Photo: Billy Calzada /San Antonio Express-News
In their first public session as a full body discussing proposed changes to San Antonio’s ethics laws, City Council members decided they need more time to deliberate before voting to institute the measures.
Among the suggestions from the Ethics Review Board — a group of residents appointed by the City Council to adjudicate ethics complaints made against elected and appointed officials — are to require campaign contributions quarterly rather than semi-annually during non-election years and broaden the scope of who cannot make contributions to political campaigns while involved in the pursuit of high-profile contracts.
Council members cited a number of reasons to not immediately move forward to a vote, though Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the body should quickly take up some of the measures, the “low-hanging fruit” that could be quickly implemented while some of the other issues are further deliberated.
The ethics board worked for about two years on the recommendations its chairwoman, Adriana Rocha Garcia, made to the council Wednesday. Some of the suggestions fell short, however, of the lofty goals set by council members Roberto Treviño and Rey Saldaña, and the mayor.
They’ve sought an independent ethics czar outside of the city’s organizational chart — someone who’s beholden to neither the mayor and council nor the city manager’s office.
The board also rejected a proposal from Councilman John Courage, which would require that candidates and officeholders report the occupations and employers of their political donors. While such disclosure is generally required at the state and federal level, state law does not require it for municipal campaigns.
Courage, who has previously run legislative and congressional campaigns requiring such disclosures, said financial contributions are “the mother’s milk of politics.”
He supported several of the other recommendations but suggested that the ethics board was missing the target by passing on his proposal to increase disclosure.
“I don’t think we’re disclosing enough if we just know the name ‘Joe Smith,’ but we don’t know what Joe Smith does or who he’s working for,” Courage said.
Council members also on Wednesday identified new issues, like whether campaign contribution limits — currently $500 for council candidates and $1,000 for mayoral candidates — should be increased.
Not long into deliberations, it became clear there wasn’t consensus among council members with some appearing unwilling to err on the side of transparency.
Councilman Greg Brockhouse shunned additional reporting periods for campaign finance reports, and Councilman Clayton Perry balked at both an independent ethics auditor and requiring disclosure of the occupations and employers of political donors.
“It brings up a lot of questions,” Perry said of the independent auditor, worrying aloud about who would watch over that official.
He deemed the additional disclosure an invasion of privacy, saying he harbors “big concerns about that.”
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval said she had mixed feelings about Courage’s proposal because she knows some of her contributors would have likely not given to her campaign had they needed to disclose their occupations and employers. But she said she sees the need for the disclosure and suggested that she’d be comfortable requiring the additional information when a contribution is $250 or more.
Now, the board plans to reconvene to further deliberate and form more recommendations for council members, who likely will also discuss the matter in one-on-one conversations with their colleagues. Meanwhile, the city has engaged Common Cause — a national, nonpartisan, grassroots organization that works on creating “open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest” — to help further San Antonio’s bolstering of its ethics and campaign finance ordinances.
It’s unclear when, exactly, the council will begin voting on various changes to those laws.
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