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Audit finds management violating ethics rules

Tuesday, June 11, 2019 by Jo Clifton

A report just released by the Office of the City Auditor says city management ignored a violation of city code by an employee serving on a city commission that covers subject matter related to her department – despite a warning from the city auditor.

City code currently prohibits employees from serving on commissions that cover subject matter related to their departments, though City Manager Spencer Cronk told the Austin Monitor he plans to ask City Council to change ethics regulations to eliminate that prohibition. He said he would like to see the code changed so that city employees would be held “to the same standards (as) any other citizen volunteer.”

The report names neither the employee nor the commission on which she serves. However, the report provides sufficient evidence to conclude that the employee in question is Chiquita Eugene, who has served on the African American Resource Advisory Commission since 2006, according to the audit. Cronk told the Monitor that anecdotally he understands that “only a handful of employees” serve on city boards and commissions.

Eugene came to work for the Human Resources Department in August 2011. When she applied for her city job, auditors said she disclosed her service on the commission. The former director of the Human Resources department told auditors “he did not believe that the commission was likely to consider topics that impacted” the department. However, auditors said they found evidence that issues within the department’s scope came before the commission starting in mid-2012.

The report places the blame for ethical violations squarely on management. The employee could not be reached for comment on Monday.

According to the report, “In the July 2016 commission meeting, the employee participated in a vote that recommended an additional $200,000 in funding for the City program that she directly managed as a city employee in HRD. At the time of this vote, the employee was serving as the Commission’s vice chair.”

There were several other instances when HR staff attended commission meetings and made presentations, the report notes. Cronk said he did not think the fact that staffers were making a presentation at a commission meeting should prevent the employee commissioner from attending.

Auditors said that the employee and her program were transferred to Austin Public Health in October 2017.

“We found that not only did the commission in question have a working group dedicated to physical and mental health issues, subjects directly in line with” the department’s mission, “but that in the years leading up to the employee’s transfer the commission regularly considered issues related to” the department.

In September 2018, commissioners heard two separate items related to the health department, one of which was about the department’s proposed budget.

“Before this presentation began, the employee appears to recuse herself from the briefing,” auditors wrote. However, they also found evidence that the employee “participated in a vote regarding an organization that had previously been awarded funds from” the health department’s budget. But apparently she was not aware of the connection between the organization and the health department, auditors concluded.

Auditors received a complaint concerning the employee’s participation on the commission in May 2017. Auditors contacted the department about correcting the issue, but about nine months later “learned that the employee had been transferred to a different department but the violation persisted. At this point, we opened the case into the issue,” they wrote.

Auditors said that the HR department did not address the issues brought to their attention, “but had given the employee coaching on when to recuse herself from an item before the commission. Additionally, we learned that approximately five weeks after the employee voted to recommend increasing the funding to her own program,” the HR director “received an opinion from the city’s Law Department that advised the employee could continue her service on the commission.”

That opinion was “based on an inaccurate reading of city code,” focusing on the frequency that the commission would consider subject matter related to the employee’s department instead of considering subject matter as specified in City Code, auditors concluded. They also cited City Administrative Bulletin 07-04, which states that the authority to make a determination about whether an employee would continue to serve ” is solely within the discretion of the city manager.”

Cronk specifically wrote in his response to the audit report that he would recommend that Council amend code provisions about city employees serving in a volunteer capacity on city boards and commissions. “In turn, I intend to rescind the current Administrative Bulletins addressing the same issue,” he wrote.

Management also provided additional responses, noting that the HR department discussed allegations with the employee, specifically concerning her vote on the Fiscal Year 2016-17 budget request proposal. She was unaware that she should have recused herself, management said, and agreed that “going forward she would recuse as appropriate.”

Cronk said Monday that the city Law Department was working on proposed changes to the ethics ordinance regarding city employee service on commissions. He said he expects to present it to Council for their consideration in mid-August.

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Photo by John Flynn.

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