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City Ethics Commission clears Almanza of conflict of interest

Friday, December 6, 2013 by Jimmy Maas

An emotional battle between a business shut down by the city and an Austin Parks and Recreation Board member came to an official end Wednesday. The fallout may be felt for some time, perhaps even into the next election cycle.


The city’s Ethics Review Commission voted unanimously that Susanna Almanza, a Parks Board member and neighborhood activist, did not commit ethical violations, at least within the letter of the City of Austin’s ethics codes. It was the final hearing on the charge brought by the former owners of Eastside Tubes.


The ethics charge stemmed from Almanza’s positions as director of People Organized in the Defense of Earth and Her Resources, or PODER, and her spot on the Parks Board. PODER touts itself as a grassroots organization “redefining environmental, economic and social justice issues.” At least two individuals who said they represented PODER opposed the tubing business at Parks Board meetings. They cited noise and trash concerns. The City of Austin later shut down the Colorado River business, citing safety issues east of Longhorn Dam.


It was after the Ethics Commission vote when things got really interesting with what some – including Almanza’s attorney Bill Aleshire – might call a scolding from some commission members.


Commissioner Donna Beth McCormick, herself active in neighborhood representation, suggested Almanza could have avoided the controversy.


“I know and I have seen members recuse themselves. There was just one at the last Planning Commission meeting because of something much less than that. So, I just have a strong opinion on that,”


Commission Chair Austin Kaplan added, “I would like to encourage Ms. Almanza in future situations where PODER is advocating on the same issue that you are as a board or commission member to consider whether or not you’d like to recuse yourself just to avoid the appearance of impropriety even if under the law there is none.”


“It’s really hard to sit here and not have an opportunity (to respond) after you’ve taken the position you have in scolding my client,” said Aleshire after the commissioners’ comments.


“Absolutely,” Almanza chimed in.


”The reason you have law and set clear standards – or as clear as you can get – is so that it’s clear what you can and cannot do,” Aleshire continued. “So if you want to have influence in government from these neighborhoods, Mr. (Council Member Mike) Martinez appointed her to the Park Board so that we would have some East Austin flavor to the Park board. You want to appoint her and tell her to shut up? That’s not what you mean, I assume.”


For the record, Almanza stated she has never recused herself from a discussion or vote in her time on the Parks Board or past positions on the Environmental Board or Planning Commission.


The sticking point for the charge was determining if Almanza reaped any financial benefit, personally or for PODER, from a position against the business. The Ethics Review Commission said there was no evidence and therefore no conflict.


Aleshire argued that an opinion is not a conflict of interest.


“Every issue that, I guess, comes before the Parks Board that involves anything in East Austin can be said to apply to PODER,” Aleshire asserted. “And if that is all it takes to cause a conflict to require anyone who is from East Austin not to participate in the discussion without any special interest – that’s not what the statute is saying.”


The commission ruled unanimously in Almanza’s favor. Despite the vote, Eastside Tubes’ Alisa Walker was satisfied.


“I’m pleased,” said Walker. “I feel like they took a very sincere look at everything. I’m pleased.”


The City’s Ethics Commission powers are limited. If it found in favor of the  complainant, Almanza could have received anything from a letter of notification stating she did something wrong to a recommendation to the City Council that she be removed from the board.


Almanza reportedly is considering a run for City Council in 2014.

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