Austin city councilman withdraws resolution to allow lobbyists to serve on advisory board

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After approving the consent agenda during a Jan. 31 Austin City Council meeting, Councilman Bill Spelman withdrew an item that would have allowed registered lobbyists to serve on the Land Development Code advisory group.

Spelman, who sponsored the resolution, said he understood that most council members would not support the resolution and clarified that the advisory group was going to provide input for the code, not write the new code.

“Their job is to provide opinions, this is not a work group we’re appointing,” he said. “This is a stakeholder process, and our usual rule of stakeholder processes is you appoint all stakeholders to the stakeholder process because you want all stakeholders to have a chance to voice their opinion. Everybody who’s affected by the land use development code should have an opportunity to talk about changes in the Land Development Code.”

The resolution did not affect the city’s recusal and disclosure policy, and a lobbyist serving on the advisory group would have been required to state the interests he or she represented.

Spelman said at a council work session Jan. 29 that the rationale behind including lobbyists to serve on the advisory group is because they have knowledge of the code, experience with the code and are interested in making sure the rewritten code is efficient.

Under current city code, lobbyists would have been able to serve on the advisory group, but the council expressly prohibited them from being members of the Land Development Code advisory group in a December resolution.

“I don’t think they should be in charge of the process by any means at all, but I think having two or three or four people who know the code extremely well from the point of view of a user, of someone who is trying to develop a property, is in a better position than almost anybody else to help us work through some of the problems of the code that have arisen over the last umpteen years since we last revised it,” Spelman said at the work session.

Councilwomen Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo both believe it is a bad idea to allow registered lobbyists to serve on the advisory group. Tovo said at the work session she feels the community has enough members that have knowledge of the code who are not lobbyists to provide guidance.

“I think is of extreme value to have people on here who are very familiar with the land development code and the building process,” Tovo said. “I think we’ve got a lot of people in our community that meet that description, [such as]engineers, architects, and certainly there are neighborhood leaders who have spent lots of time going over the code.”

Morrison said at the work session she did not believe a lobbyist could separate his or her livelihood from their role in the advisory group to provide objective advice.

“Their livelihood is basically representing clients to enhance financial gain under the laws, and we are now saying that those folks whose livelihood relies on that are not going to be in a leadership position to rewrite those laws, and I think that’s wrong,” Morrison said.

“We’re all in this together,” Spelman said at the council meeting, and there are no victims when looking to revise the land development code, he said.

“In a stakeholder process, you want to include all stakeholders, not just the ones you like,” Spelman said. “I’m not a great politician, but I know that to govern a great city, you have to listen to everybody, and I think we’re not going to be listening to everybody in as good a way as we should in this transaction.”

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