Monday, June 13, 2016 by Cate Malek

Ethics Review Commission overhauls complaint requirements

The process for bringing a complaint before the Ethics Review Commission will become more complicated, but hopefully more transparent, if City Council passes a recommendation to overhaul the commission’s ethics complaint requirements.

Commissioners want to address common and long-running problems with the citizen complaints they receive. Their goal is to make the process clearer and more efficient. But the recommended changes will also give the commission chair, currently Peter Einhorn, more power to reject complaints before the commission reviews them.

“What I tried to do was think of situations that this commission and prior commissions had dealt with before,” said Assistant City Attorney Cindy Tom, who drafted the recommendation. The Ethics Review Commission voted unanimously to approve the recommendation at its meeting on June 8.

The commission oversees issues related to conflicts of interest, campaign contributions and expenditures, campaign finance and regulation of lobbyists for Council. Before the recommended changes, citizens were required to fill out a complaint form. But their only instructions, listed in City Code 2-7-41, were to “specify each code section or charter provision alleged to have been violated.”

Now the commissioners have amended those instructions to include 14 specific requirements, including “a complaint must be sworn and properly notarized” and “a complaint must list the full date of each individual day on which a violation allegedly occurred,” among others.

The new instructions are meant to serve as a checklist that the chair can use to determine whether a complainant can receive a preliminary hearing before the commission. Tom said her goal was to “give the chair as much direction as possible, so he’s not just winging it.” She acknowledged that the commission was passing some of its authority to the chair, and so she wanted “to be really clear what (they’re) asking him to do.”

While the new requirements are meant to save time for both the commission and complainants, the commissioners recognized that these instructions might prove frustrating if people are rejected for reasons they don’t understand.

Commissioner J. Michael Ohueri said there was a need to avoid putting up barriers for complainants who were more “timid” or who “believe that the whole system is rigged.”

But ultimately, the commissioners believe that the new instructions will actually make it easier for complainants to understand the system.

And for those who don’t agree with the chair’s decision not to hear their complaint, they still have the option to appeal before the commission.

“They can show up to the meeting and ask to talk,” Tom said.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Ethics Review Commission: The Ethics Review Commission is charged with review of, among other issues, ethics complaints leveled against City of Austin boards and commission members. They meet quarterly.

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