Controversy arose this week over an agenda item at the Austin City Council over who can serve on the Land Development Code Task Force. The LDC TF will rewrite Austin's land use rules to reflect the Imagine Austin plan passed in 2012. These rules will determine zoning and development rules in Austin. Of the 11 member task force, 7 individuals will be appointed by City Council and 4 by the City Manager.
This week, Council Member Spelman planned to offer a resolution that would allow no more than 4 of the 11 task force members to be registered lobbyists, as currently all registered city lobbyists are forbidden from being appointed.
At the heart of the issue is not just whether real estate lobbyists registered with the city should be eligible to serve on the task force, but whether the city should exclude a group of people from a form of participation in a public process, and if so, why.
On one hand, there are concerns that lobbyists from the real estate industry would rewrite the code to the benefit of their clients and detriment of residents. In some quarters of this city, it is inconceivable that a developer could ever do anything in the public interest. (I assume all of these people built their own homes from hand-hewn logs and never visit any commercial enterprise here in Austin.)
On the other hand, these rules will need to be applied and used in the real world, and it may not be a bad idea to have folks who will use them be a significant part of the conversation about these changes. If code is not clear, then when you, dear reader, want to add an addition to your home to accommodate your growing family, you may wind up mired in added costs and delays as the one virtuous builder working your project tries to navigate what is permitted under the Land Development Code.
In the meantime, there is no prohibition on architects, engineers, or actual builders serving on this task force — there is no “conflict of interest” that prevents people who work in the development industry from serving. That's actually not unusual: a significant number of members of our city boards and commissions work in industries related to their appointment, due to the expertise they bring. Council members seem to welcome that knowledge and want it present in a meaningful way on our citizen boards. Only those who are paid to advocate for an industry or interest are forbidden from serving.
The debate was largely a proxy for the same-old same-old “developers” vs “neighborhoods” battle that has been ongoing for decades. Aside from the broad anti-lobbyist rhetoric the debate raises a valid question over whether there's a difference between a paid advocate — a lobbyist — and a paid professional with expertise in an industry who could be the person hiring the lobbyist.
Council Member Spelman ultimately pulled the item from the agenda when it was clear that it would fail, but in doing so made some valuable remarks about the nature of public input in these important processes: essentially, “in a stakeholder process you need to include all the stakeholders, not just the ones you like.”
Below the jump, please read Council Member Spelman's remarks from Thursday (edited by Spelman from the transcript of his off-the-cuff speech from the dais).
Bill Spelman: Let Everyone Serve On the Land Development Code Task Force
Remarks from the dais, January 31, 2013, edited slightly by Spelman, emphasis mine
Thank you Mayor. I understand some council members have asked that item 29 be postponed until 4 pm. It has become clear to me over the last 24 hours that most council members are not going to be in support of this so in a few moments I am going to ask to withdraw the item. But there are a few things I feel I need to say before I withdraw it.
First, I think there's a misconception as to what this task force is actually going to do. If any of you have actually taken a look at the land development code you'll know that it is two, 3-ring binders about a foot thick. It's hundreds and hundreds of pages of very dense legalese. We are not going to ask eleven volunteers meeting at most two or three hours a week to go through hundreds and hundreds of pages of our land development code and rewrite it from scratch. That doesn't make any sense. The land development code is going to be rewritten as it should be, by city staff with the assistance of legal and planning consultants – people who are paid to spend 40 hours a week. We might in fact have something like eleven people working on it, 40 hours a week, going through every line of that code to come up with something that's better. But it's going to be a professional job. It can't be an amateur job. I'm not suggesting that the people who are going to be appointed to this committee by me or anybody else are amateurs. They are professionals, but they don't have the time and they're certainly not going to get paid to be able to go through something of that complexity. And certainly not to come back with a result any time soon.
The advisory group's job is to provide opinions. This is not a work group we're appointing – this is a stakeholder process. And our usual rule where stakeholder processes are concerned is that you appoint representatives of all stakeholders to the process because you want all stakeholders to have a chance to voice their opinion. Everybody who is affected by the land development code should have an opportunity to talk about changes in the land development code. But they're not going to be doing the rewrite, they are just offering their opinion.
The second point I want to make is that this is something we've done many, many times before and we haven't really had a big fight about it. I'm very surprised that for some reason lobbyists became such a big issue in this particular case. When we rewrote the sound ordinance we asked the bar owners to come in and help us rewrite the sound ordinance. We didn't vilify the bar owners as being as the cause of the problem and cast the rest of us being the poor victims. The bar owners helped us figure out how to solve our common problem of too much sound coming out of bars. When we developed the McMansion ordinance we asked builders to help us figure out how to solve our common problem about houses starting to dominate neighborhoods and getting to be too big. In both cases we asked the same question: How can we do this in such a way that everybody is going to be OK with it?
