City Council Expands Campaign Disclosure Rules, Keeps Contribution Limits

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Mayor Ron Nirenberg (Center) calms down the audience and asks for the cooperation of the audience at citizens to be heard at Council Chambers regarding the removal of the Confederate monument in Travis Park.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg

After several uncharacteristic fits and starts Thursday, San Antonio City Council approved a measure that will require anyone contributing $100 or more to a Council member or mayoral campaign to disclose where they work and their title. Other measures require more frequent campaign finance reports, and more campaign contribution restrictions.

The Council also approved substantial changes to its ethics code regarding ethics complaints and waivers as well as minor housekeeping and clarification issues.

But Council rejected an ordinance that would have increased the campaign contribution limit per person by 50 percent for Council members ($500 to $750) and the mayor ($1,000 to $1,500). That ordinance received a 5-5 tie vote with Councilmen Cruz Shaw (D2) absent. Shaw walked in from an afternoon break moments after the vote and told the Rivard Report later that he would have voted in favor of the increase, which was recommended by a citizen task force.

These decisions came after hours of discussion about the burdens and perceptions surrounding employer disclosure and reporting, free speech, and how this package of recommendations even came to be – some developed over two years by a permanent citizen-led Ethics Review Board, others by a task force formed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg three months ago. Some members of Council tried to stall or amend those efforts.

“This underscores the need for an independent Ethics Review Board and independent code,” Nirenberg said. “The body politic should not be charged with writing and interpreting the rules by which they are governed. It’s absurd.”

Councilman John Courage (D9), who submitted the original request for Council to consider employment disclosure for campaign contributors, made a successful motion to nix language that would have prevented board members of nonprofits to donate to campaigns if that nonprofit was engaged in bidding for any contract worth more than $1 million.

Shaw argued that since nonprofits and public entities could bid against one another, the rules should be the same for each. Council voted 4-6 in favor of Courage’s motion. Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) abstained.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) attempted to add an amendment that would have allowed individuals involved in multifamily development projects seeking tax incentives to continue to contribute to campaigns without having to disclose their involvement in such projects. That motion failed.

“In the interest of building public trust around the votes that are taken on this dais, I do not believe that asking for that level of disclosure creates strife,” Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said.

Councilmen Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Perry tried to postpone the discussion for after Council’s month-long break in July, citing what they perceived as “confusion” on the dais over what the ordinances will actually do.

Ultimately, the Council voted against postponement.

The new disclosure and reporting rules will go into effect starting on July 1, the beginning of the next campaign cycle. Council members will have to file nine campaign finance reports instead of seven over two years as well as make sure contributors that give $100 or more fill out the field for “employer” and “title.” If self-employed, they will be required to state which industry they work in.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who voted in favor of increasing campaign contribution limits, said increasing the reporting frequency and complexity of disclosure could cause an undue burden on Council members to make sure their paperwork is in order.

Gonzales and Perry voted against increasing campaign finance reporting periods.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who was absent from the reporting vote, struck back saying residents will likely have “no pity” for Council members that say “it’s too hard” or too inconvenient to provide more information.

Nirenberg said the point is not to fix but to enhance the system with citizen-led policies to become the “gold standard” with regard to campaign rules and governing.

“[City] Council needs to be cut out [of this discussion] completely,” he said.

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