The City’s Ethics Review Board is moving forward with studying potential reforms to the ethics code and how the board operates, according to its new chairwoman Adriana Garcia.
This includes the process by which someone can file an ethics complaint and how the City reviews it, she said in a meeting at the Municipal Plaza Building Tuesday, adding that she and colleagues are closer to formally responding to two Council Consideration Requests (CCRs) made in 2016.
Garcia confirmed that one of the operational changes being considered is whether to bring all filed complaints to the board rather than let the City vet them first.
Former City Councilman and current political consultant to mayoral candidate Manuel Medina Carlton Soules filed a complaint regarding this issue in February, arguing that board members do not deliberate on some complaints because they are unilaterally dismissed by the City’s compliance officer.
Soules addressed the board Tuesday, expressing frustration that the auditor recently dismissed two complaints, including one that he filed against Ethics Compliance Ifficer Tina Flores.
Currently, complaints go to the City Clerk’s office, which then forwards them to the City Auditor’s office for vetting. The review board does not see complaints that do not meet certain criteria.
Until recently, the board chair was not notified of all complaints filed with the City. Sam Millsap, a former district attorney, was the board chairman before Garcia.
But Garcia has changed things up by asking to be notified of any and all complaints filed with the City.
Soules told board members that it seems wrong for the Ethics Review Board to not examine complaints that City staff deem unworthy of consideration.
“When City officials and staff get to decide what complaints you see and are allowed to withhold information from you at their own discretion, your board is no longer effective,” Soules said. “[The board’s] basic mission has been compromised.”
Soules contended that, in his complaint against Flores, the City responded by having an outside attorney reply to him with a letter of rejection.
The letter asserted the attorney’s opinion that Flores’ oversight represented a failure in rules and procedures, not one of ethics, according to Soules.
“The irony is that rules dismissed are part of the ethics code,” he told the board. “The City hired an outside attorney to respond, who issued a biased opinion that protects the City’s employee and its own interests. You never got to review the complaint and I never got to state my case. The decision to reject the complaint was not theirs to make. It was yours.”
Soules later said he was happy to learn that the board was looking into revamping the vetting process and possibly letting board members review all complaints.
“Let’s show what happens in the process when someone files an ethics complaint because that seems to be a mystery and it shouldn’t be,” Garcia said of the ethics code and procedural changes under consideration.
Some board members agreed they should be able to look at the full range of complaints filed.
“I think we should all get to see what’s going on,” board member Ruben De Leon said. “Even if we don’t get to investigate the issue, I’d like to see the complaint. It may affect my district.”
“There have been complaints filed that I didn’t know of,” Vice Chair Paula McGee added. “I think if this body is supposed to be charged with overseeing the process, we need to know what complaints are being filed.”
Board member Wade Shelton suggested that, in the past, the Ethics Review Board chair did not wish to see all complaints because he or she figured most would be dismissed anyway.
Garcia said that in her new role as board chair, she would “like – for the time being – to be involved in the [complaint] filtering process.”
City Attorney Andy Segovia said there must be a “fundamental process to make sure that things that shouldn’t be in front of this forum aren’t in this forum.”
“If it passes the frivolous test, it should be presented before the board,” De Leon replied.
Board member Magdalena Alvarado agreed with revising the process to help complainants ensure their documents are coherent, articulate, and sound for consideration.
“Not everyone who files a complaint is an attorney,” she said. “We should make it as easy as possible for someone to file a complaint.”
Shelton said privacy rights and ensuring due process for all parties involved, among other things, must be protected in the process.
He offered words of caution on the idea of having the full board consider every complaint: “I doubt we have the schedule capacity or the competency to thoroughly vet every complaint.”
City Manager Sheryl Sculley told the board that the City receives fewer than 50 ethics complaints per year, with most of them related to campaign finance. She added that complaints about City employees are a rare occurrence.
“[City employees] understand and know what is expected of them,” she said. “We take this very seriously.”
The Ethics Review Board is also closer to officially responding to a two-part CCR that Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) filed in January 2016.
Treviño wants to ensure fairness, independence, and wider community representation on the board by reforming how members are appointed.
Currently, Council members and the mayor appoint board members. This could change to involve outside organizations and community leaders, such as presidents of colleges and chambers of commerce.
The second part of Treviño’s CCR seeks to “increase the City Auditor’s independence from the City Attorney’s office.”
According to Garcia, one panel of Ethics Review Board members is currently working on reforming campaign finance reporting.
The City’s Charter Review Commission, which is considering a potential November charter amendment election, will be reviewing issues such as how ERB appointments are made.