City Ethics, Campaign Finance Reform Delayed

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San Antonio City Hall.

Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

San Antonio City Council is considering changes to its ethics and campaign finance codes.

Major and minor changes to the City of San Antonio’s ethics and campaign finance codes will have to wait a little bit longer after some City Council members pressed for four more possible code changes Wednesday afternoon.

Those include campaign and ethics rules regarding housing boards, contribution disclosures, people and companies involved in zoning cases, and campaign contribution caps.

Most council members agreed that they needed more time to consider previously proposed sweeping changes, including changing the way ethics complaints against elected officials are handled, allowing gifts to elected officials of entertainment valued at $50 or less, changes to campaign finance report deadlines, and board review when council members request ethics waivers.

Before council can vote on such changes, many of which were recommended by the Ethics Review Board and favored by most council members, it will be briefed again by the board on those additional issues. Board Chair Adriana Rocha Garcia said she hopes they can wrap up the now more than two-year-long process of updating the codes by the end of this month.

Click here to download a PDF that outlines each proposed changed recommended by the board.

Council wanted more discussion about these four items by the board before Garcia returns:

  • Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) suggested that because they are in a sense “doing business” with City Council, people that benefit from the decisions of the seven housing boards in San Antonio should disclose such relationship when donating to campaigns.
  • Councilman John Courage (D9) reiterated his request to start requiring campaign contributors to provide their occupation and employer. The Ethics Review Board has already considered this change after Courage submitted a council consideration request this summer, but found that it would have a “chilling” effect on voter contributions, Garcia said, but perhaps it could be implemented for gifts over a certain amount.
  • Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) and Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) raised concerns about the proposed “black out” period for those involved in zoning change requests. During these periods, they cannot contribute to council campaigns before, during, or after they make those decisions. Zoning cases can take months or years to get through the system. Some law firms and other contractor work on various cases year-round, such a rule would bar them from ever making campaign contributions.
  • Councilman Manny Pelaez suggested raising the maximum contribution from an individual to a campaign above $500, a cap that was set by Council in 2004 for district representatives. There is a $1,000 for mayoral candidates.

“I just heard a lot of debate here and it would seem odd to me that we go straight to [a vote] at this point,” Brockhouse said. “There’s going to be a lot of motions and changes and amendments [if we do].”

The extra time will allow them to make changes all at once instead of smaller batches at a time, he added.

In January 2016, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and then-Councilman Nirenberg initiated a review of ethics code waivers requested by council members after then-Mayor Ivy Taylor self-reported that she may have broken the code. As mayor, Taylor had the authority to appoint San Antonio Housing Authority board members while her husband, who rents out properties in the Eastside, accepted income from Section 8 vouchers.

Two days later, on Jan. 28, 2016, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) requested that the city find an independent ethics compliance auditor and restructure the Council-appointed ethics review board. This auditor newly-appointed board must not be beholden to City Council or City staff, Treviño said.

Over the past three-and-a-half years, only 26 ethics complaints were filed. Of those cases, the board heard only three: one was withdrawn by the complainant, and 22 were rejected as outside the board’s jurisdiction, according to City documents. This makes it difficult to justify a full-time, independent compliance auditor, Garcia said.

Trevino “respectfully disagrees,” he said. “It’s not simply about compliance, but rather the ability to have inquiry.”

This auditor could also serve as a resource for council members and City staff alike, he said. “I can tell you I still have a lot of questions. … [It’s’ vitally important to have access to someone who can [approach issues] with an independent lens.”

Changes to the compliance auditor position and how the board is appointed, which would require changes to the City Charter, need to be approved by voters. Treviño suggests the board should be appointed coalition of local public and private institutions rather than City Council members.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that the people who are being governed by the rules are not also the ones creating them and officiating them,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report after the meeting. “That’s a conflict that can’t be resolved by council.”

 

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