VIEWPOINTS: Independent ethics panel has benefits, but don’t rush it

It’s still a work in progress, but the Charter Review Commission’s proposal to establish an independent ethics panel to investigate — and if necessary prosecute — alleged violations of Austin’s campaign-finance rules and other ethics-related matters is headed in the right direction.

We do offer some cautions: Whatever the final product is, it should not be rushed through the City Council or put before voters without public hearings or rigorous debate, as it would amend the city charter, Austin’s incorporating document that spells out the powers and limitations of city government.

It’s also worth noting that charter review members should craft a more balanced way of choosing the people who would sit on an independent ethics panel to avoid the body being controlled by any one city department or the City Council. It goes without saying that the cost of the initiative should be made public before it advances.

With several other initiatives being proposed for the November ballot — including a potential bond package that tops $800 million, a campaign finance voucher system, as well as City Council races — time is short for meaningful public review.

CITY HALL: Austin considers a new, independent board to review ethics.

We like that the proposal would strengthen the current system with two key elements it lacks: independence and teeth.

Independence would come from being its own body with members who aren’t all appointed by the City Council, as is the case with the current 11-member Ethics Review Commission. The proposed five-member panel would have teeth and greater reach with a staff of five to eight members who would investigate and prosecute ethics violations.

The American-Statesman’s Elizabeth Findell reported last week that if approved by the City Council and voters, the new board would replace the ethics commission. To form that panel, city auditors would hire an independent person to review applications and select 12 candidates from registered voters with “expertise in relevant subject matters” but no ties to politics or city operations. From those 12, auditors would draw three people from a hat — and those three would pick an additional two, for an ethics commission of five.

In our view, some of the members still should be appointed by the City Council to balance the body. Otherwise, the panel might reflect the more legal and prosecutorial mindset of the auditor’s office if all members originated with that department. Reflecting Seattle’s ethics panel, Austin’s could be expanded to seven members.

UPDATE: Some Austin leaders uneasy after commission demands informant identity.

As it stands, the 11-member Ethics Review Commission has been criticized as being heavily influenced by City Hall politics. Be that perception or reality, it undermines the panel’s credibility. The ethics commission is hampered by a system that spreads its duties across several city departments, including offices of the city clerk, auditor, city manager and city attorney. It has no paid staff for its volunteer board.

The proposal aims to address deficiencies and questionable findings by the commission over several years, including a recent decision in which the ethics commission declined to find that former Austin Police Monitor Margo Frasier violated city policy in using her work computer for non-city purposes. A series of events related to the case — including the commission’s demand for the original source of a tip about Frasier, and its ultimate finding — caused City Auditor Corrie Stokes to declare her disgust.

Findell reported that a memo in February from Fred Lewis, a member of the charter review panel, noted that the city’s legal department has not pursued any ethics or campaign finance enforcement actions in at least the past three years. The ethics commission has issued only four minor sanctions during that time: two reprimands, one admonition and one notification of violation.

RELATED: Former Austin Police Monitor Margo Frasier cleared in ethics case.

Keep in mind that the ethics commission is made up of volunteers. The inadequacies of the current system are not the fault of the people on the commission; it’s the structure that creates the problem. The way it is set up makes the commission susceptible to influence or politics of the city manager’s office that oversees it or the City Council that appoints its members.

The proposed panel to replace it would enforce all city laws relating to campaign finance, campaign disclosure, conflicts of interest, lobbyist regulations, revolving door, and disqualification of members of city boards, among other things. That is a tall order. The legwork would be done by paid staff, including lawyers, investigators, administrative assistants and an executive director, who would work for an ethics panel of volunteers.

City Council members and the public will need to know the cost for the replacement system to make an informed decision. That number could make or break it. Already, Austin homeowners are looking at increases in their property tax bills this year — and it still is uncertain how much proposed bond initiatives will add to the tab.

Good government should not be judged solely in dollars and cents, and it’s easy to see why this proposal makes sense — if for no other reason than it would separate the minders of campaign-finance matters and ethics reforms from the users: elected officials, lobbyists and others who are required to abide by city ethics rules.

Even so, it needs fine-tuning before going to the City Council — and public scrutiny before going to voters.

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