Photo by John Flynn
Tuesday, June 15, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Complaint against Harper-Madison ruled out of ethics commission’s jurisdiction

Ethics violations against Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison were found to be outside the purview of the city’s Ethics Review Commission last week, marking the second time in two months the commission has failed to move forward with a complaint brought by resident Olivia Overturf.

Overturf’s new complaint was filed May 17, less than a week after the commission’s vote fell short of the majority six votes needed to postpone or dismiss the complaint. The original complaint filed in April was tied to a heated exchange Overturf had with Harper-Madison related to the condition of an apartment complex in her district and the trials its residents faced during Winter Storm Uri.

Commissioner Robin Lerner stalled the new complaint before the meeting, saying the parts of city code named in Overturf’s complaint were broad policy points and lacked a specific action that would qualify as a violation. The nine points of code that the complaint cited fall under categories of campaign finance, declarations of policy and legislative findings and ethics and financial disclosure.

Lerner was in charge of the determination because Overturf asked Chair Luis Soberon to recuse himself. Lerner cited language such as “representative democracy requires that elected public officials exercise independent judgment, act impartially and remain responsible to the people,” and “The public should have justified confidence in the integrity of its government,” as being too nebulous for the commission to decide.

Soberon said much the same thing, noting that the questions in front of the group with Overturf’s complaint will make more work for the working group that was created to revise the city code language covering how the Ethics Review Commission handles its cases.

“The question is, how does one go about violating this language that the public should have justified confidence in the integrity of its government? Is that a thing that can be violated by a city official? And if so, how?” he said.

“The conclusion that was reached I’m inclined to agree with – that’s not the kind of thing that can be discretely violated.”

Commissioner Nguyen Stanton voiced the strongest opposition to the determination, though no one seconded her motion for a vote to overturn and move forward with the complaint.

“We’re not here to judge a person’s intent. We’re here to decide if we think there’s reason to believe that there is a violation of a code that is within our jurisdiction,” she said. “I don’t understand how we came to the determination that this is not within our jurisdiction.”

Lerner and Soberon thanked Overturf for preparing her complaint, calling her filings more complete and well-structured than many of those assembled by attorneys. They encouraged her to give input to the working group’s attempt to overhaul the code, though she said she had no intention of coming before the group again.

“I’m not going to spend one more second fighting this commission over a policy. I cannot change the code, so it’s you guys that have the power to change the code,” she said. “I’ve heard you at every single hearing say the same thing: ‘We don’t like the code, and we need to change it.’”

“I’m not here to be a guinea pig and neither is one other citizen that comes up here … I’m an average citizen and I barely had the time for this.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Ethics Review Commission: The Ethics Review Commission is charged with review of, among other issues, ethics complaints leveled against City of Austin boards and commission members. They meet quarterly.

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