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Ethics Commission says voters have given Zimmerman a greater sanction than it ever could

Monday, November 14, 2016 by Cate Malek

Austin’s Ethics Commission dismissed a complaint against City Council Member Don Zimmerman on Nov. 9, saying there was no sanction it could give him greater than being voted out of office.

Commissioners voted 5-3 in favor of the complainant. But, in order for the motion to pass, the commission needed six supporting votes, or two-thirds of the 11-member commission. Three members of the commission — Ben Stratmann, Brian Thompson and Debra Danbury — were absent.

Commissioners said the meeting’s low attendance might have been due to traffic, as downtown was completely shut down that evening because of a protest against President-elect Donald Trump that drew hundreds of people. Zimmerman was also not in attendance, although his lawyer sent a statement on his behalf.

The complaint was brought by Cathy Morgan, a retired high school math teacher with deep roots in Austin who took issue with Zimmerman’s response to Austin’s campaign finance rules.

Candidates for Council have the option of agreeing to strict spending limits in exchange for public funding from the city’s fair campaign fund. Although very few candidates choose to take this option, those who don’t are required to write on their campaign mailers, “This campaign has not agreed to comply with the contribution and expenditure limits of the Austin Fair Campaign Chapter.”

Zimmerman followed the requirement during his campaign but changed the wording to say, “This campaign has not agreed to comply with the contribution and expenditure limits of the so-called ‘Fair’ Campaign Chapter.”

When Morgan received one of those mailers, she said she found Zimmerman’s language to be editorializing and called it disrespectful.

“If you want to make changes, then there are ways to go about making changes. But this is not the way,” she said.

Three members of the Ethics Commission thought the complaint wasn’t solid enough to pursue. Commissioner Kenneth Smith said that although people may see Zimmerman’s wording as mocking the city rules, he had in fact followed them.

But five members of the commission were ready to pursue the complaint, saying that he changed the wording in order to make a political statement. Commissioners originally thought the motion had passed and were ready to proceed with the complaint. But after some discussion, they realized that they were one vote shy and let the complaint slide. Multiple commissioners noted that there was nothing they could do to Zimmerman that the voters in his district hadn’t already done.

“I don’t think any sanction we could give him could be worse than the sanction that the voters gave him,” said Chair Peter Einhorn.

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Photo by That Other Paper made available through a Creative Commons license.

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