From KERA News:
Plano city council members have something in common — since November 2021, their biggest campaign contributions have all come from the PAC for a real estate advocacy group that strongly supports short-term rental owners.
A KERA review of campaign finance reports found that the Texas Realtors Political Action Committee (TREPAC) donated $1,000 to all of the Plano city council members’ campaign funds at the end of 2021 or in early 2022 — and $2,000 to Mayor John Muns.
For all but one council member, it was the only contribution listed on their campaign finance reports during that time. The last reports were submitted in July.
Four of the council members, Rick Grady, Shelby Williams, Julie Holmer and Maria Tu, are up for reelection in May 2023. TREPAC donated to their campaigns at the end of November 2021. Muns, who received $2,000 from TREPAC in December of last year, isn’t up for reelection until 2025.
TREPAC also donated $1,000 to the rest of the council members’ campaign funds. Those members can’t run for reelection because of term limits — city council members in Plano are limited to two consecutive four-year terms. Council Members Rick Smith, Kayci Prince and Anthony Ricciardelli finish their second terms in May 2025. Rick Grady’s ends in 2023.
The donations came at a time when the Plano City Council has been grappling with complaints about short-term rentals and looking at ways to regulate them. Items related to short-term rentals have appeared on Plano City Council agendas at least since 2018.
TREPAC regularly has donated to elected city officials in other North Texas communities. It donated $7,500 each to three Dallas city council members’ campaigns in June 2022, a total of $11,000 to four Arlington representatives’ campaigns in 2019, and a total of $3,000 to three Grapevine council members in 2021 and 2022.
Bill France is the leader of the Plano chapter of the Texas Neighborhood Coalition, a local group that wants to ban short-term rentals in residential areas. He said the donations from TREPAC are a conflict of interest.
“Every single person on city council has received donations from TREPAC. It’s a matter of public record,” France said. “They have to balance the demands of their funders, who’s funding their elections, who have come out and clearly stated ‘do not restrict short-term rentals.’”
Tray Bates is the vice president of government affairs at Texas Realtors. He said his organization wants to support local officials who “understand real estate issues — because we believe real good decisions about real estate is a good decision about the community and that helps everybody.”
Muns said the $2,000 donation he received from TREPAC won’t impact his decision on how the city will handle the status of short-term rentals.
“It would never even matter to me in the first place,” he said. “I am representing the 300,000 people that live in Plano.”
A spokesperson for Plano’s council members said in an email that their decisions will be based on what’s best for Plano.
“During the course of their political campaigns, city council members receive an array of contributions from across the Plano Community,” the spokesperson said. “That said, council members make decisions as a whole based on what is best for Plano.”
Bates said the recommendation for the donations came from the Collin County Association of Realtors, the group’s local chapter. He said that’s how the Realtor association operates, calling it “grassroots driven.”
“While it might have Texas Realtors’ name on the check, it’s really a local decision,” he said.
Marvin Jolly is the former president of the Collin County Association of Realtors. He said the Collin County chapter “makes recommendations to TREPAC for campaign contributions on frequencies that align with the TREPAC budgeting process and regularly contributes to both candidates and officeholders for a variety of local offices.”
He also said the donations weren’t related to short-term rentals.
“There’s no connection between the contributions and any issue that council is looking at, at any period of time,” Jolly said.
A controversial topic
Short-term rentals are a controversial topic in many Texas cities, including Plano. The council recently had planned to vote on an ordinance that would have required owners to register their short-term rentals, but that was tabled. Critics like France say the Plano City Council isn’t doing enough to deal with the problem.
France said short-term rentals threaten security and erode the fabric of a neighborhood.
“As soon as there’s one, then there’s another, and then there’s another,” he said. “And pretty soon, you don’t have your neighbor next door, you have a revolving door of strangers.”
France wrote to the city about a short-term rental on his street in April. He argued that Article 14 of the city’s zoning ordinance — which prohibits hotels, boarding houses, motels and B&Bs in residential areas — should apply to short-term rentals.
