During the past 15 years, the scope and structure of the City of San Antonio’s ethics function has changed dramatically, and more changes are necessary to bring San Antonio in line with what is already standard practice among all large American cities: truly independent ethics review. Not only do our residents deserve a process clearly free from any influence by City Hall, but so do our City of San Antonio elected officials and staff. Specifically, my recent experience with the existing ethics review and waiver process has convinced me that the proposals put forward by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) to remove ethics functions from the City Attorney’s office and provide for outside appointment of an Ethics Officer have merit. Let me step back almost 20 years to explain why.
When I met my future husband in June of 1997, he already had a real estate investment business. I was spending the summer in San Antonio as an intern working with affordable housing providers and he and I met one Sunday in church. My work and his had something in common: his business model was to purchase dilapidated properties in east San Antonio, refurbish them and then rent safe and decent properties to low-income families who had received Housing Choice Vouchers, commonly called the Section 8 program. I was working with non-profit organizations to focus attention on how our community could better meet the housing needs of low-income families. I completed my internship that summer, but the next year after graduation I returned to San Antonio to take a job with the City, and Rodney and I were married.
For a number of years I worked in community development, first with the City and then in resident services for an affordable housing provider. My husband continued with his business as I started my public service as a member of City Council and then when I was appointed Mayor by my City Council colleagues in July, 2014. When I took office as Mayor, I was not notified by our City Attorney or by attorneys with the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) or by its regulatory entity, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that I was in conflict. For the first months of my tenure, I remained unaware that in HUD’s opinion my role as Mayor created a conflict of interest due to our tenants’ use of Section 8 certificates, which are administered by SAHA. This conflict arose from the mayor’s state-prescribed responsibility to appoint the SAHA board members.
Once I announced my candidacy for Mayor a local newspaper ran a story on this conflict of interest. The conflict could be used to cast doubt on the legitimacy of actions taken by SAHA’s board so after the election, I set about addressing this issue. My husband and I received advice from a number of sources including SAHA, our city attorney’s office and HUD. Our original efforts focused on securing a waiver from HUD. However, it then became apparent that a provision in our city ethics code prevented HUD from granting the waiver because my husband and I were receiving income from a program managed by an entity (SAHA) which did business with the City of San Antonio.
Finally, a friend who had previously worked for another housing authority outside of Texas suggested that my husband and I could transfer the management of our vouchers to another housing authority’s jurisdiction. Under this scenario our existing tenants could stay in their homes, which was not possible if we terminated our acceptance of Section 8. The transfer ended the ongoing conflict of interest between my role as Mayor and our acceptance as landlords of Section 8 housing vouchers.
After the transfer process was completed, and in consultation with the SAHA board chairman, I requested and received a waiver from the city’s ethics code provisions in order to prevent any clouds over future SAHA appointments or business with HUD. My Council colleagues approved the waiver, in part because there had been a precedent in late 2014 in which a council member had sought and unanimously received immunity so that he could continue leasing a building he owned to the City of San Antonio, which had located a senior center there.
On a personal level, deciding on the appropriate action and then seeking the waiver was complicated and confusing. There was no single point of reference, no designated individual who could explain the conflict and discuss remedies with me. There was no clear path forward—for example, a prescribed hearing or review process—other than a vote by my Council colleagues. The presence of an independent Ethics Officer, not beholden to City Council or City staff, would have eased this process immeasurably.
I signed and am supporting Councilman Treviño’s memo requesting that the Council’s Governance Committee consider the creation of an authoritative, independently appointed Ethics Officer, a change which would require approval by voters as an amendment to our City Charter. Our next opportunity to vote on Charter modernization will occur in November, 2017. I am committed to including this change in my charges when I convene the Citizen’s Charter Review Commission next month.
*Top image: Mayor Ivy Taylor during a recent meeting in City Hall. Photo by Scott Ball.