San Antonio’s Ethics Review Board unanimously voted Tuesday to take no action on a request to change the rules regarding the no-communication period for City Council members and businesses seeking contracts with the City.
Board members found that the typical eight days during which that communication can take place currently is sufficient compared to other cities that allow contact just 72 hours before or only on the day the contract is awarded.
While there have been some seemingly last-minute briefings ahead of votes on multi-million dollar contracts, those are “anomalies,” said board chair and District 2 representative Patrick Lang.
“I think it’s a process issue, not an [Ethics Review Board] issue,” Lang said.
City Manager Erik Walsh has said the City will start providing more timely and thorough information on high-profile contracts before votes are held.
That initiative started in November, Lang said, and the City should see if that addresses local concerns.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) requested that the board review the City’s policy on the communication blackout period in October after what he felt was a rushed Council vote that awarded Ticketmaster the contract to provide ticketing services to public sports and entertainment venues. Treviño cited the inaccurate representation of the competing proposal from the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts as cause for Council to take more time considering its vote.
Since 2006, under the City’s ethics code, companies bidding on City contracts can communicate with Council members – and vice versa – only after an agenda is posted for a council meeting at which a contract vote will be held. Before that time, the identities of bidders are not revealed in an attempt to maintain a level playing field for companies seeking to secure City business. That typically gives bidders and Council members a week to talk – but legally those agendas can be posted just three days, or 72 hours, before a vote.
Once all proposals are received they are vetted by City staff, a review committee comprised of stakeholders and City officials, and Council’s Audit and Accountability Committee. City staff then recommends one bidder to Council, which takes a final vote.
The Ticketmaster vote occurred on Sept. 19, one day after City staff formally briefed Council members on the inner workings of the contract and the proposals submitted. Meanwhile, the agenda was posted one week prior to the vote. Earlier this year, Council made changes to an airport concession contract that removed Chick-fil-A from the deal on the same day Council was fully briefed on the contract.
Council has the authority to delay decisions on contracts, but both attempts to do so for the controversial Ticketmaster and Chick-fil-A votes failed. Treviño voted against delaying the latter vote.
City staff contacted representatives from Bexar County, Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, and Phoenix to compare policies regarding blackout periods. None of them reported any complaints from Council members saying they didn’t have enough time to review contracts ahead of votes, said Kevin Barthold, San Antonio’s city auditor.
“The reason we extended this conversation was to see if other cities encountered the same issue. … The answer is no,” said board member and mayoral appointee Coda Rayo-Garza.
At the core of opposition to a blackout period extension is a fear that elected officials will be unduly influenced by companies vying for public dollars.
The fact that San Antonio allows up to eight days was surprising to many of the other cities’ officials, Barthold said. “They said we’re crazy … because they don’t want the lobbying.”
Treviño was told by City Attorney Andy Segovia to take the issue to the Ethics Review Board, the councilman said. Another option he has is to file a council consideration request that could be taken up by a council committee at a later date. Treviño said he will consult with Segovia before deciding how to proceed.
The board’s decision to take no action doesn’t “kill” the issue, Barthold said,
“it just means this is not the right place for it.”
The Ethics Review Board is made up of 11 citizens appointed by Council and the mayor to enforce and sanction violations of City Code regulations relating to ethics, lobbying, and municipal campaign finance. It can also make policy recommendations to City Council.
The Ethics Review Board also took no action regarding ethics complaints filed by a resident against Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2). As the District 2 representative, Lang recused himself from the discussion.
Former civil rights attorney James Myart claimed that the councilwoman hired someone she was seeing romantically to work on her staff, but provided no evidence to support that. He also claimed that Andrews-Sullivan did not meet the residency requirements to run for the office. Board members unanimously agreed that there was a lack of evidence to support the former accusation and that the authority to address the latter rests with the State of Texas.