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Commission considers an independent watchdog agency for Austin

Thursday, February 8, 2018 by Jack Craver

Saying that it is time for Austin to have a full-time watchdog, a task force tasked with proposing changes to the city charter is considering ways to establish an independent ethics agency.

Currently in Austin, oversight of campaign finance filings and enforcement of city ethics rules are split up between four different entities: the city clerk, the city attorney, the city auditor and the Ethics Review Commission.

An amendment to the city charter proposed by members of the Charter Review Commission would shift all of those duties to an independent ethics agency, modeled on systems in a number of other large cities.

The current Ethics Review Commission simply isn’t up to the task of holding city employees, elected officials and candidates accountable, according to Fred Lewis, a member of the Charter Review Commission who helped draft the proposed amendment.

In recent years, the ERC’s limited enforcement powers have been put on display. Former City Council Member Don Zimmerman didn’t bother showing up to a hearing regarding his failure to fill out a required campaign finance form. His snub hardly carried stiff consequences: The commission voted to reprimand him, a penalty he shrugged off as easily as the hearing.

Among the ERC’s many problems: It doesn’t have enough funding or staff support, it only meets occasionally and its members are volunteers with limited time to dig into the complaints brought to them by citizens or the city auditor. In addition, many have no background in the matters the commission is asked to deal with.

Finally, members of the ERC are appointed by Council, tainting them with a political affiliation that jeopardizes the perception of independence. At a 2015 hearing in response to a complaint made against him, former Historic Landmark Commissioner Arif Panju pointed out that a commissioner taking a hard line against him was appointed by a Council member who was at odds with his view on historic preservation.

“You don’t see anybody other than those with minority viewpoints getting dragged into the ethics commission,” Panju said at the time.

The proposed amendment would establish a fully-funded agency, run by an executive director – a licensed attorney who ideally has experience in campaign finance or ethics laws – hired by an independent five-member board.

The members of the board will be selected in a manner similar to those who sat on the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which set up the current 10-1 City Council system. Three auditors will select a pool of 12 candidates who are deemed qualified based on experience with campaign finance law or ethics. The candidates cannot be registered lobbyists or have any number of connections to political campaigns. Of those 12, three will be selected at random in a public drawing. The three who are selected will then pick two of the remaining nine candidates to serve with them on the board.

In addition to the executive director, the new agency would have its own attorneys on staff who will handle investigations of ethics complaints and prosecute criminal violations in municipal court. Under the current system, the city attorney is responsible for pursuing any criminal charges that the Ethics Review Commission recommends.

“We think it best that the commission have its own attorneys and staff to ensure independence and impartiality,” explains the draft document.

While setting up a new ethics agency could lead to increased scrutiny and prosecutions, it will not lead to stiffer penalties. State law designates campaign finance and ethics violations as Class C misdemeanors, subject to a maximum fine of $500.

Photo by John Flynn.

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