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AG Sues To Remove Majority Of Austin's Planning Commission

AG Sues To Remove Majority Of Austin's Planning Commission
Austin City Hall

Attorney General Ken Paxton has the go-ahead from a Travis County district judge to pursue removal of eight of the 13 members of Austin's Planning Commission due to direct and indirect ties with the real estate industry.

Paxton has joined critics who have said a super-majority (eight members is 61.5%) of members tied to the real estate industry constitutes a violation of a charter amendment passed in 1994 that limited the participation of real estate professionals to only one-third of the board.

City leaders have backed an interpretation of the amendment that allows professions such as architects to participate on the board. On Tuesday, a city spokesman said Austin will continue to defend the commissioners, who all serve on the commission in a volunteer capacity.

"The City has received the action filed by the Attorney General's office aimed at removing a number of our Planning Commissioners, and will review the case," the statement said. "The City will provide legal representation to these volunteers who dedicate a significant amount of their time serving the City."

Attorney Fred Lewis, who is leading opposition to the rewrite of the city's land use development code known as CodeNEXT, has pursued removal of real estate-related members since 2015. Lewis said his primary concern is that the city follow the wishes of the voters, expressed in 1994.

“My reasons [for pursuing this] do not matter,” said Lewis, who specializes in ethics law. “The question was whether they were right. We need to argue about the merits [of the case].”

Most commissioners declined to comment on the case. Greg Anderson, one of the commissioners in question, did release a statement to the Austin Monitor when asked for a response to the quo warranto motion:

"The State is positioning my current role at Austin Habitat for Humanity as a reason to remove me from the Planning Commission. It’s being likened to me working for a for-profit developer, which simply isn’t the case. Austin Habitat is much, much more than a developer. We’re a non-profit who also runs financial counseling, home repair programs and a donation-based retail outlet for low-income clients who income qualify for our programs."

Members challenged by Paxton's office include architects Karen McGraw, James Shieh and Trinity White; engineers Fayez Kazi and Jim Schissler; Tom Nuckols, an assistant county attorney who specializes in real estate matters; and Greg Anderson, director of community affairs for Habitat for Humanity, which builds low-income housing among other things.

The Austin Monitor also noted that Patricia Seeger was named by Paxton's office in its action as a real estate broker, but Seeger gave up her license in 2015. Seeger confirmed to the Monitor she has been retired for five years.

The total number of real estate professionals was nine, but former chair Stephen Oliver, a local architect, recently departed the board.

Lewis said the city can either name new commissioners or fight the case in Travis County district court. The city could choose to remove a number — but not all — of the challenged commissioners and still be in compliance with the city's charter.