It’s been one month since City Council voted 8-2 to waive Mayor Ivy Taylor’s ethics code violations. The accidental oversight, Taylor said, was almost completely unavoidable and the process of remedying the issue was “complicated and confusing.”
The City’s Ethics Review Board (ERB) will soon be looking into changing the way ethics code violations and waivers work. The Council’s Governance Committee unanimously approved a motion on Wednesday that calls for the ERB to analyze two different policy proposals from Council members Roberto Treviño (D1) and Ron Nirenberg (D8).
Nirenberg said the proposal he and Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) co-wrote would strengthen the ethics code by preventing Council members from voting on waivers for violations – just like Taylor’s.
Instead, that responsibility would be given to the ERB. Taylor was able to take the waiver to a Council vote without consulting the ERB.
“The ethics process is the domain of the ERB. If we can’t instill confidence in them, we essentially usurp the authority of the ERB,” said Nirenberg, a member of the Governance Committee.
Saldaña and Nirenberg were the only two who voted against Taylor’s waiver.
“It does not send the right message for us to have an ethics code that we retroactively say doesn’t apply in certain situations,” he said after the vote in January.
Treviño’s proposal pushes for greater independence for the City’s appointed ethics compliance auditor and for the review board. He said he felt compelled to offer a formal memo, seeking a broad assessment of the City’s entire ethics system.
“There is no aspect of city government more important than ethics,” Treviño said Wednesday. “By making our ethics system as independent of elected officials and City staff as possible, the groundwork will be laid for our citizens to have confidence in the actions of our elected officials and City staff.”
The Board will return to the Committee with recommendations in the near future, but ultimately such changes can only come about by a charter election. November 2017 would be the next time the City would get to hold a charter amendment election. Mayor Taylor has said she plans to convene the Citizen’s Charter Review Commission this March, and will ask that panel to keep in mind any proposed ethics code revisions on the horizon.
Taylor and her husband, Rodney, received income from Section 8 housing vouchers for properties they manage during the time she served as interim mayor and then a few months after she won the election. Because the mayor has the authority to appoint board members to the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), which administers the voucher program, Taylor was in violation of the City’s ethics code for about 15 months until the Taylors Section 8 contracts were transferred to the Housing Authority of Bexar County.
SAHA officials encouraged her to launch a waiver process, Taylor said, but even as the City’s top elected leader, seeking a waiver to an ethics code violation is a process that remains confusing, and lacking clarity or a single point of reference.
Taylor also said on Wednesday she realizes that calls for an independent review of the ethics code deserve “merit and robust conversations.
“It’s always very important for us to be mindful of our citizens so they can have full faith and confidence in our government,” said Taylor, who also chairs the Governance Committee. “I understand that a waiver was technically unnecessary, but I considered it as me self-reporting.”
Voters got to amend the City charter in May 2004, establishing an independent ethics review board with jurisdiction over the ethics code and the City’s campaign finance regulations. Acting City Attorney Martha Sepeda told the Governance Committee that 98 complaints have been filed with the review board since its inception and that half of those complaints have been dismissed because the Board considered them frivolous, baseless or unable to articulate any specific code infraction.
Ethics code waiver requests are very rare, especially in a system that is driven by citizens who have the ability to complain about ethics violations.
“You don’t legislate for exceptions, you legislate for more common things,” Sepeda said.
In the fall of 2014, the Council considered an ordinance waiving a code provision that prevents a former City officer from having a financial stake in a City contract within a year of leaving office. The waiver involved a 15-month lease extension for a temporary senior center owned by former Councilman Carlton Soules (D10). Sepeda has said because the Council created the ethics code, it has a fundamental prerogative to waive it.
The Ethics Review Board voted on Feb. 2 to endorse Council members Saldaña and Nirenberg’s push to strip Council members’ ability to absolve themselves of violations. Nirenberg also sits on the Governance Committee.
Board Chairman Sam Millsap, a former Bexar County district attorney, told the Governance Committee that it is time for “the next step” in the evolution of the City’s ethics code.
“Your support of (Trevino’s memo) will provide the people of San Antonio with assurance that its elected representatives are committed to an ethics process operating independently and that is not affected by perceived influence or control by the Council or City staff,” he said.
Committee member and Councilwoman Rebeccca Viagran (D3) said the examination of the ethics code process represents the City taking a good-faith step, but added there needs to be a more wholesome, holistic study of how the City can bolster the code, especially if voters end up being asked to consider charter amendments.
“We have to make sure we understand what we’re asking people to do,” she added.
Committee member and Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) said he supports, generally, the idea of reviewing the ethics code for problematic areas. But he cautioned all parties involved against “going overboard” with a higher level of proposed code revisions than what the council or the review board presently envision. He also voiced concern about offering any code changes that could somehow hinder the work of future Councils and staff members.
The City should take great care in reviewing the ethics code, said Councilman Saldaña, presenting his case before the Governance Committee. “What we’re doing today is trying to ensure we have the public trust and, in doing that, strengthen ethics.”
Committee member and Councilman Joe Krier (D9) supports a code review, saying he favors research into best practices.
“I’ve always been a fan of asking ‘Who does this?’ and ‘How do they do it,'” Krier said. But he agreed with Gallagher’s assertion that there is no need for sweeping ethics code changes.
“I don’t see anything or anyone suggesting widespread corruption here,” he added.
*Top image: Councilman Roberto C. Treviño (D1) submitted a Council Consideration Request (CCR) that will soon be considered by the Ethics Review Board. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone