Council to Consider Changes to Ethics Review Board, Campaign Finance Rules

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Ethics Review Board Member Chair Adriana Garcia leads an Ethics Review Board meeting on July 11 in City Hall.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Ethics Review Board Chair Adriana Garcia leads a meeting in July 2017.

City Council next week will vote on significant changes related to local campaign finance rules and the board charged with overseeing ethical conduct within the City of San Antonio.

Such changes include adding “entertainment” to the current list of prohibited gifts to elected officials; giving the Ethics Review Board more control over complaint reports; prohibiting attorneys, property owners, and lobbyists from contributing to campaigns while they are involved in a zoning case; notifying someone accused of an ethics violation when a complaint is filed; requiring Council members and candidates to file more campaign finance reports; and others. Click here to read a full list.

The Ethics Review Board has been working for more than two years on some of the proposed changes, its Chair Adriana Garcia told City Council on Wednesday. Some or all of the changes – many of which are more “housekeeping” than substantive – could be up for a vote as soon as next Thursday, June 21.

Meanwhile, a separate task force established by Mayor Ron Nirenberg in March is reviewing further changes that could require campaign contributors to disclose their job title and employer as well as increase the amount supporters could donate to campaigns – changes initially suggested by Councilman John Courage (D9). The Council’s five-member Governance Committee will hear a presentation on the task force’s recommendations on Wednesday, June 20.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) suggested that the changes recommended by the Ethics Review Board be held from a vote until the full Council could be briefed on the task force’s own recommendations.

“Why can’t we have both of these [related] portions come together at a [briefing] session?” Perry asked.

Because the task force is taking on subjects the Ethics Review Board is not, City Auditor Kevin Barthold responded, so they are taking different paths to City Council.

The changes related to the Ethic Review Board should have been implemented years ago, Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said. “I hate using platitudes … but isn’t perfect the enemy of good?”

Sandoval said Council should move forward with the common-sense changes and further discuss others at a later time if needed. “There’s no need to stop progress,” she said.

“We’re not trying to be perfect,” Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) responded later in support of Perry’s question about timing. “If it takes time, that’s okay … [we want to be] as close to right as possible.”

Campaign finance reform should not be rushed, Brockhouse added.

Perry, Brockhouse, and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) spoke against increasing the number of campaign finance reports candidates would have to file. The Ethics Review Board recommends increasing the number of times candidates report expenses and contributions per year from seven (semi-annually as well as 30, eight, and three days before an election) to nine (quarterly reports as well as 30 and eight days before an election).

“Who is this making it easy on?” Perry asked Barthold.

“The general public,” he replied, and City staff. As Barthold elaborated, Perry cut him off.

“I’m sorry, why do I want to take on something more difficult for your convenience?” Perry asked.

A donor could violate campaign contribution rules in less than six months – for instance, if he/she contributes to the campaign of one or more Council members, and then is awarded a high-profile contract by City Council, Barthold said. Increasing the frequency of reports allows City staff more opportunity to catch infractions before contracts are awarded.

“Catching it in the process ahead of time makes it easier for everyone concerned,” Barthold said, adding that currently, contributors would be caught “after the fact.”

The three Council members took the general stance of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Filing these reports is not easy, Perry said, noting that the state statute only requires six reports. “It’s very complicated,” he said.

Gonzales said the two additional reports could come at a monetary and “opportunity” cost. “It’s not the only reporting that I have to do in my life,” she said.

Nirenberg has advocated for a more autonomous Ethics Review Board since former Mayor Ivy Taylor received an ethics waiver for her own possible infraction in early 2016.

“The City Council should not be deliberating on these issues,” he said, but “it’s high time for us to move these things forward … other recommendations will come in due course.”

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