Committee begins review of Georgetown’s ethics rules for elected officials, appointees

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A committee tasked by Georgetown City Council to review the city’s ethics code began Wednesday to set the scope of recommendations the committee might make to council members regarding future changes.

Georgetown City Council voted Oct. 24 to overhaul local ethics rules that apply to city officials and community members who serve on city boards and commissions. The council’s vote also created a special committee, known as an “ad hoc” committee, to review the city’s code and offer recommendations to the council on further action.

Proposed changes to the code came about following an instance earlier this year in which the city’s planning and zoning commission was unable to review a development proposal due to concerns that too many members of the commission would fall within the previous code’s definition of having conflicts of interest.

City Attorney Charlie McNabb told committee members Wednesday the development proposal involved a request from Enterprise Products Partners to rezone approximately 10 acres at 555 Rabbit Hill Road in order to build a crude oil pipeline pump station, as well as additional commercial development.

McNabb told the committee the main sticking point for the planning and zoning commission involved a provision in Georgetown’s ethics code regarding conflicts that the code defined as “substantial economic interests.” McNabb said the local provision was broader than state rules that rely on “substantial financial interests,” which identify specific dollar amounts and percentages of voting stock or business ownership that qualify a commission member as having a conflict of interest. Georgetown’s previous ethics code include both definitions.

Georgetown’s seven-member City Council voted 4-2 on Oct. 24 to scrap most of the local ethics provisions while keeping in compliance with state ethics rules.

Council members Anna Eby of District 1 and Rachael Jonrowe of District 6 voted against approving changes during the Oct. 24 meeting. District 4 Council Member Steve Fought was absent from the meeting, but previously expressed support for considering changes to the city’s ethics rules.

The decision disbanded the city’s ethics commission, as state rules have no requirement for one. However, the eight members of the commission agreed to serve on the ad hoc committee to review the city’s rules and recommend further action.

On Wednesday, committee members took no formal votes but discussed possible future action to recommend updated definitions on conflicts in the city code; to reinstate the city’s ethics commission; and to address what type of sanctions should be included for ethics violations.

The committee will meet again in early December and formal recommendations to City Council are expected in early 2018.

Georgetown’s city charter requires an ethics code to provide guidance on conflicts of interest and other matters for elected officials and community members appointed to boards and commissions.

City Council members had pointed discussions about possible changes to the code during several meetings and workshops before their Oct. 24 vote.

One of the more outspoken voices on the council opposed to the changes was from Eby, who also serves as the council’s mayor pro tem.

“Let’s be clear: We are getting rid of our ethics ordinance,” Eby said during the Oct. 24 meeting. “We are turning it into the state law. We are limiting it to a degree that I don’t think people realize, and I have yet to hear a good, justifiable reason for why this should be done.”

Council members who favored changes said falling back on the state’s rules and allowing an ad hoc committee to make recommendations regarding improvements could strengthen the city’s ethics code.

District 7 Council Member Tommy Gonzalez said before voting in support of the changes that such a process could provide more specificity in several areas. He noted the city’s previous ethics code did not spell out any penalty for a violation.

“We have taken it down to a base model and now we can build it from there,” Gonzalez said Oct. 24.

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Evan is Community Impact Newspaper’s Georgetown editor. He joined Community Impact in August 2016 as a reporter for the Northwest Austin edition after spending five years working for newspapers in the Pacific Northwest. He is originally from Washington state.

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