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Ethics commission wants to make it easier to file complaints

Wednesday, November 3, 2021 by Willow Higgins

At its monthly meeting Wednesday night, the Ethics Review Commission discussed a number of moving pieces it has in the works, including an easier-to-navigate complaint form for reporting suspected ethics violations, and a media piece explaining the commission’s function to the public.

The 11 members of the commission, who are appointed by City Council, hear and manage complaints from people who suspect a city official or employee has broken the city’s ethics code or the city’s campaign finance laws. While open investigations of potential ethics violations are kept confidential, the commission holds monthly public meetings to discuss routine matters of business.

In an effort to prevent bureaucratic technicalities from getting in the way of doing their jobs, commissioners workshopped ways to streamline the process of filing a complaint. Members made a vague reference to a past case in which a complainant alleged a violation, yet mistakenly cited the wrong city code. The complaint form requires the complainant to cite the section of the city charter or code in violation – a task that has room for error. If the complainant selects the wrong section, their case could be thrown out.

“Dismissing a complaint because of a technicality is just not justice,” Commissioner Betsy Greenberg said.

Chair Luis Soberon offered a couple of suggestions to remedy the issue, including a reference page on the form that makes the city codes easier to choose from; presenting potential codes that could be violated in check-boxes; and proposing to City Council that the requirement to cite the violated code be removed from the form, or included in the preliminary hearing rather than in the initial form.

Commissioner Debra Danburg floated the idea of hiring an ombudsman to help navigate the process – a public advocate who could work at the service of a complainant who might not have their own legal representation. Danburg’s colleagues liked the idea, and will be discussing making a recommendation to Council for a proposed budget increase to fill a position.

In the meantime, the commission’s working group on sanctions, procedures and other issues will continue brainstorming workable options to improve the complaint form and will discuss them at an upcoming meeting.

The working group on race, identity and equity was tasked with producing a piece of content designed to be distributed widely through the city that informs the public about the ethics commission and how it may be used as a resource. The working group aims to make the commission more accessible to all Austinites, including those who might not have internet access or legal resources available to them. 

Commissioner Mary Kahle took the lead on the project, drafting two potential pieces to be used. Per her colleagues’ feedback, she will proceed to fold both documents into one, creating a bulleted list of the commission’s responsibilities, free from legal jargon, including a statement on the commission’s beliefs in regard to equity and access. The group also brainstormed engaging ways to present and distribute the document, eventually leaning toward making a short video that summarizes the written version. 

The Ethics Review Commission will pick up these matters of business at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Nov. 10.

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