While it explores whether to recommend revisions to the City’s ethics code, the Ethics Review Board must determine if further investigation is merited on a new ethics complaint filed against Mayor Ivy Taylor.
Gay Wright, a member of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club, filed a complaint with the City on March 24, alleging Taylor has received $18,200 in campaign contributions from Sam Dawson, co-owner of Pape-Dawson Engineers, and his family since her mayoral appointment in 2014.
Pape-Dawson is part of the consortium facilitating the $3.4 billion Vista Ridge water supply project. According to the complaint, Wright also claimed Taylor accepted a $1,000 donation from Dawson four days following the Council’s approval of the Vista Ridge contract.
A March 13 San Antonio Express-News column addressed Taylor’s acceptance of Dawson’s donations, noting contributions cannot be accepted from someone attached to a high-profile contract until it’s been 30 days since it was awarded. The Alamo Sierra Club opposes Vista Ridge.
The mayor’s office responded to the complaint with the following statement: “From all the facts we have available, Pape-Dawson was in compliance with the City’s municipal campaign finance code and neither I nor any member of City Council who received donations from Pape-Dawson or any of their officers should have concerns.”
It’s not known yet when the Ethics Review Board (ERB) could review the new complaint against Taylor. A prior complaint alleged Taylor and her husband, Rodney, had received revenue from Section 8 housing vouchers for properties they managed while she was interim mayor and then a few months following her election as mayor.
The City Council voted 8-2 in January to waive Taylor’s ethics code violations. Councilmen Ron Nirenberg (D8) and Rey Saldaña (D4) voted against the waiver. Nirenberg and Saldaña followed up by filing a Council Consideration Request (CCR) – a proposal they said would reinforce the ethics code by prohibiting Council members from voting on waivers for ethics violations similar to Mayor Taylor’s.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) filed a separate CCR for a proposal that called for greater autonomy for the City’s appointed ethics compliance auditor and for the review board. The Council’s Governance Committee unanimously voted in February to have the ERB look at potential ethics code revisions.
The ERB now has tasked a subcommittee to look more into the council members’ proposals, which could lead to possible revisions to the ethics code. Any proposed changes – if any are to be recommended by the Ethics Review Board (ERB) before the end of 2016 – would be considered by the City Council toward a city charter amendment election that could be held as early as November 2017.
The review board met Tuesday night. Board Chairman Sam Millsap, a former Bexar County district attorney, said City leaders eyeing a charter election amendment vote in November 2017 gives the ERB time to delve into the City’s current ethics code and explore best practices employed by other cities and ethics agencies statewide and nationwide.
Millsap assigned board members Ileana Gonzalez (D8), Melanie Castillo (D1), Courtney Hilliard (D2) and Marc Whyte (D10) to the subcommittee. The subcommittee would report its findings to the full ERB in late May or early June, likely the next time the board meets.
“The Treviño CCR is broader in scope,” Millsap said. “It’s intended to modify the ethics code by giving the board greater independence related to the manner by which Ethics Review Board members are appointed.” He added the ERB is, presently, reliant on City staff, particularly the ethics compliance auditor and the city attorney.
According to Millsap, the board could get more help in its research from Art Downey, a previous ERB chairman; Raymond Baird, psychology professor emeritus from the University of Texas at San Antonio; and Jed Maebius, an aide to Councilman Treviño. All three men said they want to be available as resources for board members.
Millsap said it should be a goal for the board to “create the best product that we can possibly create for the consideration of the Council and, ultimately, for the voters if the charter is to be amended.”
The ERB is already looking to go an independent route in its research. Millsap suggested the board rely on neither the compliance auditor nor the city attorney as it gathers information.
“The involvement of attorneys on this committee should provide us the horsepower needed to deal with any legal issues that may arise. But we don’t expect legal issues to come up. These are policy issues,” said Millsap.
Acting City Attorney Martha Sepeda, who attended the ERB meeting, disagreed. She said her office is charged with working with all City-appointed boards and commissions, providing legal advise when requested.
“Your board members are not your lawyers. I won’t be insistent, but I will have to raise my voice on comments that are not congruent with the law,” Sepeda said.
Millsap said he and his colleagues would rather act more independent of the City as it explores the potential for ethics code revisions. That way, there’s no public perception of undue influence from the City.
“This is to avoid any suggestion, that may play a role in the future, that the city attorney’s office imposed its views on this body as this process goes along,” he added.
“Your comments are not something I agree with,” Sepeda replied, repeating that her office will be adamant in provided necessary legal input. “I will speak up when professionally compelled to do so.”
If all works out, the subcommittee will look at any possible changes to the ethics code and put them together in the form of a proposal over the summer.
Millsap said it is vital to involve experts in the public who can offer valuable input on ethics in governance.
“I think it’ll be important that the community moves with us to the extent we can bring in people from the outside with something useful to tell us,” he added.
Board member Whyte said he likes the overall process by which the ERB will do its research, but cautioned against assuming there must be lots of changes to the existing City ethics code.
“We need to pinpoint what, if anything, is wrong right now and what weaknesses can be improved upon right now,” he said. “Different isn’t always better.”
The ERB would review a draft proposal for ethics code revisions in September and prepare that document for review by the Council’s Governance Committee. Millsap said the ERB should conduct public hearings citywide on the draft proposal prior to sending its recommendations to the Governance Committee. If all works out, the City’s Charter Review Commission would get its hands on the ERB’s proposal before the end of this year.
Top Image: Sam Millsap, chairman of the City’s Ethics Review Board, and colleagues meet in a regular session at the Municipal Plaza Building on Tuesday, March 29, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz