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Ethics committee still working on reforms

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

Article by Josh Baugh for the San Antonio Express-News

The city’s Ethics Review Board could make recommendations as early as this spring on potential sweeping changes to rules on how politicians, government officials and others who orbit around City Hall act, the body’s newly elected chairwoman said late Wednesday.

Known as the ERB, the board, which handles ethics complaints and is currently weighing proposals to strengthen the ethics code, was briefed during a meeting at City Hall on several proposed changes to both the ethics code and the municipal finance code.

Adriana Garcia, who was elected chairwoman of the board to take over from retired lawyer Sam Millsap, said after the meeting that the board would create a subcommittee to continue working on reform issues and help crystallize a recommendation for changes that would ultimately go to the City Council — and, perhaps voters, if there’s a need for amendments to the city charter.

Garcia said one crucial step before formalizing recommendations would be to hold a public hearing aimed at gathering insight from residents.

“We want to ensure transparency and accountability,” she said.

Councilmen Roberto Treviño, Ron Nirenberg and Rey Saldaña, who have pending Council Consideration Requests, or CCRs, seeking various reforms to local ethics rules, addressed the board Wednesday. Mayor Ivy Taylor had at least two representatives present and City Manager Sheryl Sculley attended as well — indications that the direction of the board’s recommendations could have substantial impact on how those who are in and around City Hall could operate.

Nirenberg, who is running for mayor, and Saldaña co-wrote a CCR that would prevent City Council members from granting waivers to themselves, as the council did for Taylor in January 2016. She was absolved of two 15-month-long violations of the ethics code.

The violations occurred when Taylor, who has oversight of the San Antonio Housing Authority through her appointments to its board of commissioners, and her husband received income from Section 8 housing vouchers administered by the agency.

Treviño’s request, nearly a year old, seeks to make the ethics board “fair and independent,” partly by recasting how members are selected. They’re currently appointed by council members and the mayor. The councilman’s plan would cede the appointment process to outside organizations and community leaders, such as the League of Women Voters and the presidents of local universities.

Some board members pushed back against the notion of allowing outsiders to make appointments, noting that doing so could reduce the diversity of the board and reduce access for everyday people who want to serve their community.

City Auditor Kevin Barthold also briefed the board on several “topics of discussion” that could help guide the body’s future deliberations as it forms recommendations on reform.

Among other things, he suggested adding more reporting periods, effectively requiring politicians to disclose their campaign contributions and expenditures four times a year in non-election years. Candidates currently file semi-annual reports, due in January and July, in addition to disclosures that are filed in the weeks and days leading up to municipal elections.

Barthold also suggested the board consider adding prohibitions to the campaign finance code that would address political contributions made from subcontractors who are associated with high-profile contracts. Prime contractors are already prohibited from making campaign contributions when they’re seeking city contracts.

Barhhold’s recommendations include one version that would disqualify subcontractors who make illegal contributions but would not affect the prime contractor. A second version would disqualify both the sub- and the prime-contractor if the sub made prohibited contributions.

The ERB’s subcommittee could begin work on forming the body’s recommendations in the next couple of weeks, Garcia said.

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