Mayor Garza touts Ethics Code revisions as step in right direction

"All city officials and employees are stewards of the public trust. They have a responsibility to the citizens of San Antonio to enforce the City Charter and the associated ordinances and codes," reads the new statement of purpose to be included in the document. "To ensure and enhance public confidence in City Government, each city official must not only adhere to the principles of ethical conduct set forth in this code and technical compliance therewith, but they must scrupulously avoid the appearance of impropriety at all times."

Term-limited Councilman Bobby Perez made amendments that allowed City officials to accept gifts worth $50 - instead of $10 - and worked to change the definition of a "municipal question." Basically, Perez, an attorney, said the state's definition of ethics is good enough for him.

"You can't legislate morality," he said.

Tell that to owners of local strip clubs.

Council also adopted new rules governing "contact" with City Council members by lobbyists: "Any person who makes an oral lobbying contact with an official shall identify the client or clients on whose behalf

"But we don't want de facto lobbyists who climb in under the radar and lobby the council. We're trying to weed that out.

— Julián Castro
the lobbying contact is made and identify himself or herself as a registered lobbyist."

The rule loosely parallels the "no touch" rule in the recently adopted ordinance that governs local strip clubs. Council members, like topless dancers, can take your money, but you cannot touch them.

A "no touch" rule imposed upon exotic dancers is aimed at preventing prostitution, whereas a "contact" rule concerning Council members should prevent lobbyists from demanding play-for-pay when their special projects come under review.

The ethics code revisions are worrying the local business sector, said A.J. Rodriguez, spokesman for the San Antonio Business Coalition: "We applaud the intent to restore trust in city government," but new rules could hurt small businesses. He urged a series of public hearings on the proposed amendments.

He apparently has forgotten that the Mayor's Committee on Integrity and Trust in Local Government conducted a series of public meetings before it submitted recommended code changes last January.

The committee anticipated such memory lapses: "Many times in the recent past, the findings and recommendations of citizen commissions have been ignored or forgotten, adding to a sense of futility on the part of the public," the report reads.

Local environmentalist Richard Alles commended the committee for a "great job," but added that the Council overlooked a recommendation that lobbyists should be forbidden to serve on city commissions, committees, and advisory boards, such as the Zoning Commission and the Planning Commission - which, in turn, appoint subcommittees.

Alles said the practice results in ordinances that benefit the lobbyists' clients: "The benefits to the lobbyists is outweighed by fiscal conflicts of interest," and they "should not be allowed to serve on committees and advisory boards or be required to recuse themselves" when a decision would put money in their pockets.

Council did not consider the integrity committee's recommendation that its members act with more civility during the weekly City Council matinee: "There are certain current practices that citizens have stated give the appearance of inattention or even discourtesy to the person making the presentation. These practices include frequent moving about by councilmembers, absence from their seats for prolonged periods and occasionally swiveling in their seats, with backs to the public, while talking to other councilmembers."

Other recommendations - including moderating cell phone conversations - also were ignored in this first round of cleaning up the image of City Hall's elected officials.

"This is a document that is better understood," Mayor Garza said, adding the new Council will continue to amend the ethics ordinance. "This will be a step in the right direction."

"We don't want to stamp out business," District 7 Councilman Julián Castro said. "But we don't want de facto lobbyists who climb in under the radar and lobby the council. We're trying to weed that out. There is an element of repeat players who are constantly in front of the council."

"We as a Council have to police ourselves," Perez countered. "It's up to us to say 'No, I'm not going to talk to you.' I've seen you guys turn someone away because you thought it was not the right thing to do. It's too bad the public doesn't see that."

Perez seems to have missed the point of the integrity committee's report: the public wants to see ethical behavior at City Hall.

Defeated District 3 incumbent Toni Moorhouse asked about the ban on former Councilmembers lobbying the Council for at least two years after leaving office. "What if you're a managing partner of a business?" she asked.

Assistant City Attorney Helen Valkavich replied that a former Councilmember couldn't have an interest in a discretionary contract for one year after leaving office.

Considering that Moorhouse allegedly peddled a local lobbyist firm's allure to a South Side housing developer, her question could be a preview of her next career move - after a year elapses, of course. •

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