City Council changes rules on transparency of ethics investigations

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The Austin City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to alter the proceedings of ethics investigations into city employees during their meeting March 28. The amendments reduce the percentage of the ethics review process that is transparent to the public.

Under the current policy, city employees, executive staff, and Council members undergo investigations by the Ethics Review Commission, which makes decisions on culpability and sanctions. The amendments, proposed by Mayor Steve Adler, remove city employees from the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction and instead relegates their investigations to the City Auditor.

In the current system, the city auditor is involved in all ethics investigations. However, the proceedings of the Ethics Review Commission are publicly available, as soon as the city auditor makes an initial report on the ethics complaint. By circumventing the Ethics Commission, the proposed changes only allow citizens of Austin to access that information once a final decision has been made by the auditor and delivered to the Council.

According to Adler, his proposed changes are a direct result of the media coverage of an ethics investigation into the city’s Director of Human Resources, Joya Hayes, earlier this year. Adler feels that elected officials and city employees should not be subject to the same level of public scrutiny.

“If there’s an ethics charge that comes from the auditor [against city employees like Hayes] it’s treated as if they were elected officials,” Adler said. “If there’s a charge that’s later dismissed or not pursued, as was this case, there’s an impact to reputation that can’t be restored.”

The Austin-American Statesman in February reported in a series of articles that the city’s HR Director, an executive staff employee, was undergoing an investigation by the Ethics Review Commission into her use of subordinate staff to babysit her child. The investigation was subject to public scrutiny throughout.

The amendments have produced concern among some citizens who fear that they reduce transparency and make it more difficult to hold the city government accountable, according to District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan.

Flannigan stressed the importance of transparency to public trust in the city government.

“People’s trust in government relies heavily on their belief in transparency,” Flannigan said. “That is a very frequent and common refrain from the mayor and the Council on a long list of matters.”

Flannigan also noted that it is important for executive staff, such as the Director of Parks and Recreation and the Director of Development Services, who would be affected by the proposed rules, to be subject to public oversight.

“There are a lot of things the director can just decide,” Flannigan said, “a lot of these very intricate questions that can have pretty dramatic impacts on the bottom line of the folks that are coming to the city to do development.”

At the council meeting, Adler emphasized that the changes were intended to streamline ethics complaints, not to reduce transparency.

“I believe very much in transparency,” Adler said. “We have to also make sure we do it in the right places and in the appropriate ways.”