Critics urge broader powers for “toothless” Austin Ethics Commission

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The Austin American-Statesman pointed out in a Friday story that the Austin Ethics Commission is relatively toothless compared to similar panels in big cities in other states.

While other ethics commissions can issue fines or impose sanctions, the Austin Ethics Commission, for the most part, can only issue letters with increasing levels of strong wording and recommend that people be removed from their jobs. The council-appointed commission can refer cases to city attorneys for a criminal prosecution, but it has not done that in recent decades, the newspaper reported.

The Statesman noted the recent case of ex-mayoral aide Frank Rodriguez, who was found to have violated four sections of city code, including by secretly accepting payments from a nonprofit organization he founded that got city contracts. The city’s ethics panel issued Rodriguez a letter of admonition, a mid-tier choice that is less severe than a letter of reprimand but harsher than a letter of notification. 

Austin attorney and activist Fred Lewis told the newspaper the commission needs stronger powers, and he would rather it be an independent commission than one appointed by city leaders.

“Without effective enforcement, there is no ethics,” he said. “A restructured [commission] should have much broader powers to investigate, hold evidentiary formal hearings, propose real fines, and refer and try matters in municipal court. While state law allows fines up to only $500, that could be per day, per violation and likely would get some politicos’ attention.” 

Mayor Steve Adler said the current system works for Austin.

“I don’t think there are people who violate the ethics rules because of the absence of sanctions — as evidenced by how contested these things are — so I’m not sure there’s a problem we’re trying to fix,” he told the newspaper.

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