Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Mayor Ron Nirenberg has requested that the City of San Antonio take a serious look at how it works with outside agencies and nonprofits, according to a memo he sent to City Council members Wednesday.
The request comes less than 24 hours after reports that a Centro San Antonio employee embezzled $175,000 from the nonprofit that works with the City on downtown initiatives. Centro President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni was not involved in the scandal, officials said, but he resigned.
"Recent events have shaken the foundation of public trust that we have worked hard to build," wrote Nirenberg, who will deliver a public address about his request and city ethics in general via Facebook Live Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
The Tricentennial Commission, the local government corporation tasked with planning the city's 300th anniversary, is also in transition after its CEO stepped down earlier this month amid concerns about fundraising and operations.
In 2017, the City will contract with "approximately 275 local, non-profit organizations," according to the memo, and has budgeted more than $115 million for these entities to provide services to residents that the City does not – or at least not to the extent needed.
Social service agencies such as YMCA, Family Violence Prevention Services, and Project Quest as well as local government organizations like the Tricentennial Commission and Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation (HPARC), are examples of such organizations.
"This is not to say that we need every delegate agency or arts organization to have direct contract authority and oversight [from the City]," Nirenberg told the Rivard Report. "But in the very least the City should have more oversight of the organizations that it creates."
The City formed both Centro and the Tricentennial Commission.
The City auditor and Attorney's Office will review the processes for entering and maintaining such contracts and present recommendations to the Council's five-member Governance Committee for consideration. Nirenberg is the chair of that committee. If changes are agreed upon, some may require approval by the full City Council.
The City already gets a say in a governmental organization's bylaws and procedures, but "my first glance at this is we need policies in place that mandate certain standards when an organization is formed [by the City]," the mayor said.
For instance, should such organizations have to follow the same contract procurement process the City requires?
"Generally speaking, yes, that would be my position," Nirenberg said. "We understand their separation from the City. However, we need to have a dialogue and solutions to ensure that organizations created by the City have the highest oversight and accountability built in."
Below is the list of actions Nirenberg, in his words, has requested City staff to take:
- "To review the standard contract provisions in City agency funding agreements to ensure that these contracts include all reasonable and adequate protections of the public dollars.
- "To prepare additional contract requirements for non-profits to ensure that significant contracts and real estate transactions involving public dollars are pursued in an ethical manner and in accordance with policies that promote transparency and integrity of the contracting process. Ethical behavior is more than following rules; it requires understanding as to how actions will protect the public's interest and how they will be perceived.
- "To prepare recommendations that will ensure that decisions made by City-formed non-profit or quasi-governmental organizations are subject to the review and jurisdiction of the Ethics Review Board. The governance structure and bylaws of any organization created by the City – or supported by direct public benefit – should uphold the highest standards of transparency, oversight and ethics.
- "To develop an annual training program for non-profit executives and board members regarding their oversight responsibilities, especially with respect to City funds and transparency."
Nirenberg looks forward to hearing from the City auditor, attorney, and Council colleagues on the matter, he said.
This review will also be a good opportunity to see the progress that San Antonio has made over the past years in terms of transparency and ethics, he added. "Let's not forget: we've come a long way."
Over the last 15 years, the City has added a City auditor, formed the City Council Audit Committee, strengthened its Code of Ethics, and enhanced its Office of Municipal Integrity, Nirenberg wrote in his memo. "While significant progress has been make, building public trust is not about checking off accomplishments; it requires constant self-evaluation and process improvements."
But this review isn't enough for Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) who called for an "independent and impartial inquiry" into what he called the "obvious lack of oversight and either negligent or purposeful actions by quasi-public officials" at Centro and the Tricentennial Commission.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley's oversight, Brockhouse said, should be reviewed.
Brockhouse has long criticized Sculley's level of power and leadership abilities. Those tensions flared when he worked with the police union, before he was elected to represent District 6, during its contentious contract negotiations with the city.
He called Nirenberg's request for review a "staged response to the media" and claimed the potential criminal case against the Centro employee "warrants a 3rd party law enforcement investigation due to questionable relationship and/or perceived conflicts of interest between City leadership, a former City Attorney conducting internal Centro investigations and our City Manager."
This article was originally published on Nov. 29, 2017.