Photo by John Flynn
Ethics commissioners dismiss complaint against Harper-Madison
Thursday, May 20, 2021 by Elizabeth Pagano
An ethics complaint against Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison was automatically dismissed Wednesday, May 12, after the Ethics Review Commission failed to reach a majority six votes on a motion to postpone or a separate motion to dismiss.
The latter motion included an opportunity for the complainant, Olivia Overturf, to resubmit an amended complaint by July. The failed motion does not preclude Overturf from following through on her own, however.
Overturf filed the complaint on April 12 alleging that Harper-Madison violated a subsection of the city’s Ethics Code by using disparaging language when she responded to Overturf’s remarks during citizen communication at the March 25 Council meeting. Overturf had testified about the dire circumstances of residents living in the Mount Carmel apartments in Harper-Madison’s District 1. The residents were among those who were the most adversely affected by the severe freeze in February. Overturf criticized Harper-Madison’s failure to respond in a timely manner after the apartment complex was declared uninhabitable due to the lack of gas.
The complainant told commissioners she was taken aback when Harper-Madison responded to her testimony before Council, saying Overturf’s remarks were uninformed and untrue. She said of all the times she has attended Council meetings, she has never seen a Council member respond to a citizen’s remarks during citizen communication. “Her First Amendment rights do not prevail over mine,” Overturf said. ”I only had two minutes to publicly speak on the matter, but the mayor pro tem’s rebuttal lasted well over two minutes in what seemed to be an effort to publicly discredit my commentary.”
Because Overturf alluded to Harper-Madison’s ties to the property owner, Dallas-based Eureka Multifamily Group, prior to her election to Council, Commission Chair Luis Soberon suggested that Overturf reframe her complaint to support her beliefs. He said that as the complaint currently stands, he didn’t believe Harper-Madison’s conduct amounted to a violation.
“Rarely have I seen a complainant, a citizen complainant, a non-lawyer complainant, come with this much material prepared and well-thought-out,” Soberon noted. “(However), I don’t know if it, for me, is crossing the finish line specifically for the city code that is referenced in the complaint.”
Most of the commissioners agreed with that assessment. But the votes to postpone to allow Overturf time to resubmit a complaint didn’t add up to the required six as there were only seven members present. The vote on Soberon’s motion was 5-2-1, with commissioners Donna Beth McCormick and Betsy Greenberg voting no (they wanted to move the case to a hearing). Commissioner J. Michael Ohueri, appointed by Harper-Madison, recused himself from the discussion and the vote; Commissioner Robin Lerner was absent; and newly appointed Commissioner Mikki Teneyuca had not yet completed her required training for the commission.
“By no means is this any kind of indication that what happened was appropriate or inappropriate,” Soberon clarified following the votes. “And by no means is this closing the door on future complaints that you may have before the commission.”
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.
Join Your Friends and Neighbors
We're a nonprofit news organization, and we put our service to you above all else. That will never change. But public-service journalism requires community support from readers like you. Will you join your friends and neighbors to support our work and mission?