less than two months after the Council voted down a provision that would have opened the door to lobbyists on the panel. "What's the rationale?" she asked.

Spelman: "Because they know more about the Land Development Code than anyone else, they're frequent users of the [LDC] ... and because they can offer us good advice."

Tovo: "I think we've got a lot of people who would meet that description – engineers, architects ... none of whom advocate zoning changes for pay." (That's not to say that engineers and architects don't benefit from the work lobbyists do, but, as the Council minority argued, lobbyists can participate and contribute to the process without serving as appointees to the advisory group.)

No Place for Amateurs

Spelman remained adamant that lobbyists deserve a seat at the table. "Why should we go to such great lengths to avoid somebody who does this for pay and only include amateurs and not professionals? The Olympics doesn't require amateur status anymore – why should we?"

The remark prompted a double-take from Morrison. "The simplest reason not to have lobbyists" serve, she said later, "is that we have to draw a bright line and make it very clear to the public that we're not going to have undue influence in the rewriting of our laws." She said she already senses a "very strong mistrust in the process" from community members. The land code is getting a rewrite to mesh with the new guidelines of the Imagine Austin Compre­hen­sive Plan that the Council unanimously adopted last year, after a fair number of community members spoke against it.

While registered lobbyists aren't eligible under city rules to serve on boards and commissions, the LDC advisory group is temporary and thus not subject to the same rules, Assistant City Attorney Brent Lloyd told the Council.

When viewed through the lens of a City Hall lobbyist, adding lobbyists to the panel is completely logical. "Lobbyists deal with the code day in and day out – that's all they do," said Nikelle Meade, who spends her days doing exactly that. "When it is your livelihood, I think you're less likely to take a position that is unreasonable. When you think about it, a lobbyist is typically going to have clients all over the board, with a lot of different interests. Many of those will be competing interests, and I think they'd have to be more impartial because of that." Meade says she has no interest in serving on the advisory panel because the process is expected to last years.

It's no surprise that word of the lobby proposal spread quickly, touching off a firestorm of criticism from leaders of community organizations, environmentalists, and public interest groups, including Texans for Public Justice, which has built a national reputation on tracking how lobby money influences the actions of elected officials.

Because lobbyists, the successful ones, are by nature skilled salespeople, the proposal is bringing out community activists' worst fears – the possibility of more loopholes and a loosening of rules designed to provide a balance between development interests and environmental and neighborhood interests, among other things. As Austin Sierra Club's Roy Waley wryly noted, "The bankers got to rewrite all of their rules and everything worked out just peachy."

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