Next month, the City of San Antonio’s Ethics Review Board will consider changing rules regarding when Council members and their staff can have contact with companies vying for high-profile City contracts.
Under the City’s ethics code, companies bidding on City contracts can communicate with City Council members – and vice versa – 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.
While state law requires agendas to be posted no later than 72 hours, or three days, ahead of a meeting, the City of San Antonio typically posts meeting agendas one week in advance.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) has asked the Ethics Review Board for a more consistent time frame for when the ban on communication, or blackout period, is lifted and Council members can communicate with the bidders.
Before contracts are voted on by Council, proposals are vetted by City staff, a review committee, and Council’s Audit and Accountability Committee. City staff then recommends one bidder to Council, which then votes.
The blackout period is a way for the City to limit lobbying efforts of companies vying for those contracts, some Ethics Review Board members said. Allowing more time for bidders to communicate with council members could give the appearance that bidders have more time to exercise undue influence on elected officials.
“I would like to suggest that we have staff do some research, look into language in other cities’ [code and] come up with a proposal as to how we could address this concern,” said Ethics Review Board Chair Paula McGee. The board expects to see that research at its next meeting in early November.
Three days or even a week is sometimes not enough time for Council members to study contracts and companies, Treviño told the Ethics Review Board during its meeting Tuesday night. “My calendar can be challenging in terms of trying to meet with folks.”
“… [But] It’s not so much that I’m asking for more time [or a shorter blackout period], I’m asking for there to be a level of consistency,” Treviño said, adding that it should be up to the board to determine when the blackout period is lifted.
Treviño’s concern grew out of a recent City Council vote that awarded Ticketmaster a five-year contract to provide ticketing services to City sports and entertainment venues. The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts also submitted a bid that received fewer points on the Audit Committee’s scoring matrix, but would have provided local art agencies, including the Tobin, more revenue.
“These are very specific procurements, but our job is big picture,” said Treviño, who unsuccessfully tried to delay Council’s decision to give council members more time to study the competing proposals. A last-minute correction City staff made to how it interpreted the Tobin Center’s proposal, he said, made it clear to him that change was needed.
The Ticketmaster vote occurred on Sept. 19, one day after City staff briefed council members on efforts to provide more thorough information on high-profile contracts before votes are held.
Board member Wade Shelton said it’s within the ethics board’s purview to find a balance between excessive communication periods and giving elected officials time to consider contracts.
“Too long a period of time is risky … too short a period of time is risky,” Shelton said.
City Auditor Kevin Barthold said the blackout period could be lifted after the Audit Committee, which reviews how contract bids are handled and scored, forwards its contract recommendation to City Council. That is, on average, 23 days before a scheduled vote, he said.
But some members of the Ethics Review Board, which is made up of citizens appointed by Council and the mayor, said they were wary of allowing too much time for lobbying activity ahead of a vote and questioned whether a change in code was necessary.
Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), a former chair of the Ethics Review Board, shared those concerns.
The issue of when an agenda is posted seems to be more of an administrative directive, Garcia said, but she’s looking forward to hearing about options from City staff.
At the very least, she said she wants to preserve some form of blackout period – when City Council does not know which bidder City staff is recommending to receive a contract.
“I don’t want to be able to know who the winner is because … that brings emotion into it,” she said, because many vendors have strong ties to the community. “We need to leave emotion out.”