The City Council’s Governance Committee reviewed recommendations by the Ethics Review Board (ERB) on Wednesday, sending revisions to the ethics and campaign finance codes on to the full Council.
While he liked what he saw in the ERB’s proposals, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the recommendations should serve as a launching pad for more comprehensive ethics reforms.
“I think the recommendations the ERB has made today are a significant step in the right direction, but we want to take additional steps,” said the Mayor, who chairs the Governance Committee. “If we want to be that model city, we’ll have to make additional changes.”
Nirenberg said that effort should include the City’s Charter Review Commission, which has already been reviewing the ERB’s structure and functions and input from Common Cause Texas, a chapter of the Washington, D.C.-based government accountability organization.
The commission is working toward proposing amendments to the City’s charter that San Antonio voters could consider in 2018. Nirenberg plans to ask all Council members what larger structural improvements they would like to have for the ERB.
Nirenberg said some of the recommendations made by the ERB would be able to be implemented immediately upon finalization by City Council. But he added that the recommendations and any resulting charter amendments could collectively help to demonstrate that San Antonio is a “model city when it comes to ethics,” especially with the City’s Tricentennial celebrations next year.
The ERB has spent months researching issues and discussing its recommendations. Nirenberg commended the board’s work, especially one suggestion to close loopholes in how the City considers ethics waivers for elected leaders. The proposal calls for requiring the board to consider a City official’s requested waiver in the instance of an alleged ethics code violation.
Nirenberg said the City has an opportunity for larger reform to the ERB’s structure. He agreed with points in District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño’s 2016 Council Consideration Request that proposed greater independence for the compliance auditor’s office and a change in how board members are appointed.
In a letter to Nirenberg, Common Cause Texas members suggested modifications to some of the ERB’s recommendations, citing instances where the City’s ethics code could be further strengthened, the Mayor said. Nirenberg made ethics reform a major part of his mayoral campaign.
Some other ethics and campaign finance code changes proposed by the ERB include:
- Tightening rules regarding campaign contributions from company owners, top executives, and board members of primary bidders on high-profile City contracts. The same limitations would extend to subcontractors of that bidder. The board also proposed similar rules for zoning applicants and their lobbyists and/or consultants.
- Bringing the ERB chair and vice chair into the early process of reviewing an ethics complaint.
- Allowing a City official or employee to claim an ethics violation, or self-report one, to the compliance auditor or the ERB rather than have the City Attorney’s office vet it first.
- Requiring the board to consider a City official’s requested waiver in the instance of an alleged ethics code violation.
“That way, it would be on record that people on the board advised for or against a waiver,” said ERB Chairwoman Adriana Garcia.
Other Governance Committee members praised the work performed by the ERB, and said they awaited further discussion among the full Council, CRC, and Common Cause on ethics code revisions.
“I look forward to a really robust discussion, an ongoing discussion, from the Charter Review Commission,” Treviño said.
“Your work is very thorough and very thoughtful,” Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) told ERB members who attended Wednesday’s committee meeting.
Garcia said the board would not recommend District 9 Councilman John Courage’s CCR-based recommendation of requiring municipal candidates to report the job title and employer of any individual who contributes $100 or more to their campaign. Garcia noted that, there were concerns such disclosures could have unintended consequences.
Viagran said such a requirement could discourage people from being an active part of the local political process.
“We want to make sure we don’t put any more barriers up there. We’re already trying to get more people involved in the process,” Viagran said. “This is a barrier people would not want to be a part of.”
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) expressed appreciation to ERB members for their work, especially on the CCRs that he and Nirenberg offered from the Council in 2016.
“You’ve done a ton of research and that will be taken under consideration,” he said.