CodeNEXT Prop J and efficiency study Prop K poorly funded but have drawn opposing PACs
People who bother to vote in the November 6 election will pick and choose their way through a long list of candidates for elected office—headlined by the U.S. Senate race in which Democrat Beto O’Rourke is trying to unseat incumbent Republican Ted Cruz.
Next voters will tick off their preferences for seven City of Austin bond propositions totaling $925 million and move on to consider two low-key City Charter amendments (which if passed for two years will block consideration of much more important changes recommended by the 2018 Charter Review Commission that are not on the ballot).
Only the most diligent voters will plow through all that to wind up at the bottom of the ballot to find Propositions J and K, both of which got onto the ballot through petition drives.
Prop J—If approved by voters Prop J will require a waiting period and voter approval before CodeNEXT or any comprehensive revision of land development regulations can be implemented. The ballot language approved by the City Council omits “CodeNEXT.” A challenge to that decision filed with the Texas Supreme Court was not successful.
Prop K—If it gets a thumbs up from voters, Prop K will require an efficiency study of the city’s operational and fiscal performance by an independent third-party consultant. Petition organizer Michael Searle estimated the cost at $2 million but expected far greater returns in the form of savings. The ballot language approved by the City Council estimates the cost at $1 million to $5 million. Inclusion of that information in the ballot language also drew a legal challenge that was rejected by the Texas Supreme Court.
So far these PACs have not raised much money. In fact, three of the four PACs were not established until last month and are not required to file campaign finance reports until 5pm October 9.
Prop J features dueling PACs
Let Us Vote Austin PAC—Attorney Fred Lewis is pushing Prop J based on an initiative ordinance that he wrote. After the City Council voted not to put the initiative on the ballot, Lewis and co-counsel Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance won a court decision to override that decision.
Lewis named himself the campaign treasurer more than a year ago on September 14, 2017. On January 17, 2018, he reported contributions of $9,339, expenditures of $10,750, and an outstanding loan of $2,000. Then on July 16, 2018, Lewis reported contributions of $21,182, expenditures of $24,600, and outstanding loans of $9,750—loans that Lewis himself made to the campaign.
Nearly all of the money spent by the Let Us Vote Austin PAC was contributed to IndyAustin to run the petition drive—more than $28,000, according to campaign finance reports.
Which is why Lewis and others are trying to raise money to win voter support for Prop J.
One of the people helping to fundraise is George Shipley, a longtime political consultant and pollster for high-profile Democrats including Governor Ann Richards, Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, Attorney General Dan Morales, and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros.
“This is where politics really matter,” Shipley said at a Prop J fundraiser held September 25 at the Chez Zee restaurant in West Austin. “We have to deal with these problems in a serious way.”
Shipley was explaining to a small gathering of 17 people why he is opposed to CodeNEXT, which proposed comprehensive changes to Austin’s land development regulations and the City Council cancelled in August despite having spent more than $8 million on consultants.
“It’s too hot (for elected officials) to admit it,” Shipley said, “but it’s coming back,” he said of CodeNEXT or some variation of it.
Lewis claimed the opposing PAC, No on Prop J, would be funded with “money that will flow from the real estate industry.”
“I would bet every penny I have that CodeNEXT is coming back,” he said. “It will be like ‘Tide,’ labeled ‘new and improved,’ but will be the same product.”
Lewis said the campaign to get voters to approve Prop J will not be well funded and depends on a grassroots strategy of supporters talking to neighbors about how it will protect them if a new land development code is adopted.
“We’re organizing neighborhoods through social media, yard signs and T-shirts,” he said, in addition to having ads running on the Internet. If enough money is raised there may also be some direct mail, he said. Lewis said that about 600 yard signs have already been put out around Austin.
“At the end of the day we need a message from the public they can’t ignore,” he said. “The city establishment doesn’t want the public to have the final say.”
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No on Prop J PAC—Let Us Vote Austin faces opposition from this PAC. Its treasurer is Angela De Hoyos Hart, who is serving her second term on City’s Planning Commission as Mayor Steve Adler’s appointee.
Hoyos Hart filed her treasurer appointment September 17, 2018. In so doing she signed the form to indicate she had chosen “modified reporting,” meaning “the committee does not intend to accept more than $500 in political contributions or make more than $500 in political expenditures.”
Just two days later she filed an amended appointment that left the modified reporting section blank—meaning the PAC will not be observing the $500 limitations.
She did not respond to four telephone messages asking for comment.
Prop K features PAC faceoffs too
The Yes on Prop K PAC—Michael Searle led the campaign to get this initiative petition on the ballot. On September 6 he named himself the PAC treasurer.
The campaign website features a series of five videos, which are fast-paced and professional. Each person’s comments are captured in text that keeps pace with the video. There are videos labeled East Austin, North Austin, Central Austin, West Austin, and South Austin.
It should be noted, however, that not everyone featured in a given video lives in the area indicated. For example the South Austin video includes Fred Lewis, who lives in West Austin. Council Member Ellen Troxclair is featured in the West Austin video and she lives in South Austin. Several people are featured in multiple videos. (Disclosure: my wife, Rebecca Melançon, is featured in the Central Austin video.)
Responding to that observation via email, Searle said, “Nearly 30 people—including the city’s former budget director (Frank Rodriguez, 1978-1984)—volunteered their time to go on camera and express their support for Prop K. Every one of them are Austin residents, and the proposed efficiency audit applies to the entire city. And nearly all of those 30 people are in videos that were targeted to their neighborhoods.”
Although the Yes on Prop K PAC isn’t required to file a contribution report until October 9, Searle has taken a highly unusual step of both soliciting and disclosing donations through the campaign website. He set the fundraising goal at $100,000.
