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Like Batman, county commissioners waive ethics for greater good

Monday, April 19, 2021 by Seth Smalley

Last Tuesday, the Commissioners Court discussed the prospect of waiving a section of the county ethics policy for the purpose of granting Ascension Seton a contract for the right to aid Travis County in its vaccine distribution efforts.

The county code in question, Chapter 33, Section 19, involves discretionary contracts – and specifically denies the assignment of county contracts to “any person that is a key contracting person, or who has done business with a key contracting person” within a year before the contract is executed.

The issue was that Kate Garza, a key contracting person with the Office of the County Judge, had engaged in business with Ascension Seton within the last year due to her former employment with the company.

The county ethics code dictates that the issue must be discussed and waived by commissioners before entering any contract between Ascension Seton and Travis County.

All of the commissioners regarded the issue as an open-and-shut case; the decision to waive the ethics code and grant the contract was obvious.

“There seems to be no exchange of benefits, and we know that Ascension is doing an incredible service to the taxpayers of Travis County. That’s just my initial take on this,” Commissioner Margaret Gómez said, following a presentation by Bonnie Floyd with the Travis County Purchasing Office.

Commissioner Brigid Shea echoed Gómez’s sentiments: In this circumstance, the ethics policy should absolutely be waived to allow Ascension to shoulder some of the burden of mass vaccinating the county. While application of the code didn’t make sense in this case, Shea nevertheless praised its thoroughness – better to have an all-encompassing code that requires occasional tinkering than an insufficient one.

“My understanding is that we, Travis County, have adopted a very rigorous ethics policy, and this provision of having a public discussion about any kind of waiver related to this sort of thing is a more, shall we say, transparent, or more rigorous provision than is in other ethics policies that we are aware of,” Shea said. “I think, in this case, this is not something any Travis County employee will financially benefit from, and I think it’s clear we need this service and that other entities were not willing to come forward and provide this service. My understanding is we had checked with others and this is the entity that is willing and able to do it.”

Floyd confirmed Shea’s account, in addition to providing other pertinent details.

“The court should know the ethics policy was intended to be considered when an employee leaves the county to work with a contractor, when that contractor may earn some benefit from the employee’s specialized knowledge. In this case, it’s the other way around: Kate was an employee of Ascension Seton, is now an employee of the county. She will not receive compensation in any form … other than her usual county paycheck,” Floyd said.

Commissioner Jeff Travillion, spotlighting the effectiveness of the ethics code, said, “I think this demonstrates our ethics policy does what it was designed to do. If ever something comes up, we talk about it in a public forum and we move forward with the recommendation.”

Though the commissioners all seemed to be in unanimous agreement about waiving the section of policy, no action was taken at the meeting. Per ethics code direction, the discussion of the relevant policy, during a regular session of the court, must take place seven days prior to any action waiving any section of the county ethics policy.

Photo by Incognito668 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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