But Muns said Plano can’t ban short-term rentals.
“There is legal precedent already that shows you can’t separate a short-term rental from a homeowner,” he said.
Other members of the Plano chapter of the Texas Neighborhood Coalition have spoken at city council meetings, including Christy Davidson. She said she lives next to the short-term rental on Las Palmas Lane where Dallas and Plano police arrested people involved in a sex-trafficking ring in September.
Davidson said she saw “naked women” and “cars lining the street, filled with men.” And that’s not all she and her neighbors have seen at the short-term rental.
“Huge bachelor parties, bachelorette parties,” Davidson said. “A semi-pro hockey team from Oregon, all 23 of them, a group of 20 somethings, all driving really expensive cars, dragging nitrous tanks, accompanied by. Kids coming and going all weekend with the blinds shut. Drug activity? Yeah, probably.”
Davidson was one of the 26 coalition members who spoke at a Plano city council meeting in early October. The city council released its proposed ordinance about a month later ahead of the council’s next meeting. The proposed ordinance would require short-term rental owners to register with the city and conduct self-inspections. It also creates penalties for property owners who don’t comply with the ordinance.
France said the mayor and city council didn’t meet with members of the Texas Neighborhood Coalition while drafting the proposed ordinance after the October meeting. That was the proposed ordinance that was tabled in early November.
The Texas Neighborhood Coalition sent the council a letter the day before that November meeting that claimed the proposed ordinance violates the current zoning ordinance. The coalition also said the new ordinance constitutes a major change to zoning laws, which must be considered by the city’s planning and zoning committee before a full council vote according to Texas Local Government Code.
Bates said property owners have the right to turn their homes into short-term rentals.
“If you own your property, you should be able to be the one that makes the decisions about who lives in it,” Bates said.
The Plano City Council hasn’t made a final decision on the proposed ordinance after postponing the vote scheduled for the November meeting.
Texas Realtors filed arguments on behalf of short-term rental owners in Arlington in 2020 when a lawsuit against the city over its short-term rental regulations made it to an appeals court. The Realtor association argued in its amicus brief that cities can regulate short-term rentals to prevent nuisances but can’t impose regulations that are “unreasonably burdensome.”
Arlington limited short-term rentals to a specific area near the city’s entertainment district. The Realtors association claimed that went too far.
“There is nothing in the record to suggest that an extreme and sweeping measure of this sort is necessary to protect the health, safety, or morals of city residents,” the brief states.
That’s something members of the Texas Neighborhood Coalition disagree with — the local advocacy group was founded in Arlington. It wants to ban short-term rentals in residential areas.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a longtime Collin County resident, also has supported short-term rental owners in past legal fights. He argued in a 2018 amicus brief that an Austin short-term rental ordinance violated the property owners’ constitutional rights.
TREPAC donated $75,000 to Paxton’s 2022 campaign according to Transparency USA, which publishes campaign finance data for 12 states, including Texas.
Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha is a University of North Texas political science professor. He said the balance of power in politics often shifts towards the flow of money.
“Those moneyed interests, they’re going to invest because they know if they get the right people in place, they’re going to get a return on that investment in terms of favorable short term rental policy, or taxes or whatever it might be,” he said.
An American story
Eshbaugh-Soha said running for office costs more than it used to in cities like Plano. Candidates in the past could mostly rely on donations from family and friends, but he said that’s not the case anymore.
And he said that gives grassroots candidates less of a fighting chance than the ones with connections.
“It’s more likely that the candidates who are on the ballot are going to be those who are already connected to moneyed interests like real estate agents or property developers, because that’s really where the money is in local government,” Eshbaugh-Soha said.
Eshbaugh-Soha said that’s the cost of doing politics in the United States.
“This is a pretty typical sort of story that most Americans don’t like, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop the flow of money,” he said.