Sugar Land leaders agree that the city needs an independent body to review potential ethics violations by officials, but who should be allowed to serve on such a body is up for debate. City Council discussed the issue Tuesday evening as members examined recommendations from the city's Citizen’s Ethics Task Force.
The task force is made up of appointed city residents and is charged with updating the city’s code of ethics.
Its major recommendation was creation of an independent ethics review board that could set punishments for violations of the code. Currently, Sugar Land's ethics code calls for city council members to review such ethics related complaints.
“Citizens did not believe that city council should be policing itself,” task force chairman Conrith Davis said.
Transparency and accountability were topics that came up most often in the task force's surveys and discussions with residents, he said.
The task force recommended that members of the ethics board be nominated by individual council members and then confirmed by the council as a whole. Their recommendation calls for membership on the proposed board to be closed to city employees, elected officials, campaign staffers and members of city boards and commissions.
Council members differed on whether people who work on political campaigns should be allowed to serve on the board. The task force is recommending that paid campaign staffers be barred from serving on the board, while unpaid volunteers be allowed.
“The point is to keep people who were deeply involved in campaigns off the board,” Al Abramczyk, a member of the task force, told council members.
But Council Member Steve Porter suggested that even people who volunteer for a candidate’s campaign might have a hard time acting independently.
“Once you’ve campaigned for someone it’s harder to be objective about that person,” he said.
Porter also noted that barring elected officials from serving on the board would include keeping judges off the ethics board.
“I wouldn’t see a problem if a judge wanted to be on the ethics panel,” he said. “I think they’re uniquely qualified to sort out the truth.”
Council members also debated how the review process for ethics-related complaints should be structured, with council members agreeing those complaints should not be made anonymously. Council Member Amy Mitchell also suggested that the city help cover legal fees incurred by officials who need to defend themselves against ethics complaints.
“Sometimes sound bites become facts,” Mitchell said. “We have to be careful we don’t destroy public servants for something that may be groundless.”
The task force is recommending that such complaints consist of a sworn affadavit that is submitted to the city secretary.
Other proposed changes will be discussed at a later meeting while no date is set for City Council to take action on the recommendations.