The first contribution was made September 13 and, as of 6:35pm tonight, the site shows that 39 contributions have been made totaling $15,890. The donor’s first name, last initial, amount contributed, and date contributed are disclosed. (Full names will be required in campaign finance reports.)
Searle told The Austin Bulldog at a recent political event that he is making this extraordinary effort to provide real-time information about donations due to the blowback the petition suffered because it was funded by $137,000 in contributions made to Austin Civic Fund Action, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization that under IRS rules is not required to disclose its donors.
Although there is no legal bar that prevents releasing the names of donors to Austin Civic Fund Action, Searle said those who contributed did so with the understanding their names would not be made public.
The Austin Bulldog exposed this use of so-called “dark money” in stories published May 25, July 12, and July 27. The latter story explored the possible links between this effort and model legislation, the Independent Performance Audits Act, created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization supported by Charles and David Koch.
“I learned my lesson,” Searles said at a recent political event, regarding the reactions to publicity about how the petition drive was funded. He said the PAC would not be using dark money.
Austin Citizens for Truthful Petitions—Prop K has drawn a powerful enemy. This PAC’s treasurer is Janis Pinnelli. She’s the wife of general contractor Joe Pinnelli, the longtime campaign treasurer for Council Member Kathie Tovo.
Perhaps more importantly David Butts—a political consultant with decades of experience in running winning campaigns—has vowed to defeat Prop K.
“We think there’s a skunk in the cabbage patch,” Butts told The Austin Bulldog. He points to the dark money and suspected connections to the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).
“We see it as something that sounds all nice and innocent and innocuous,” Butts said. “We think it’s the nose under the tent and the rest comes later. We’re going to fight this.”
“I disagree with the need for an independent audit forced on the city for millions of tax dollars,” he said. He views this proposal as being aligned with the kind of strategies espoused by the governor and legislature to limit the home-rule powers of cities by lowering the threshold that triggers tax-rollback elections. “The state has decided to be the City Council of Texas and decide what we can and can’t do.”
“They got my back up and I’m ready to fight. We’re going to give it to them with both barrels,” Butts said. “We’re ready for a blue wave to sweep across the country and wash some of our sins away.”
Searle responded via email to Butts’ comments, stating, “TPPF and I have stated that TPPF was not involved with the Austin Civic Fund. Mr. Butts’ own polls show that an audit is highly popular with the public. Butts, who also worked against 10-1, is the best example of how Austin politicians and their lobbyists work against Austin citizens.”
Council divided on the propositions
Mayor Steve Adler—who led the charge to push for adoption of CodeNEXT until resistance caused it to fold—did not respond to a phone message left with his office staff to provide comments for this article.
Four City Council members were opposed to CodeNEXT’s adoption and pushed for neighborhood protections. Calling their proposal a PATH Forward (derived from an acronym of their last names) Council Members Leslie Pool, Alison Alter, Kathie Tovo, and Ora Houston wanted to amend the rewrite of the land development code, the Austin American-Statesman reported June 19.
Their steadfast refusal to support implementation of CodeNEXT, combined with the rising tide of opposition evidenced by the petition drive that netted more than 31,000 signatures, culminated August 9 when the City Council passed a resolution that stated, “…CodeNEXT is no longer a suitable mechanism to achieve its stated goals or address the critical challenges currently facing our City.” The resolution directed the city manager to develop a new process.
Pool told The Austin Bulldog in a telephone interview that she is supporting Proposition J.
But she is opposed to Proposition K for an efficiency study. She expressed strong reservations about the idea in The Austin Bulldog’s story of July 27. She remains opposed today.
“I oppose Prop K because we can do that work in-house with strategic outcomes.” For example, she said, the city could conduct sunset reviews on all city departments, as the Texas Legislature does for state agencies.
Noting the wide variations in estimates of what the efficiency study might cost, Pool said, “I would rather not spend money on something we could address better in-house.”
Houston is loud and proud about her support for Prop K. She vocally supports it in one of the videos on the Yes On Prop K website labeled “East Austin Supports Prop K!”
In a telephone interview Houston said she also supports Proposition J, “primarily because in my opinion Austin has a long convoluted history of land planning east of the interstate.”
“I thought our new plan was supposed to make the land development code simpler, consistent and predictable and it did none of those things,” she said. “Put it on the ballot and let people vote on it. If it’s simper and easier to understand they will approve it.”
Houston said she’s looking forward to a better planning process going forward and hopes it will avoid the divisiveness that accompanied CodeNEXT.
“My hope is for the new iteration of the land development code is that people who have expertise in the reality on the ground, where they live, will have an opportunity to be heard and be listened to.”
Tovo said she too supports Prop J.
“More than 30,000 people signed a petition and want the right to weigh in on the land development code because we had a troubled process with CodeNEXT and citizens didn’t see their feedback and concerns reflected in the product,” she said.
Tovo was a neighborhood association president and vice president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council before being elected to the council in 2011. “The point I made throughout the CodeNEXT process and heard from constituents was that recommendations coming forward were very different from the council-adopted, grassroots-driven neighborhood plans adopted in certain areas of city.”
“The draft of CodeNEXT was very different from what we expected, that we were not going to override neighborhood plans, so it broke faith with the public.
“I understand wanting to give a voice back to the public. My hope is we will have a very community driven process for revising our land development code as we move forward.”
As for Prop K, Tovo said, “I just can’t support it. I don’t think it’s necessary. We have an internal auditor who does great work and we get external audits regularly.”
“This is an unnecessary taxpayer expense in my opinion.”
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Let Us Vote Austin on Facebook promoting Proposition J
Let Us Vote Austin website promoting Proposition J
Vote Yes on Prop K on Facebook
Vote Yes on Prop K website
Related Bulldog coverage:
Ballot Language Draws Second Lawsuit, August 17, 2018
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