City officials question oversight of Visit Austin

In wake of documents’ release, officials say they have concerns about a bonus given to the agency’s chief, among other issues.

Some Austin City Council members say they have concerns about the oversight of Austin’s convention and visitors bureau after documents detailing some of the agency’s operations were made public last week.

Their questions come as Visit Austin — the new name for the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau — is campaigning for an expansion of the Austin Convention Center, which could cost more than $600 million.

Last week, Visit Austin released a number of documents after Bill Bunch, a local civic activist, filed an open records lawsuit accusing Visit Austin of illegally withholding public information.

Visit Austin, a nonprofit, was created by the City Council in 1996. Most of its current $17.5 million budget comes from the city of Austin’s hotel tax revenue, the lawsuit states, and as such the agency functions as a “governmental body” that therefore is subject to the Texas Public Information Act.

Among the documents released was Visit Austin’s contract with its president and CEO, Tom Noonan. The contract – which was also released to the American-Statesman — offered Noonan a $10,000 bonus if he met certain goals, including developing a plan to meet with City Council members to highlight the value of tourism and the need for an expanded convention center.

Visit Austin officials have been pushing for an expansion of the downtown convention center for years, contending Austin is losing millions of dollars a year due to turning away conventions that need more space than the existing facility offers.

While the addendum doesn’t use the word “lobby,” it directs Noonan to, among other things, “prepare a specific ‘value strategy’ paper as it applies to ‘selling’ council members and other key influencers on enlarging the convention center.”

Such duties amount to “target-lobbying each member of the Austin City Council to vote in favor of expanding the convention center,” although city records show Noonan never registered as a lobbyist, said Bill Aleshire, an Austin attorney who specializes in open government litigation and is representing Bunch.

Austin attorney Fred Lewis said that, based on his expertise in ethics and lobby regulations, “I don’t think public taxes should be used to influence elections or lobby the government, and that’s the bottom line. It’s too incestuous for me.”

“Everybody’s entitled to lobby, but they’re not entitled to lobby using public funds,” Lewis said.

In a written statement, Noonan said he didn’t think it was necessary to register as a lobbyist last year. He said he and his attorney will review new lobbying rules that took effect Thursday to determine if he needs to register.

“My interactions with City Council members over the past year were focused on getting to know them and their staff members since I was new to this position as of May of 2016,” Noonan said. “In addition, I was asked by my board to share information about the importance of tourism to the Austin economy and learn more about what’s important to Austinites in each council district. As such, I did not register as a lobbyist. With the new rules going into effect today, I am seeking counsel to determine if I should register. If the decision is yes, I am happy to do so.”

Regarding his employment contract, Noonan said he performed most, though not all, of the duties spelled out in the addendum. He said he didn’t develop a plan to meet with council members to press for the proposed expansion, in part because the City Council ended up appointing a task force in October to explore that and other issues. Noonan said he has had only two meetings with council members, both on other topics, since that time.

“So if I’m lobbying the council, I’m not doing a very good job,” Noonan said.

Although he didn’t develop the plan that involved getting City Council members on board with the proposed expansion, Noonan received the $10,000 bonus, which, along with other incentive pay, brought his 2016 salary to $334,616.

In a written statement, Gene McMenamin, Visit Austin’s chairman, said Noonan’s bonus was approved by a quorum of the board’s executive committee.

“The board … asked Tom Noonan last year to get to know Austin City Council members and other community leaders since he was new to Austin,” McMenamin said. “As part of that process, we wanted him to have conversations with council members about what was important to their constituents. We hoped to be able to use this input as we look ahead to a possible expansion of the Austin Convention Center and other related programs that could have a significant impact on tourism in Austin and also for Austin residents. Tom achieved these goals, and others, and received the bonus that was included in his compensation package.”

Council Member Leslie Pool said she wonders if more oversight is needed of Visit Austin and its operations. Pool questioned why Noonan should get a bonus for duties that would be normal procedure for other department heads who report to the City Council.

“That would be like the general manager of Austin Energy getting a bonus for talking to us about a rate case,” Pool said. “That’s your job. I don’t understand the structure of the (Visit Austin) bonuses and the pay, but I don’t think anybody does. I would like to understand all of that.”

Pool said the language in the addendum regarding the interaction with council members uses “every other word but lobby,” noting that its directive “is essentially to get the council members to yes on the expansion.”

She also said Noonan should have registered as a lobbyist.

“Some folks register out of an abundance of caution,” Pool said. “And the executive director of the visitors’ bureau who is compensated richly should be very familiar with all the rules and regulations that govern the city.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said providing Noonan the opportunity to receive a bonus for lobbying council members was “a very curious situation,” and said it was “surprising that he would receive additional compensation for communicating with the City Council because they’re doing the work on behalf of the city of Austin.”

Council Member Ellen Troxclair said that although the council lobbying provision probably shouldn’t have been in his contract, she said it doesn’t require Noonan to act any differently than any other city department director or staff member. “I feel like he’s just doing the job he was hired to do,” she said.

Troxclair said she also didn’t want the lobbying issue to distract from “the important conversation” of whether a convention center expansion is warranted.

Pool, however, said questions about Visit Austin’s operations “undercut (Noonan’s) efforts and the visitors’ bureau’s efforts to convince me to vote for an expansion of the convention center, which was already on shaky ground to me.”

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