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Ethics Review Board Considers Changes to Campaign Finance Code

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

Article by Edmond Ortiz for The Rivard Report

Photo by Bonnie Arbittier for The Rivard Report

The City’s Ethics Review Board reviewed major revisions to the City’s campaign finance requirements, including one that could extend a prohibition on campaign contributions from individuals or businesses seeking certain City contracts to affiliated subcontractors. The board also voted Tuesday in favor of several measures that would change how the City receives and investigates ethics complaints. Those recommendations will be considered by the City Council Governance Committee.

The City’s campaign finance code currently forbids the owner or top executive of a primary bidder on certain contracts from contributing to the campaign of a Council member, candidate, or associated political action committee from the 10th business day after the City posts a request for proposals or qualifications, to the 30th calendar day following a contract award.

That prohibition currently includes any attorney, lobbyist, or consultant working with the primary contract seeker, and the spouse of the individual contract seeker or its owner/top executive.

City Auditor Kevin Barthold and City compliance officer Tina Flores said the City would like to make this rule more explicit for individuals and companies competing for high-profile contracts. A high-profile contract is defined as one valued at $1 million or more over the deal’s lifetime, that has high community interest, and/or one that is complex or atypical.

The draft code revision would hold subcontractors of the primary contract seeker to the same standard.

“This is big,” Barthold said.

Local officials and residents have expressed concern about such primary contractors using campaign contributions or other forms of lobbying to sway opinions at City Hall when a high-profile contract is being considered.

In 2016, local Sierra Club member Gay Wright filed an ethics complaint alleging then-Mayor Ivy Taylor of accepting contributions from several members of a family that owned and ran Pape-Dawson Engineers. At the time, the firm was involved in negotiations for the Vista Ridge water pipeline project.

Taylor said she had done nothing wrong and that the donations she accepted were in compliance with the City’s campaign finance laws. Still, some officials were concerned about transparency and keeping the public’s trust during the awarding of high-profile contracts.

The board is considering another change in electronic filing of campaign finance reports: recording the donor’s principal occupation or job tile and employer’s name. Flores said Councilman John Courage (D9), who was not present, suggested the revision.

Flores and Barthold said this proposed change could theoretically make it easier for the City to see if employees or executives of businesses competing for high-profile contracts are contributing to elected officials’ campaigns. The state requires this information for contributions to candidates seeking state offices.

Occupation disclosure increases transparency of campaign contributions, Barthold said, but he also acknowledged that high-profile contracts don’t come up as often, so such a requirement could prove onerous for more common, smaller contracts.

Some board members were reluctant to pursue this proposal and wanted Courage to explain his rationale for the proposal.

Former Councilman Art Hall, who chairs a Charter Review Commission subcommittee exploring ethics, attended the meeting. He said candidates and their campaign treasurers would be hard-pressed to track down the occupation or job title and employer of every contributor.

“This will be very much a challenge to get,” he said.

Board Chairwoman Adriana Garcia said she would ask Courage to attend the board’s August meeting to talk about the proposal. Board members hope to fully consider all campaign finance code revisions for recommendation then.

The Council’s Governance Committee will soon review a slate of ethics code revisions.

One would permit an individual to bring a claim of an ethics code violation directly to the board rather than let City staff first vet the complaint.

“If [individuals] have a reasonable belief that a violation has been made, this gives them an opportunity to self-report,” Garcia said.

Complaints currently go to the City Clerk’s office, which forwards them to the City Auditor’s office for examination. Complaints that fail to meet particular criteria are not forwarded to the board.

Former Councilman Carlton Soules and then-mayoral candidate Manuel Medina filed a complaint in February, claiming the City’s compliance officer tosses most complaints without the ERB getting to see them.

“This is our way to reinforce that complaints should come directly to us,” Garcia said.

Another potential revision would have verbiage in the ethics code to ensure that the board chair sees all initial ethics complaints.

Yet another proposed code change would require the board to consider a City official’s requested waiver in the instance of an alleged ethics code violation.

The Council in January 2016 no-faulted then-Mayor Taylor’s ethics code lapse on a technicality. Garcia said the board should be part of the process in determining whether such a waiver should be granted. The revision would help improve the board’s independence and increase transparency on the part of City government, she said.

“We’re trying to inject ourselves back in so we can truly see the independence of the Ethics Review Board,” she said.

Board members liked what they saw in these and other potential ethics code revisions.

“I think we have something that strengthens us for a long time,” Vice Chair Paula McGee said.

Additionally, the board is formally answering ethics-related Council Consideration Requests (CCRs) made in 2016. Garcia said the ERB considering ethics waivers would be a response to a CCR filed by Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and then-Councilman Ron Nirenberg.

The other CCR, filed by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), aims to enhance the independence of the compliance officer and widen community representation on the ERB by reforming the membership appointment process.

Treviño suggested making the compliance officer responsible for educating all City employees and officials on ethics and for implementing and enforcing the ethics code.

Garcia said she and fellow members felt the compliance officer position is already strong and independent and would become more so if proposed code revisions are adopted by the Council. Garcia also said the City’s Office of Municipal Integrity further supports a mission of investigating or preventing City employee misconduct.

Garcia said it would not make sense for the compliance officer to expand his/her role as suggested in Treviño’s CCR.

Council members and the mayor currently appoint citizen board members, and Garcia said the board supported that process. Treviño had suggested outside organizations and community leaders, such as leaders of educational institutions and business groups, could play a role.

Melanie Castillo, the board’s District 1 representative, said Treviño has previewed the response to his CCR. She added that he continues to be concerned about the ethics code and is eager for the Governance Committee to consider the Ethics Review Board’s recommendations. That committee’s next meeting has not yet been scheduled.

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