Amid a drawn-out review of Austin policies prohibiting wheeling and dealing on contracts while they’re out to bid, the city might get a test of what issuing a major contract without lobbying restrictions looks like.
City waste contracts and the lobbying restrictions that accompany them have been on pause since April, when political disputes over how they are handled halted the issuing of new contracts and spurred a stakeholder process to change rules. That process might take at least another six months, city staffers told City Council members Tuesday.
In the meantime, the city needs a new biosolids contract to handle the piles of compost from human waste that have been piling up at the Hornsby Bend wastewater treatment plant. Council members agreed to allow that contract to proceed — free of any lobbying restrictions.
That’s a concern to Council Member Alison Alter, who, along with her colleagues Jimmy Flannigan, Greg Casar and Ora Houston, will sponsor an item Thursday to put in place limited, temporary anti-lobbying measures. Their proposal would keep companies from pushing council members on the biosolids contract specifically, while allowing them to still weigh in on the lobbying measures overall.
“We need to be careful about the message that we send about how we make our choices about contracts,” Alter said. “Not having an anti-lobbying ordinance in place for this contract suggests things that I’m very uncomfortable with.”
Staff members recommended Alter’s item on the basis that it’s as close to what previous policies have been, but not as strict.
But at a workshop Tuesday, the measure didn’t seem to find much support from other council members, several of whom said they weren’t concerned about being lobbied ahead of having to make a contract determination.
“Worst case scenario, someone calls up a council member and tries to convince them to give them the contract,” Council Member Delia Garza said.
She and others lodged concerns that business owners and environmental groups that have agreed to trust the review process might consider even temporary measures to be jumping the gun, before decisions have been formally made.
The largest critic of city lobbying processes has been Creedmoor-based waste company Texas Disposal Systems. It largely prompted the review of the lobbying restrictions by, in recent years, refusing to operate within them. The company would decline to submit proposals for jobs and instead lobby to be hired outside of that process, clashing with the city’s staff and making enemies of competing companies.
Monday, Texas Disposal Systems President Bob Gregory sent an extensive email to more than 55 council and staff members, urging them to reject Alter’s stopgap proposal and threatening to refuse to participate if it moves forward.
“TDS would be forced to make any proposal to provide biosolids composting services to the city outside of the staff’s procurement process,” Gregory wrote.
He said anti-lobbying restrictions were an assault on his freedom of speech and accused staff members of rigging the biosolids contract solicitation with scoring matrices unfair to regional businesses that sit just outside of city limits.
Alter accused her colleagues of allowing Texas Disposal Systems to bully them into setting policy.
“We have unleashed a process where we are allowing one company to rewrite the (anti-lobbying ordinance) for one industry, when this affects 40,000 companies,” she said. “I want to be very clear: The risk (of my proposal) is that one company decides not to bid, and that is what they will say, and they will come bully the council. … It may be time that we call their bluff.”