It’s back to the drawing board for the city’s ethics code.
After an hour of back and forth during Tuesday’s workshop, Georgetown City Council did not accept the 10 recommendations of the ad hoc committee directly, but decided to push the next steps moving forward to city lawyer Charlie McNabb and his staff.
On Oct. 24, the council voted to overhaul local ethics rules that apply to city officials and community members who serve on city boards and commissions. They agreed to remain in compliance with state ethics rules while the committee got to work.
The formation of the eight-member committee came after an instance in 2017 where 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. The council tasked the committee with making recommendations for potential future changes.
After six meetings, Tim Smith, chairman of the committee, presented the following recommendations based off of the city’s past ethics code:
- Better define “family member” to include extended family relationships such as domestic partnership language and those who have had multiple marriages
- Limit gifts to $25
- Clarify what is considered an ethics violation to reduce ambiguity
- Change language to recognize that city elected officials have careers outside of city official duties that may require negotiations pertaining to business opportunities, but does not remove accountability if negotiations lead to an ethics violation.
Other changes include the deleting of obsolete paragraphs and small word changes.
“We reviewed a final draft this past May and make these recommendations to you for your approval,” Smith said.
Some council members were quick to disagree with the recommendations.
District 3 Council Member John Hesser said he believed the committee was instructed to base the recommendations off the state ethics code, not the previous city code as the committee did.
“Quite frankly, I was disappointed [in the recommendations]because I don’t think we got what we asked for,” Hesser said. “I thought we were starting out with a new document and not use previous the document. There were five of us who voted that we would not use the old document in the city of Georgetown because of these kinds of issues.”
District 5 Council Member Kevin Pitts said he felt even the suggestions were vague and still left much to interpretation. Pitts was concerned that this would still leave city officials vulnerable to being in violation of ethics rules without realizing it.
Other council members raised concerns that some suggestions were too specific, including the addition of the $25 gift limit.
Many of the council members said they believed the amount was too low and puts the council members at risk of being in violation of ethical standards if they receive a meal while doing the business of the city or are asked to give a speech in another town and are offered travel and lodging stipends.
Council Member Tommy Gonzalez, of District 7, agreed with much of what was said.
“This is the reason why we wanted to go back and start over because some of things are still ambiguous and don’t give us the clear direction of what we want,” Gonzalez said. “It’s just my recollection to take it down to the state level local code and then build additional things to that particular item to strengthen ours.”
Council members Anna Eby, of District 1, and Rachel Jonrowe, of District 6, said they liked the suggested changes and would vote in favor of them. The two were also the ones in the minority in the initial 4-2 vote on making the changes.
District 2 Council Member Valerie Nicholson was not present during the workshop.
The council decided to move forward by asking the city staff and McNabb to compare the current state local ethics code with the code recommendations made by the committee and highlight any differences to be re-discussed and voted on in a future workshop meeting, McNabb said.
No action was taken on the item.