Anti-CodeNext PACs spend thousands to force vote

Campaign finance reports filed in Austin this week show that groups trying to put CodeNext on the ballot are raising and spending tens of thousands of dollars.

Two special political action committees that are by and large against the city’s current revamping of the entire land use code, calling the effort “CodeWreck,” have spent roughly $50,000 on a push to let voters, not the City Council, decide the fate of CodeNext.

While the figure might seem a paltry sum compared with Mayor Steve Adler’s haul of $283,164 in just the first two months of fundraising for his re-election campaign, the two political action committees have done the most spending so far in this election cycle.

CodeNext is the city’s attempt to implement the recommendations of the 2012 Imagine Austin comprehensive plan by revising what type of development can go where. The effort aims to address many of Austin’s problems, including a lack of low-income housing, gentrification and traffic congestion, by rewriting the land use code and zoning map. Some critics have said the plan could disrupt established neighborhoods by allowing higher density complexes nearby.

Special political action committees IndyAustin and Let Us Vote Austin have been canvassing the city in earnest since the fall seeking the signatures of at least 20,000 registered voters to place CodeNext on the ballot.

IndyAustin spent far more than Let Us Vote Austin with expenditures at $39,767. The PAC is the brainchild of Bastrop resident Linda Curtis, who has been involved in several petition efforts in Austin in the past 15 years.

Curtis’ PAC is also promoting a petition that would make the city more friendly to billboard companies. One billboard company in particular has been a financial backer of IndyAustin.

Reagan Advertising first helped Curtis get the PAC off the ground by giving her about $5,000 for political work that includes the CodeNext petition. Reagan contributed $5,000 directly to IndyAustin and another $5,000 through a lobbyist group, according to documents Curtis provided to the American-Statesman.

In total, Curtis said Reagan has given roughly $20,000 to support her efforts.

“We are very grateful to Billy Reagan for his help to IndyAustin and all our petition drives,” she said referring to the company’s president.

The lobbyist firm Texas Solutions Group was down for $17,000 in donations to IndyAustin, far more than any other donor. Curtis said one of the firm’s partners, Jeff Heckler, has been a supporter of the sign petition independently and as a client of Reagan Advertising. The firm also loaned the campaign $5,000.

A phone message to the Texas Solutions Group’s office was not returned.

The CodeNext petition calls for CodeNext and any future overarching rewrite of the land use code to be put to a vote. It could mean that Austinites might have ballot measures related to CodeNext in two elections; first a yes or no proposition on whether to actually have a vote on CodeNext, and then the second vote to approve or scuttle the $8.5 million program.

Curtis said the two PACs have decided that they will pursue the first referendum for November’s general election instead of a single-issue ballot in May.

“This is such a hugely impactful issue, but we just couldn’t get there to justify the city spending $800,000 on an election (for just one issue),” Curtis said.

The PAC also racked up about $12,972 in in-kind donations in the form of work Curtis performed unpaid, about $6,500 in website work from a company owned by an ally of Reagan Advertising and $800 for a parking spot at a Planet K for the PAC’s trailer.

The majority of the money went to 25 individuals, who included residents of Round Rock, Manor and San Jose, Calif., who are paid petitioners to gather signatures. Curtis said the effort has been “great.”

“The weather has been a little rough and some have gotten the flu,” Curtis said. “But people are always willing to sign a petition. We are letting them to know they can get a chance to weigh in.”

Fred Lewis, a local attorney behind Let Us Vote Austin, said his PAC has relied more on volunteers. His PAC has had the support of Community Not Commodity, an anti-CodeNext advocacy group that is a part of the nonprofit Save Our City Austin.

The group has helped organize events where petitions have been handed out among tacos and Roppolo’s pizza.

Lewis said the actions of the two groups have remained separate as far as the ledgers go. The anti-CodeNext yard signs that have cropped up in Austin were paid for by Community Not Commodity, a group Lewis heads, but they make no mention of the petition effort.

“We have not spent that much money,” Lewis said.

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