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Lobbyists could serve on city development task force

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Some Austinites are concerned about who could be rewriting the city's future development guidelines.

Council Member Bill Spelman, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Mayor Lee Leffingwell want to allow up to four lobbyists to serve on an 11-member task force responsible for providing recommendations for an update to the city's land development code. The code determines what type of development can take place, and where.

Critics say it's akin to having inmates design the prison, but Spelman says what they come up with will not be iron clad.

"The focus group's job is to function as a focus group for the staff and the consultants to suggest possible changes and identify what the ramifications of those changes would be," Spelman said
Critics say it's unacceptable to have lobbyists serve on boards and commissions at any level of government. Brigid Shea, who served the city from 1993 to 1996, says special interests in city politics would be a return to the “bad old days.”

Some of those “bad” days were before a 1990 meeting, almost 23 years ago, when the city council adopted the Save Our Springs Alliance. It was a win for environmentalists and a defeat for developers.

"We prevented developers and lobbyists from serving on the Planning Commission,” Shea said.

SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch has held city leaders accountable ever since.

"You had the developer lobbyists in the back room with the city attorney writing the ordinances and passing them up to council during the meetings," Bunch said.

Soon after, the council began to overhaul its own policies—something current member Kathie Tovo wants to continue.

"City Hall needs to be a place where ordinary voters and taxpayers have a voice in the process, and a voice that is not drowned out by lobbyists," she said.

Critics like Shea and Tovo also point to a recent opinion by Attorney General Greg Abbott which banned lobbyists from being on the State Board of Education.

However, Council Member Bill Spelman says it is important to have all the knowledgeable voices at the table.

"The Land Development Code is going to be rewritten by city staff and legal consultants, just like it should be,” he said. “It seems to me that if we really want to understand the consequences, we need to get everybody involved."

The council has postponed making a decision so the public has an opportunity to speak on the issue. It was set to be discussed during Thursday's meeting, but was withdrawn.

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