Political consultant and former Councilman Carlton Soules. Credit: Courtesy / Carlton Soules

Former City Councilman Carlton Soules filed a complaint with the City Clerk’s Office on Monday that challenges how allegations of ethics code violations are handled by the City’s Ethics Review Board.

Soules, a conservative political consultant who represented District 10 on City Council from 2011-13 before resigning to unsuccessfully run against Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, currently is a paid political consultant for Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina. Medina and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) are running against Mayor Ivy Taylor in the May 6 general election.

“The system has been corrupted. The City staff has figured out a way to abuse a position and keep ethics complaints from getting to the Review Board,” Soules told the Rivard Report. “Things are getting buried … I just want [the board] to see it.”

Soules contends that review board members actually do not deliberate on some ethics complaints because they are unilaterally dismissed by the city’s compliance officer and thus do not get ethics review board consideration.

His specific complaint alleges that Tina J. Flores, the City’s ethics compliance auditor, violated at least three sections of the Ethics Code when she declined to forward a complaint filed in December to the board for consideration. That complaint, filed by a member of one of the 2017 bond committees, alleged that other bond committee members had conflicts of interest with some projects under consideration and failed to recuse themselves when those projects came up for discussion and consideration.

By dismissing the complaint and not allowing it to come before the Ethics Review Board, Soules stated in his complaint, Flores “choose to act as sole Judge, Jury, and Executioner of the complaint, which greatly exceeds the authority granted her position in the Ethics Code.”

City officials declined to comment. By law, complaints are confidential so the City Clerk, Attorney, and staff will not confirm or deny the existence of any pending complaint.

Soules provided the Rivard Report with a copy of the sworn complaint and accompanying documentation, 115 pages total, which also outlines, he said, a “pattern” of increasing complaint dismissals.

Download the full document here.

“All cases dismissed unilaterally without the knowledge of the Ethics Review Board should be examined for similar violations,” Soules contends in his complaint.

The original complaint was filed on Dec. 5, 2016 by Peggy Sue Wilson-Schmueckle, who recently served on the citizen committee in charge of making site recommendations for the $20 million Neighborhood Improvements section of the $850 million 2017 Municipal Bond. She claims that seven bond committee members and a bond tri-chair had conflicts of interests when serving on or overseeing the Parks and Recreation, Facilities, and Neighborhood Improvements citizen bond committees.

Committee members with direct relationships with projects or issues surrounding the bond should have recused themselves, Wilson-Schmueckle wrote.

“The Bond Committee members are not City officials, and are not subject to the Ethics Code,” Flores wrote in her response. “Therefore, your complaint therefore does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Ethics Review Board.”

Download a copy of Wilson-Schmueckle’s complaint here and Flores’ response here.

Soules sites several definitions in City code and previous decisions made by the Ethics Review Board that indicate committee members could be considered City officials.

The issue should at least be considered by the Ethics Review Board – not the auditor, he said, who is technically a City employee. “It looks fairly black and white to me, but it’s not for her or me to decide. That’s for the ethics review board to decide.”

While Medina is also critical of the bond package, Wilson-Schmueckle’s ethics complaint is not connected to Medina’s campaign, Soules said, nor is the one he personally filed on Monday.

When a complaint is received by the City Clerk, it’s sent to both the compliance auditor and City Attorney. The auditor then reviews the submission to make sure enough information exists in order for the complaint to proceed for board review. If it doesn’t, then the auditor is required to send a note back to the complainant explaining why.

Since Soules’ complaint is directed at the compliance auditor, it’s unclear how City officials will handle it. It’s likely the City Attorney will respond.

“There is no proscribed process” for this scenario, City Attorney Andy Segovia’s staff stated in an email to the Rivard Report. “The City Attorney has some discretion on how to handle such a situation. For example, the City Attorney has the authority under Section 2-84 to engage independent review, if warranted.”

For citizens and the media interested in reviewing rejected complaints, the wait is a long one. Rejected complaints aren’t made public until the board’s annual report is approved and there is no appeals process. Until 2014, rejected complaints were not included in the board’s reports. Only the ones that received opinions. The 2016 report has not been approved by the board and “no date has been set for that meeting,” according to the City Attorney’s Office.

“The bigger question is: how many other cases have [been rejected] this year?” Soules said.

In 2015, the board heard two complaints and the auditor rejected six. In 2014, the board heard three complaints and the auditor rejected six. In 2013, the board heard nine cases, two in 2012, two in 2011, none in 2010, and four in 2009. (As noted, rejections are not indicated on reports from years prior to 2014.)

The ethics compliance auditor position was created in May 2013 after Council approved a host of changes to the ethics review process.

