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Commissioner resigns after questions arise over improper contacts

Tuesday, July 8, 2008 by Mark Richardson

An apparent breach of the city’s Code of Ethics has caused the resignation of a member of the Water and Wastewater Commission and brought into question the city’s ability to enforce its own ethics policies. Commissioner Ronnie Jones resigned last Thursday after a discussion with Council Member Sheryl Cole, who appointed him to the commission.


The issue of a possible ethics violation arose at the May 21 meeting of the Water and Wastewater Commission, when Jones began questioning Austin Water Utility staff about how thoroughly they had vetted the firms placed on an engineering contractor rotation list. Jones and Commissioners Michael Warner and Mario Espinoza were the only commission members participating in the discussion, as the rest of the panel had recused itself because of possible conflicts of interest.


Members of the commission make recommendations to the City Council that affect millions of dollars in contracts for various services. Those competing for the contracts are forbidden from talking to commissioners about the contracts.


According to one person at the May 21 meeting, Jones specifically questioned the inclusion of the firm CDM in the rotation. Jeannie Wiginton, a principal for CDM, said the conversation from the May commission meeting was brought to her attention.


“They made a bunch of statements like. ‘OK, let’s start with CDM,’ Then they said ‘Why do we continue to select the firm that is suing the city for millions of dollars?’” she said. “What are they talking about? That is totally wrong and they did not know what they were talking about.”


Wiginton said she was doubly angered by the fact that at the time they were discussing the matter, the commission didn’t even have a quorum to vote on the matter.


 “CDM has been is Austin for 30 years,” she said. “We have never sued the City of Austin. The contractor Archer Western, who has the Ullrich contract, has sued the city and we have joined that lawsuit to work with the city in their defense.”


During the June 18 meeting, Jones remarked that he had received “a very disconcerting phone call from another firm” about some of these firms on the list. At that point, City Ethics Officer John Steiner stood up and informed Jones that what he said constituted a violation of the city’s anti-lobbying regulations. He also noted that that the firm that had contacted Jones in the matter should be disqualified from city contracts.


Last Thursday, Jones sent a brief memo to Council Member Cole offering his resignation “as per our discussion today” but made no mention of the controversy precipitating his departure.


Cole said she listened to a tape of the meeting and then talked to Jones about whether he would comply with the city’s request to reveal the name of the person who contacted him. At the end of that conversation, Cole said she asked Jones to step down.

“I asked him to resign because I had lost confidence in his ability to represent the city’s interest,” Cole said.


Wiginton, who serves on the Design Commission, said she raised concerns with Steiner over whether the city can enforce its own ethics regulations.


“That’s the problem,” she said. “You have it (the law), everybody’s trying to play by the rules, but some people don’t. So, does the city have any teeth to enforce it? Ronnie just exposed himself…nobody did him in.”


Steiner said that as of yesterday, Jones had not revealed who had called him to lobby against other firms on the AWU rotation list.


Calls from In Fact Daily to Jones for a comment on the story were not returned.

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