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Reporter’s Notebook: Ethics, at a cost

Monday, June 24, 2019 by Austin Monitor

Frank Rodriguez case costs city… After the Ethics Review Commission failed to agree upon a settlement in the case against Frank Rodriguez last May, the case came back before the commission for a final hearing last week. Rodriguez had received $37,000 for consulting services from the Latino HealthCare Forum and used his position to help secure contracts for the nonprofit during his tenure with the city of Austin. Ultimately, the commission found that Rodriguez’s continued ties to Latino HealthCare Forum constituted a conflict of interest and sanctioned him with a letter of admonition, a consequence less harsh than the reprimand that was proposed in May. According to city code, a letter of admonition is appropriate if “the commission finds that the violation is minor or may have been unintentional,” whereas a reprimand is appropriate “when the commission finds that a violation has been committed intentionally or through disregard of this chapter.” Although the ethics commissioners did consider a reprimand, they settled on a letter of admonition concluding that his simultaneous payments from his nonprofit and the city of Austin was not an intentional sleight of hand on his part.

In order to come to this conclusion, the city is contracted to spend $89,959.46 on legal fees and outside audit investigation throughout the process. While the majority of those fees were paid in 2017 and 2018 for the investigation, the city agreed to pay up to $10,000 more to Ross Fischer in March for continued representation on the case as it proceeded through the commission. Although “the bulk of the work was done months before we filed the complaint,” Deputy City Auditor Jason Hadavi said that “there was significant effort that went into preparing for that hearing.” The Austin Monitor called Ross Fischer, Travis Casner and Jared Jordan, who made up the outside investigation team, and between the legal and investigative audit consultants, was told that an average of 70 hours of additional work was put into preparing for the case between May and June after the settlement was scrapped. Hadavi told the Monitor that the commission would have been within its purview to accept the proposed settlement, which contained more stringent sanctions than what was eventually settled on.

San Marcos conducts memorial for historic building… After a vigorous fight to save a historic telephone company building in downtown San Marcos, the structure was demolished last weekend. Although the San Marcos Daily Record reported that local residents pleaded with the developer to save the building, it was to no avail. The 91-year-old building was razed on June 15. To mourn its loss, the Heritage Association of San Marcos hosted a funeral procession for the building last weekend. Known to residents as the “blue building,” it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. It was leveled to make room for the San Marcos Lofts, a multifamily development with 166 planned units and 10,000 square feet of retail space. “I was out there pleading with him and whatever the demolition machine he was using,” Diana Baker, the former chair of the San Marcos Historic Preservation Commission, told the Austin Monitor. “They demolished part of it and let us look at it for a day or so.” Baker said that the case never came before the city’s Historic Preservation Commission for a vote, and as a result, interested parties found out two weeks before demolition was scheduled. Had there been more lead time, she said there were interested investors who could have paid for relocation. Facebook depicts hundreds of posts of residents expressing surprise and dismay that the building is no longer standing. With this funeral fresh in their minds, Baker said that citizens are going to have to be vigilant going forward. “We’re under tremendous pressure from development,” she said.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebook of Jessi Devenyns.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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