More Changes on the Way

Soules was a voting member of the Council that unanimously approved the changes in 2013. Those changes didn’t go far enough, Soules now says.

For the compliance auditor and Ethics Review Board members to be truly independent, the City Charter would need to be amended, specifically section 46 that states the city manager “shall have power and shall be required to … appoint and remove all officers and employees in the administrative service of the city…”

The compliance auditor is appointed by the City Auditor, although the ethics board can make recommendations. The auditor reports to City Manager Sheryl Sculley, which Soules asserts carries with it some level of bias. If the compliance auditor were appointed by the board, he said, that bias would be eliminated.

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) filled a Council Consideration Request in January 2016 that outlined similar changes to the code and charter aimed at distancing the board and auditor from the City. Councilmen Rey Saldaña (D4) and Ron Nirenberg (D8) co-wrote another CCR that calls for the code to include language that would prevent Council members from voting on waivers for violations.

Treviño, who had no knowledge of or connection to Soules’ complaint before our phone call, said the “whole point of strengthening our ethics code was so that people can’t even make that kind of allegation.”

The board is comprised of members appointed by City Council. An independent auditor and board would further remove the City’s participation in the ethics review process, he said. “That’s the heart of what we’re trying to do.”

Treviño wants to see these changes: An ethics review board that selects the compliance auditor; shift responsibility for ethics education and enforcement from the City Attorney to the board; and a charter amendment that allows board members to be appointed by “respected institutions in the community, such as universities, Chambers of Commerce, Bar Associations, League of Women Voters, and others.”

Treviño cited the cities of Atlanta and Tallahassee as examples.

The charter can only be changed by voters once every two years.  November 2017 would be the next opportunity.

The Complaint that Generated Action by Soules

Wilson-Schmueckle’s original complaint challenges how bond committee members are appointed by their respective city Council members. Most members are civically engaged citizens who play an active role in their neighborhoods or in other community endeavors.

“Some members of this Committee are members of organizations that have a perspective or specialized knowledge of a particular projects or set of projects,” Flores wrote in her response to the complaint dated Dec. 16, 2016. “This perspective and specialized knowledge is useful to the Bond Committees as it deliberates and weighs its options. One of the fundamental principles of the Committee makeup was to ensure the districts had a voice in terms of what projects were important to their respective communities.”

It’s not entirely surprising that they have professional or personal connections to projects, Soules said, but they probably shouldn’t be voting on them or lobbying fellow members to vote in favor of funding them.

For instance, all three members of the District 8 representatives on the parks committee also are members of the Hardberger Park Conservancy, a nonprofit entity created to fundraise and organize events at the park. The conservancy is raising $10 million in private donations for a land bridge in Hardberger Park. During meetings, District 8 parks committee members advocated for the bridge. Bond funding for the project was ultimately reduced by $2 million by the parks committee to $5.5 million, but the park is slated to receive $7.5 million more from the Streets, Sidewalks, Bridges category of the bond.

The $850 million bond is the largest in city history, and will go to the voters on May 6, divided in to six different ballot choices to be considered.

Wilson-Schmueckle cited other members by name who have ties or work for San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and San Antonio Housing Authority – all of which have bond projects directly or indirectly related to their interests.  UTSA Director of Government Affairs Albert Carrisalez served on the facilities commission, which allocated $10 million for a sports facility at the college.

“Albert Carrisalez was asked to serve [on the facilities committee],” Christian Archer of the OneSA bond advocacy PAC told the Rivard Report. “Albert is a gem …. [Soules] wasn’t there. When it came to the vote on the UTSA funding, guess what? [Carrisalez] recused himself.”

Wilson-Schmueckle admits in her complaint that she doesn’t have recordings or minutes from all the meetings in which these alleged conflicts could have occurred. While some committee members recused themselves from voting and discussions, she alleges that may not be the case for all.

Soules points to an ethics advisory opinion written by the City Attorney’s office in 2008 as cause for the bond committee members to be considered “city officials.”

The document defines city officials as: “Members of all boards, commissions …. committee, and other bodies created by the City Council …. including entities that may be advisory only in nature, who are appointed by City Council or who are designated in the by-laws or organization papers of the entity to serve on behalf of the city…”

Flores pointed out in her response letter that the bond committees are ad hoc and advisory in nature. Archer said this ad-hoc element means they are not city officials.

“Even if you were to apply [the strictest ethics code], there were no ethics violations,” Archer said, adding that Soules’ complaint was more about his own political posturing than ethics.

While there was talk of scrapping some projects and adding others, the bond committees’ final list of projects wasn’t extremely different from the City staff-recommended list they started with. The committees made $34 million worth of changes, about 4%.

City Council then went on to change another 3% of the $850 million bond with last-minute adjustments.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org