More than half the contributions for the PAC challenging convention center expansion have ties to Save our Springs Alliance

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — New campaign finance reports detail the donors to the PAC in Austin that is challenging the prospect of convention center expansion. Donations from Save our Springs (SOS) Alliance combined with the personal contributions from SOS executive director Bill Bunch total to $74,166, which makes up more than half of the total political contributions this PAC is reporting.

The Unconventional Austin political action committee began filing documents with the city just two days before the unanimous city council vote to begin the process of expanding Austin’s convention center. This PAC has since launched a petition effort to put the question up to voters in November as to whether their approval should be required for any convention center expansion. On Friday, Unconventional submitted 30,000 signatures which, if verified by the city, would put convention center expansion on the upcoming ballot.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Jimmy Flannigan have been vocal about their concern over and distrust for Unconventional.

Back when Unconventional launched, Adler took to Twitter, questioning the petition effort from this PAC. “Whose are the faces behind the challenging petition?” the mayor asked.

As campaign finance reports were due to the city Monday, all the donors’ names behind the petition are now public.

Campaign dollars

Unconventional received a total of $126,041.86 in political contributions. Their political expenditures totaled to $131,386.68. The bulk of that money was spent on labor for petition efforts, totaling to $128,094.

A recurring theme among many of the donors is that they have ties to Save our Springs Alliance, an Austin-based environmental organization. Save our Springs (SOS) Alliance contributed $51,343 (though SOS tells KXAN that amount came from four specific SOS donors, not from the SOS general fund). SOS explained that only a very small part of the money they receive from general donors would go toward the petition drive.

Bill Bunch (an attorney, Austin Tourism Commissioner, and SOS Executive Director) donated $12,720.86 of his own personal dollars to this PAC. He also loaned the PAC an additional $10,000.

Bunch said he donated because he believes convention center expansion will tie up a large amount of money over the next thirty years.

“That’s funding that’s being generated by our beautiful parks and waterways including Barton Springs, our arts, culture and our local live music,” Bunch said.

Many of the donors listed in the campaign finance report also have donated to SOS in the past or have ties to SOS. The largest single contribution given at one time was $30,000 from SOS.

Five of the donors live at the same address, 98 San Jacinto Boulevard — the address of the Four Seasons Austin Hotel near where Trinity Street meets East Cesar Chavez Street. Four Seasons does offer private residences at this location.

Unconventional Austin has criticized the convention center expansion, saying that — among other things — doing so would be in the interest of the hotel lobby and downtown hotels. But Bill Bunch said these donors at the Four Seasons address are, “homeowners who live in the downtown neighborhood, that’s a residence not a hotel.”

“They see the convention center differently from the hotels and they see it as a big dead zone they would rather not see grow larger,” Bunch said.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler has looked at Unconventional’s finance report as well, he noted in a response to KXAN that on the day that council voted to begin exploring convention center expansion, many people spoke, and Bunch was the only one at the meeting who voiced opposition.

“The conversation about expanding the Convention Center and unleashing funds to fight homelessness and support the arts has been thorough, transparent and inclusive,” Adler said in a statement. “A single person spoke against the resolution at a Council meeting and now we learn that he is one of a very few people bankrolling this shady petition drive, which left many signers feeling misled. We can only guess at their motivations, but it appears clear that this very small but familiar group of people feels entitled to an outsized role in decision-making that affects the entire city. “

The largest contributions

The biggest personal donations outside of Bunch came from Jenny Clark and Mary Willis, who each gave $10,000. Clark is retired and has been a sponsor in the past of SOS, Willis is listed as a writer.

Robert Kleinman, who is listed as an attorney, pledged to contribute $10,000. Unconventional explained to KXAN that Kleinman owns the Planet K franchise and that he also contributed to their PAC with a donation of $5,000 from the Foundation for Constitutional Protection Inc., which is a political entity he operates. Planet K has donated to Save our Springs in the past.

Brian Rodgers, an Austin Tourism Commissioner and realtor, donated $6,000.

Kenneth Smith, Fred Lewis, and Millicent Lundburg each donated $5,000. Lundburg is an attorney, and Smith is listed as retired. Lundburg also lent the PAC $5,000 and donated $600 in food and beverages. Fred Lewis is an attorney who helped lead the charge against CodeNext, the city’s attempt to overhaul the land development code. Lewis also helped write the petition for what would become Proposition J, which sought to bring the overhaul of the land development code to a public vote. Prop J failed in November 2018. Lewis also lent the PAC $10,000.

Steven “Cash” Nickerson, president and principal of PDS Tech, Inc., donated $3,000. John Markham Green donated $ 2,500, he is listed in the finance report as retired and is listed by Bloomberg as the Interim Chief Executive of PowerOne Media Inc. Tracy DiLeo, a partner at Killam Company who has also donated to SOS, contributed $2,000. Mary Yancy Garwood, a psychologist, donated $1,000. Ray Goodrich, who is listed as retired and has also donated to SOS, gave $1,000. Ruth and James Pennebaker contributed $1,000. Ruth Pennebaker is a writer and James Pennebaker is Professor at UT Austin in the Department of Psychology.

Unconventional received around 20 donations of less than $1,000. Those included a $350 donation from attorney Bobby Levinski who ran for the District 8 Council seat in 2018. Betsy Greenberg who gave $50 is a former Austin Zoning and Platting Commission member. David King, a current Zoning and Platting Commission member, donated $100.

As for what Unconventional spent money on, $125,400 went to Texas Petition Strategies, a company based out of Buda, for salaries, wages and contract labor. The people Unconventional paid included Lucas Burdick who was paid a total of $2,500. Burdick was also listed as being paid by the Indy Austin PAC in 2018 for work that included petition efforts. Last year, IndyAustin helped with petition efforts for both Proposition J and for the petition aimed at challenging the deal to bring an MLS stadium to Austin.

What happens next for Unconventional?

“We want to see the clerk certify the petition as valid and have the council put it on the ballot,” Bunch said. “We want Austin voters to approve the initiative in November.”

Unconventional wants November voters to decide whether their approval should be required for any convention center expansion. The petition also lays out new requirements for how the city uses its “Hotel Occupancy Tax.”

“We think we need a more balanced approach in how we grow tourism and we want to develop it toward live music and small business,” said Austin Tourism Commissioner John Riedie who is part of the Unconventional effort.

Riedie differs from convention center expansion proponents in how he believes the state tax code can be interpreted when it comes to what Austin can do with HOT dollars.

“We want to see a more balanced approach and we want to advocate for what other cities are already doing,” he said.

But Jim Wick, who is creating a new PAC to oppose Unconventional disagrees with the way Riedie believes HOT dollars can be used.

“I’m not an attorney but I haven’t seen a legal opinion from any attorney who works with these issues who supports their opinion,” Wick said.

Wick is a political consultant and Mayor Steve Adler’s former campaign manager. He said that the financial reports from the PAC he’s creating won’t be available until around late September.

In Wick’s view the sources of Unconventional’s funding “don’t make sense”

“Since it’s the convention center expansion, I’m puzzled as to what it has to do with Barton Springs,” he said.  He added that when you divide the total amount of money Unconventional spent on petitioning by the 30,000 signatures they reported turning into the city, it comes out to about $4 per signature.

“That’s pretty expensive,” he said. 

“I’m having a lot of phone calls, a lot of meetings and we’re going to communicate why this expansion is such a good thing, in terms of preservation of the Palm School and money for homeless services,” Wick said. “The plan the council approved unanimously has been thoroughly vetted, the community benefits are real”

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