Proposed Ethics Amendment To Houston City Charter
Before explaining the proposed ethics amendment (see above button for actual wording), a brief background is in order.
It is very clear that Houston area voters need to take steps to purify the ethics of several Houston area governments. However, taking any steps directly by citizens is very difficult to do. That is because in the state of Texas, unlike in many states, citizens do not have the state constitutional right to place issues on the ballot by direct citizen petition.
The only exception allowed is in the case of home-rule cities, such as Houston. Therefore, at least for the City of Houston citizens can petition, as proposed herein, to get the city charter amended to correct the ethics and campaign finance situation in the City. Unfortunately, it will take a state constitutional change to give citizens the opportunity to do the same thing for the state, county, school districts, etc.
The Houston Chronicle’s Dan Feldstein pointed out so well last year how Harris County’s contracted expenditures are governed more by a time line dictated by contractors’ needs than by County needs, and how office holders are rewarded by the contractors come election time. County Judge Robert Eckels appears to have made at least initial moves to get county commissioners’ court to somewhat address that problem. It remains to be seen whether that effort will actually bear fruit.
Incredibly, trustees of Texas school districts, and their close relatives, are permitted under state law to do business with the ISD upon whose board they serve. A flagrant case in point on this is the fact that an architectural firm, with the spouse of a Houston ISD trustee as a name partner, does a huge amount of business with Houston ISD. This has been repeatedly pointed out to the media, with no resulting investigative reporting. The public deserves better.
The City of Houston has had its own share of ethics problems, most notably the recent “Hotel Sting”, which resulted in the imprisonment of one city council member and the investigation of several others. The public works department was recently investigated for some shady dealings. Also, a city council member had to resign in the face of a conflict of interest in doing business with the City. And there were other examples.
It is very apparent that the City’s ethics commission, as well as the police department and other investigative resources at each mayor’s command, have done little or nothing to enforce City ethics. It has only been through the dogged persistence of citizens such as David Wilson that anything whatsoever has been accomplished in enforcing what little ethical constraints exist on City officials.
One only has to review the campaign contribution lists of most elected City officials to see the potential ethical problems. City council went through a charade in recent years of supposedly beefing up City ethics requirements, by passing a City ordinance. Unfortunately, the ordinance was directed at those lobbying the City, rather than directing the law where it should be, at the real potential violators, our elected City officials. Our proposed City charter amendment pins the compliance responsibility right where it belongs, on our elected City officials, and places the requirements in the City charter, where only the voters can change them. Our proposed City charter amendment also provides for an ethics commission with teeth in it and a responsibility to timely report to the public in an adequate manner.
Citizens For Public Accountability is not a Political Action Committee (PAC) and, therefore, is not conducting any campaign to get the attached proposed City charter amendment on the ballot. However, upon the initiative of others, the proposed amendment has been reviewed by those knowledgeable on the subject, locally and nationally. Strong interest has been expressed and it is anticipated that there will be a coordinated effort to obtain the minimum of 20,000 qualified voter signatures necessary to get the measure on the ballot in 2004.
Simply stated, this is what the proposed City charter amendment is designed to do:
SUBSECTION ONE: Prohibits any person holding or seeking City elected office or any person or group promoting or opposing a City ballot issue from receiving, directly or indirectly, more than $1,000 annually, from any person or entity that: (a) does more than $10,000 of business, directly or through subcontracting, with the City, its agencies, or entities with mayoral-appointed boards; or (b) seeks preferential treatment from the City or its agencies or affiliates. Additionally, it prohibits receiving more than $5,000 annually from any person or entity not mentioned in the preceding sentence.
SUBSECTION TWO: Prohibits elected City officials and mayoral-appointed officials from accepting more than $100 in any year from those who do business with, or propose to do business with, the City, its agencies, or any City-affiliated entity.
SUBSECTION THREE: Prohibits City elected officials and mayoral-appointed officials, or any lineal relatives, from doing business, directly or indirectly, with the City, its agencies, or affiliated entities.
SUBSECTION FOUR: Establishes a new Ethics Commission of independent members, appointed by specified professional and public interest groups, to enforce the City charter provisions and ordinances regarding elections and campaign finance and other ethics laws concerning elected officials and employees of the City and its agencies and affiliated entities. The Commission will be required to fully and timely report to the public.
SUBSECTION FIVE: Requires annual written affirmation by each elected City official that they have fully complied with the requirements of this charter amendment. Requires that those contracting with the City affirm in the contract that they have read, fully understand, and agree to comply with this charter amendment section.
SUBSECTION SIX: Provides for sanctions and enforcement for violation of this amendment.
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