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Ethics Commission Reports to Council

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     Today the Corpus Christi City Council named Rob Bailey as the newest member of the City of Corpus Christi Ethics Commission with a vote of 8-1, which meets the two-thirds vote of the full council required for this position.  Councilwoman Lucy Rubio nominated Bailey and all voted in his favor, save Councilwoman Colleen McIntyre who voted for her nominee, Craig Rogers.  Bailey, a husband and father who serves as the pastor at South Side Community Church in Corpus Christi, will replace Rod Wolthoff whose term ends on October 1, 2016. His appointment was the first of several topics related to ethical behavior.

     First came the discussion about a cap on what cab drivers can charge their rides.  Several council members saw a cap as necessary to prevent drivers from charging exorbitant fees.  According to McIntyre, Corpus cab drivers charge some of the highest allowable rates and that a cap is the best way to keep them in check.  Then, during public comment, Joe McComb questioned an assistant city manager’s credentials, saying that the Board of Professional Engineers lists Mark Van Vleck as “inactive”, which could pose a problem if Van Vleck presents himself as a PE (professional engineer) while conducting business for the City.   McComb suggested that the Council look into the matter in order to save everyone some trouble and embarrassment later.   Then, there was the case of a high-ranking city official making inappropriate and heated comments on a social media site over something said by a local pastor during public comment.  This was mentioned in passing as the commission submitted its report, a result of several months of work revising the Ethics Code.  Ethical behavior was the order of the day, especially when the Council received the Ethics Commission’s recommendations for changes to the City’s Ethics Code.

     Chairman Dr. Haysam Dawod presented the following recommendations:

  • Remove Section 2-311(4) which currently allows Council, but prohibits employees and board members, from using the prestige of their position with the City on behalf of any political party or cause.
  • Amend Section 2-311 (8) (A) which currently prohibits City officials, employees, and board members from taking action on a matter before them that benefits any of their “relatives”. The term “relatives” is currently defined as spouse, parents, children, siblings, spouses of children, spouses of siblings. The proposed amendment would expand the “circle of influence” to also grandparent, grandchildren, clients, members of households, outside employer of spouse or member of household, entities in which any of the relatives listed has an economic interest or entity in which the City official serves in policy making position.
  • Add new Section 2-311(8)(B) to prohibit any City employee/official or their family member or friend from profiting from privileged information discussed in confidential city meetings.
  • Add new Section 2-311(8)(E ) to prohibit a city official from using their position to influence a contract or business transaction before the City involving an individual or organization who contributed $2,700 or more to the official’s most recent election campaign.
  • Adds new Section 2-311 (16) to prohibit use of confidential information other than for performing official duties. Also Adds new Section 2-311 (17) to prohibit disclosure of confidential information relating to city affairs. Confidential information is any information not available to the public under the Texas Public Information Act and also any information from a closed session meeting.

     Some of the recommendations generated a great deal of discussion among council members.  Questions arose regarding the actual meanings of words such as “recusal” and “clients.”  Council members Chad Magill and Carolyn Vaughn expressed their approval for the changes, agreeing with the commission that once a council member has recused himself/herself from the first step of a multi-step issue that the council member should do the same throughout the process.  Councilman Mark Scott said he understood that it might address something  such as PlanCC 2035, a project for which his wife received a contract.  He recused himself initially but later took part in the discussions.  McIntyre said she has no problem with that kind of scenario because the council member is still responsible for speaking for his constituency after the point of conflict of interest has passed.

     Carolyn Vaughn disagreed.  “If you profit from the beginning, you should not discuss or vote on it at all.”

     Earlier Vaughn said, “I am so happy this is coming back.  It’s the one thing I wanted to do when I first got on council.”  Later she added, “The purpose of going over the Ethics Code is to close the loopholes.”

     Of all the commissions and boards in the city, some consider the Ethics Commission the most important.  Megan Comlossy of the Center for Ethics in Government National Conference of State Legislatures, “Following the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, ethics laws received new attention at all levels of government.  State governments have enacted stronger ethics laws and created an ethics infrastructure, including ethics training and oversight agencies to monitor compliance by public officials. Both internal and external oversight entities now provide that oversight.

     “As regulatory agencies, ethics commissions serve a vital role in a democratic government. They work to ensure voters’ trust in policymakers and political institutions by monitoring compliance with ethics laws and ensuring ethical conduct by those under their jurisdiction.  Ethics commissions represent the public’s interest and work to maintain public trust in government.”

     As per the City Municipal Code, the Ethics Commission has jurisdiction over complaints involving any “city official”, which includes:

  • the mayor and members of the city council,
  • city manager,
  • deputy and assistant city managers,
  • city secretary,
  • city attorney,
  • department heads,
  • municipal court judges (including substitute judges), and
  • all members of any board, commission or committee of the city, including the board of any corporation created by the city.

In addition, the commission is charged with:

  • preparing and publishing pamphlets and other materials explaining the duties of individuals subject to the code of ethics;
  • reviewing all statements and reports filed with the city;
  • annually reviewing the code of ethics and making appropriate recommendations to the city council;
  • reviewing all public opinions related to the code of ethics that are issued by the city attorney;
  • preparing and disseminating a report listing all campaign contributions and expenditures for each candidate within 30 days following the deadline for filing the last campaign finance reports for each city council election;
  • complying with the Texas Open Meetings Act.

      It was clear that not all the council members were in agreement with the commission’s recommendations.  The next step is for the council to consider each item, amend as they see fit, and vote to accept or not.  Dawod asked Mayor Martinez if the commission would get to review the council’s final changes.  After jokingly saying they would not, Martinez assured him that they would indeed be able to review the final draft.

     Martinez thanked Dawod and the other commissioners for their service.  Dawod repeated what he said several times during the presentation:  “Our recommendations have been made to remove the perception of impropriety and give us a code to follow.”  He added, “Our job is never done.”