The same thing is true when we are talking about something as massive as the land development code. In fact, if anything it's more important when we are talking about a project as massive as this. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, when you're designing a plane, you ask the pilot. You also ask a flight attendant, a mechanic, and some very experienced passengers, if you're smart. And we're doing all of that. All those experienced passengers, mechanics, and flight attendants are going to be at that table. I think it only appropriate that we ask some pilots to show up as well.
This makes sense because there are no important differences between the lobbyists and everybody else who is already going to be sitting at that table. Yes, lobbyists are paid to be part of the development process. So do lots of people. Developers assemble sites, assemble entitlements, and sell the site to somebody else. Architects get paid for designing buildings. Engineers get paid for designing systems to keep buildings up and to keep them working. We have a large community of people who are vitally affected by the land development code who all get paid to do this. I don't see anything qualitatively different between how lobbyists get paid and how developers, architects and engineers and everyone else associated with the development business gets paid. If we're OK with developers, architects, and engineers being on this task force, we should be OK with lobbyists, too.
I also don't see a qualitative difference between how lobbyists get paid and how most of the rest of us get paid. I get paid because I bought a house for a relatively small amount of money and it has appreciated in value because my neighborhood is a desirable place to live. When I finally sell that house, I hope many years from now, it will be worth a whole heck a lot of more and I'll have made a bunch of money out of the deal. I'm not saying this just to be flippant. For most Americans who own homes, that home is their most important financial asset. And one of the reasons why people are so excited about the land development code is because we're talking about an enormous amount of their money. And that's appropriate, that's a good thing for people to get excited about the quality of their neighborhood life and the value of their most important financial asset. But let's not lose sight that we are talking about a financial transaction, at least to some extent. We're also talking about self-interest. People appointed to this advisory group to protect neighborhood interests will also be protecting their own interests. That's what they should be doing. That's why we're appointing them. But we won't be able to find the community interest until everyone's self-interest is on the table.
I guess my final point is that we're all in this together. The pilot, the mechanic, the flight attendant, the developer, the builder, the architect, the engineer, the development lobbyist and all of us who make use of all those buildings that are created are all in this together. We're not just talking here about the latest Agent Smith who looks just like every other Agent Smith to come out of the law offices of British Petroleum. We're not talking about people who have been convicted of violent crimes. We're not talking about foxes who guard hen houses and presumably eat hens. There are no victims here. We all live in those houses that get built by those developers assisted by those development lobbyists. We're all one big family – well, maybe not a family that gets along all the time. But if you think about the kind of rhetoric that has been applied to this problem in the last 48 hours, I think it's wildly different from the situation that we actually experience every day. This is not about Agent Smith. This is about Nikelle, this is about Alice, this is about Michele, both Micheles, this is about Jeff, this is about Steve, this is about David and Richard. And most of you know exactly who I'm talking about. I don't need to use last names because these are all people you know.
And I guess that's my biggest point. When you talk about development lobbyists, you're not talking about an unnamed class. You're talking about very specific people. What we're talking about is Michele Rogerson Lynch who I would have appointed to this thing if I had an opportunity to, who knows a lot about this code, who I think is extremely fair minded, and who I think has been vilified, at least by extension, in the same way that a lot of those people whose first names I mentioned and last names I did not need to mention have been vilified in the last 48 hours. We don't need to let the kind of Washington rhetoric that has stopped Congress from being able to accomplish anything for the last few years affect us, too. We know these people, they can be friends of ours. When we're talking about people we work with on a day to day basis, I think we need to simmer down our rhetoric and try and all get together to talk about a real problem.
In a stakeholder process you need to include all the stakeholders, not just the ones you like. I'm not a great politician, but I know that to govern a great city you have to listen to everyone. That's the only way we'll get a land development code worthy of the people of Austin – by listening to everyone.
Later, Spelman offered the following addendum:
In a moment I'll move approval [of the item appointing six members to the Land Development Code Advisory Group], but I wanted to let everyone know I will not have an appointment to the land development code advisory group. The person I had intended to appoint is no longer eligible because of the decision we made a couple of weeks ago. That would have been Michele Rogerson Lynch. I'd also like to mention that Michele Rogerson Lynch, had she been appointed today, would have been the only woman on this group. So I'd like to have another couple of weeks to come up with a woman so we can actually have some diversity on this advisory group.
Spelman added in an email that as it currently stands, every appointee so far to our Land Development Code Task Force (which is not yet complete) is a white male.