Attorney general sues to oust eight Austin Planning Commission members


Highlights

Suit filed by Texas AG Ken Paxton states that makeup of Planning Commission violates Austin’s charter.

Scrutiny of commission has increased as the city has proceeded with CodeNext, a comprehensive zoning project.

When Northwest Austin resident Patricia Seeger was asked in 2009 to voluntarily join an Austin land-use commission, she thought the opportunity could help her spread smart, responsible development across the city.

It was a chance to give back to the community she had come to embrace after moving here from the San Francisco Bay Area 14 years ago.

“I just wanted to help,” Seeger told the American-Statesman on Tuesday. “I want to help neighborhoods to be able to protect themselves from outrageous development. I have very strong environmental leanings.

So when Seeger learned Tuesday that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had sued her along with seven other members of Austin’s Planning Commission, the news struck her as “bizarre.”

“Why would they get involved in this?” said Seeger, who retired from being a real estate broker in 2013.

The suit filed by Paxton’s office seeks to have the Planning Commission members tossed from the influential land use board after critics of its makeup told the attorney general’s office it possibly violated the City Charter. The charter states that no more than one-third of the 13-member commission may be “directly or indirectly” connected to the real estate business.

“It’s shameful that the city of Austin ignores the will of voters and its own City Charter, allowing the Planning Commission to be controlled by eight real estate professionals who unlawfully hold seats on the board,” Paxton said Tuesday in a news release. “We’re seeking the court’s removal of all commission members whose appointments violate the two-thirds ‘lay member’ requirement of the City Charter.”

In October, Austin attorney Fred Lewis filed a complaint on behalf of a group of city residents who called for Travis County officials to investigate and possibly invalidate the membership of the Planning Commission. Since 2015, Lewis and Austin attorney Bill Aleshire have complained to the city that the board’s makeup could be illegal.

Lewis also recently sued over the City Council’s decision to turn aside a petition ordinance calling for an election regarding CodeNext, the comprehensive rewrite of Austin’s land-use rules. The first hearing of that suit was held Monday in a Travis County state district court.

“The illegal composition of the Planning Commission undermines the validity of its work over the last three years, whether on individual rezoning of specific properties or CodeNext,” Lewis said in an emailed statement. “Council should have fixed the illegal composition three years ago, when brought to their attention, but has refused.”

The city of Austin will represent the eight volunteers targeted by Paxton’s suit, city officials said Tuesday. The city itself was not named in the lawsuit.

Along with Seeger, Paxton seeks to remove Karen McGraw, Trinity White, Fayez Kazi, James Shieh, James M. Schissler, Greg Anderson and Tom Nuckols from the board.

McGraw, Shieh and White are architects. Kazi and Schissler are building engineers. Anderson is the director of Austin Habitat for Humanity, and Nuckols is a certified real estate attorney.

The Statesman reached out to all eight commission members named in the suit. White and Schissler declined requests for comment, and McGraw, Kazi, Shieh and Nuckols did not respond to phone or email messages. For his part, Anderson said the lawsuit likened him to a for-profit developer, “which simply isn’t the case.”

“We’re a nonprofit who also runs financial counseling, home repair programs and a donation-based retail outlet for low-income clients who qualify for our programs,” Anderson said. “I work for Austin Habitat for the same reason I’m on the Planning Commission, which is that I believe in the power of sustainable, healthy communities.”

The City Council this year has taken up items related to the Planning Commission’s makeup. In May, the council voted to create a questionnaire for potential appointees that attempts to assess their direct or indirect involvement with the real estate business. And last week, the council voted to have a City Charter amendment placed on November’s ballot that would create a removal process for Planning Commission members.

“It’s a shame the attorney general meddles in Austin’s affairs yet again,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “Our council has taken action, including initiating charter changes this fall to resolve differences and to allow replacement of commission members. This is a local issue, on which reasonable people disagree, and it’s being resolved locally.”

Although the Planning Commission’s makeup has been scrutinized since 2015, its composition drew sharper focus as the board took up CodeNext issues. Various critics of CodeNext saw the Planning Commission’s involvement as a chance for real estate developers to exert undue influence over the resulting land-use code and to benefit land speculators.

The commission recently concluded its work on CodeNext after conducting several marathon meetings that resulted in hundreds of amendments to the massive document. The City Council is now reviewing CodeNext, examining recommendations from the Planning Commission and city staff members.

For Seeger, her work on the Planning Commission likely will continue despite Paxton’s suit. She said she does not feel threatened by the unexpected development since she no longer has any professional real estate dealings. Her license, she said, expired in 2015.

“This is just noise to me,” Seeger said. “I’m sure it is going to be fixed. But I am not part of it.”



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