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Ethics commission loses some duties

Friday, March 29, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Austin’s Ethics Review Commission will no longer be looking at allegations of ethics violations related to most city employees. On Thursday, City Council approved changes to the ordinance governing the commission’s authority after ensuring that reports about such allegations would eventually become public.

Mayor Steve Adler proposed the changes after Human Resources Department Director Joya Hayes was accused of misusing city resources by asking her staff to care for her children. The Ethics Review Commission dismissed the complaint at a preliminary hearing.

Under the new ordinance, instead of sending the cases to the commission, the Office of the City Auditor will deliver its investigative reports about employees’ alleged ethics violations to the city manager. The city manager will have 10 days to review the file and make a decision, supplying written comments to the auditor. Only after that will the auditor deliver a copy of the audit report to Council and make it available to the public.

Council Member Alison Alter authored the amendment that directs the city auditor to give the report to Council, which has the effect of making it public. Without that provision, it is unlikely that Council would have unanimously supported the change to the ordinance.

If the person accused of an ethics violation is a member of Council or its direct staff or is a Council appointee to a city board, task force or similar body, then the matter will continue to be referred to the Ethics Review Commission.

Frances McIntyre of the League of Women Voters for the Austin area urged Council to instead set up an independent ethics review commission. As McIntyre noted, the language change gives the city manager, instead of the commission, the responsibility of deciding “whether to take action against certain city employees accused of ethics violations.” She said while the proposal would allow for some transparency, that transparency would only come after the city manager has completed his evaluation.

“Transparency after the fact is not the same as transparency during the process. In addition, this proposal will place an added burden on the city manager’s office and lessen the authority of the Ethics Review Commission. We believe the answer is not less, but more, transparency,” she said. McIntyre concluded her remarks by urging Council to consider the 2018 Charter Review Commission’s proposal to set up an independent ethics commission.

Carol Guthrie of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees told Council her organization had concerns about the original proposal, which did not include the provision that the city auditor release the final report to Council and the public. Guthrie concluded, “We are trusting that this is a good change. We’re going to be watching and evaluating this new process and if in six months things are not quite working the way we thought they would, we will be coming back.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo emphasized that she and other members of Council would also be watching to see what happens in the next six months.

Photo by John Flynn.

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