The committees overseeing the $850 million bond proposal finished their meetings in December and the list of proposals will soon be voted on by City Council. Unfortunately, the process has been tainted by ethics questions, and City Council would be wise to address the issues openly and take appropriate action before voting to move forward with this project list.
At issue is an ethics complaint filed in December by one of the Bond Committee members. It names multiple other Bond Committee members and ties them directly to conflicts of interest. The complaint alleges that directors or executives of organizations who would benefit from bond money sat on the committees, lobbied for their projects, influenced the process, failed to recuse themselves, and ultimately voted on their projects.
Here are the facts. In the first meeting at each of the five Bond Committees, the San Antonio City Attorney discussed ethics rules and presented a slide that clearly defined conflict of interest. The slide stated that “A committee member should not take any official action that he or she should reasonably know is likely to affect the economic interest of: a business or nonprofit entity for which the committee member serves as a director or officer.”
The complaint alleges multiple incidents where committee members violated this rule. One example outlined was in the Parks Bond Committee. The complaint revealed that all three District 8 representatives serve as current directors on the Hardberger Park Conservancy, the organization lobbying for $15 million in bond dollars. This group made motions supporting the controversial Hardberger Land Bridge and voted for this project. Similar occurrences were described in the Housing Bond Committee and the Facilities Bond Committee.
The more disturbing issue is how the City has chosen to deal with the ethics complaint.
The Ethics Code states that:The Compliance Auditor shall... Receive and promptly transmit to the Ethics Review Board complaints and responses filed with the City Clerk as set forth in Section 2-83. This was setup to ensure that the Ethics Review Board, who is charged with enforcing the Ethics Code over city government, was properly notified of complaints and alone would decide the validity of a complaint. This rule is the “check and balance” that keeps city officials from subverting the ERB and hiding potentially embarrassing complaints. The City Attorney or Compliance officer has no authority to rule on or dismiss a complaint.
Unfortunately that is exactly what has happened. On December 16th, without ever notifying the Ethics Review Board of the complaint, the compliance officer who is an employee of the city issued a dismissal letter to the complainant. The letter stated that “Bond Committee members are not City Officials, and are not subject to the ethics code: Accordingly the complaint is dismissed and will not be forwarded to the Ethics Review Board for further action.” It also stated that “Bond committees are Ad Hoc, and advisory in Nature,” apparently absolving them of responsibility under the Ethics Code.
This logic is frightening. I have personally served on a number of advisory City Boards, Commissions, Committees, and as a Councilman have appointed dozens of citizens to similar entities. It has always been clear that appointed members are expected to adhere to the Ethics Code. Bond Committee members are supposed to vet projects and make recommendations based off of what is best for the citizens. We cannot afford to let the oversight process be viewed as run by special interests. Imagine if the hundreds of members on the dozens of advisory committees, boards, & commissions the city uses to guide city business were absolved of any ethical responsibility, simply because they are “advisory” in nature. Public faith would evaporate. Yet this is what City is arguing in the dismissal letter.
This is a trust issue and the optics look bad. The Mayor & Council should address this complaint and ask why the City Attorney felt compelled to address ethical conflict of interest issues with the Bond Committees, but then dismissed specific allegations of conflict of interest because the rules don’t really apply.
Former District 10 Councilman
PLEASE CLICK HERE TO REVIEW THE ETHICS COMPLAINT
PLEASE CLICK HERE TO REVIEW MAYOR TAYLOR'S BOND