Tossing out several meeting tweets during Thursday night’s Austin City Council meeting, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan questioned the propriety of an earmark put forth by fellow Council Member Kathie Tovo that would set aside $50,000 for a community development corporation she founded.
Flannigan’s tweets led to a brief dust-up at the conclusion of the council’s meeting, with Tovo calling for civility, Council Member Leslie Pool calling for Flannigan to apologize, and Flannigan declining to do so.
At the heart of the exchange was the council’s approval of an amendment Tovo made to the “Snoopy Planned Unit Development” case, directing a $50,000 fee be sent to the South Central Austin Community Development Corporation.
After a 9-1 vote with only Flannigan opposing the earmark, he tweeted: “Let me get this straight … an elected official created a community group pre-election then later directs funds to it without a transparent process nor defining what they will be doing with the funds. How is this ok?”
When a reporter asked him to elaborate, Flannigan followed up with: “In the Snoopy PUD, a community dev corp that the MPT created back in 2008 (that I haven’t been able to find in SOS/IRS listings) was allocated 50k w/o a transparent process over the objection of NHCD staff”
The Snoopy PUD — nicknamed such because the land was once owned by “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz — is a triangle of land in South Austin at Riverside Drive and Barton Springs Road, where it’s home to a Hooters restaurant. “MPT” refers to Tovo, who is the council’s mayor pro tem. The title means that she leads meetings when Mayor Steve Adler is absent.
“SOS” is the Texas secretary of state’s office, which tracks the creation of corporations. “NHCD” is the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, which is the steward of payments like those made in this zoning case. And the IRS is, well, the IRS.
The Snoopy PUD’s developer is taking advantage of a density bonus program that allows for the construction of an office tower taller than city zoning regulations permit because the developer is willing to pay an additional fee to the city. The developer, Stream Realty Partners, plans to build a 195-foot tall, 270,525-square-foot, mixed-use high-rise.
The developer is paying $1.2 million in fees to go beyond zoning allowances. Neighborhood Housing and Community Development will manage most of that money for the city, but Tovo amended the zoning change to earmark $50,000 of fee for the community development corporation she set up while a leader of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association.
After Flannigan repeatedly questioned why the money would be given to directly to the organization instead of placed in an affordable housing fund accessible to similar organizations, Tovo disclosed that she had founded the organization in 2009.
Beyond Tovo’s involvement, Flannigan said he also opposed the earmark because there was no clear direction as to how the money would be spent. The Neighborhood Housing and Community Development staff also opposed the amendment.
The amendment states that the $50,000 would remain with the city until the community development corporation has a program in place that the city determines is eligible for an affordable housing grant.
Buck Wood, a lawyer and expert on Texas ethics laws, said Tovo’s earmark did not break any laws. However, Wood said he might have advised Tovo to abstain from the vote regarding the earmark, saying her connection to the community development corporation’s creation might paint her actions as being unethical.
“She is not receiving any benefit,” Wood said. “Not only that, but the City Council had to approve it overall. An argument might could have been made that she shouldn’t have voted, but that might not be the case.”
The organization was known as the Bouldin Creek Community Development Corporation when it was created by Tovo nine years ago, and it was set up to accept the money that resulted from the neighborhood association’s negotiations regarding the controversial rezoning of the Barton Springs Road Hyatt. In 2014, the hotel paid the group $43,498 that was to be spent on creating affordable housing in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood. After failing to find a building site, though, the group granted the money to Blackland Community Development Corporation, which is using it to create three affordable homes in East Austin, according to Sara W. Clark, the group’s president.
Tovo said she resigned from the organization’s board when she took her seat on the City Council in 2011. However, documents indicate she was on the board until August 2012.
On Feb. 26, the group changed its name to the South Central Austin Community Development Corporation and expanded its area to include surrounding neighborhoods such as Travis Heights.
After Flannigan took to Twitter, Tovo became aware of his tweeted criticism. And once the council voted on its final item, Tovo asked the council if they wished to take the vote again in light of this “unfortunate” conversation online. She again noted her involvement with the organization receiving the payout, said she would abstain if the council opted to take a vote and called for civility among council members.
“I would ask that we continue to have civil discourse about valid points of disagreement and not resort to attacks on other forums,” Tovo said.
No one showed any interest in revisiting the item, but even as that became apparent, Pool chimed in.
“I find the comments Council Member Flannigan put on social media … an attempt probably to be funny, I suppose, but it was a blind attack on the mayor pro tem (Tovo) and I stand with the mayor pro tem,” she said and then called on Flannigan to apologize.
Flannigan did not oblige her request, reiterating that he preferred the money be allocated like any other cash in the city’s affordable housing fund.
“I lost the vote on that, I expressed my concerns on social media, and that is the end of it,” Flannigan said.
Pool’s comments are notable because she once accidentally sent a tweet from the dais that (accurately) predicted the demise of former Council Member Sheri Gallo as they discussed the controversial Grove at Shoal Creek planned unit development.
“So maybe this is the nail in Gallo’s coffin,” Pool wrote in a tweet that was quickly deleted.