Truth Be ToldEthics turns out to be a word in the dictionary
Perhaps Santa Feans should thank City Councilor Matt Ortiz for failing to disclose a conflict of interest arising from his legal representation of a city contractor. So says activist Marilyn Bane, who helped draft the bill to reform the city’s ethics code.
After all, Ortiz’ controversy prompted city officials and concerned citizens on an ethics code reform odyssey. Some hope a new code will result in clearer and more functional rules in 2011.
While under contract with Santa Fe County, contractor Advantage Asphalt & Seal Coating became the target of an as-yet-unresolved fraud probe [News, Aug. 18: “Anthony’s Empire”]. Over at the city, it came to light that Ortiz never notified city officials that he was representing the company as its lawyer, and voted on Advantage contracts with the city.
Ortiz maintains the ethics code is vague. And proposed changes to the code do include a new, broader definition of “conflict of interest.” However, even the old code makes it clear that a council member should disclose if he or she has financial ties to an entity affected by the council’s vote, as Councilor Miguel Chavez points out.
“An attorney is confused about when he’s supposed to disclose?” Chavez asks SFR rhetorically.
Chavez and former city Ethics and Campaign Review Board member Fred Flatt lodged the original complaints against Ortiz last summer, although Chavez subsequently dropped his. Flatt’s complaint lead to the ECRB in November fining Ortiz nearly $500 for failing to disclose the relationship.
Jim Harrington, who serves on the board for government accountability group Common Cause New Mexico, and is one of the proposed code’s authors, believes the current code defines conflict of interest clearly. But Harrington says the code is vague on the remedies and repercussions when conflicts of interest arise. Although concerned parties can complain to the ECRB, the code suggests the council should first pass a motion to disqualify the conflicted official from voting.
Ortiz didn’t reference this portion of the code in his situation, Harrington notes, but “I was so concerned that the next time this happened, some councilor” could use that portion of the code to argue against a complaint’s validity, if it wasn’t preceded by such a motion.
Ortiz continues to maintain that the complaint against him was politically motivated.
He says when the original ethics code was created in 2004, he expressed concern “that this is going to be used for political purposes and, lo and behold, when the opportunity arose, a complaint was filed against me for what I believe was political purposes.”
Drafters of the revision say the new code attempts to address such concerns by restructuring the ECRB.
The board currently has nine members, one appointed by Mayor David Coss and one by each of the city councilors. Proposed changes would give the ECRB one ethics officer and six board members chosen by Coss from a pool recommended by the State Bar of New Mexico and civic groups.
“What we are trying to do is to depoliticize it,” Bane says. “Politics will never be out of anything—the issue is how can you minimize it as much as possible.”
Bane, Harrington and other concerned citizens took over the revision process, in part to ensure the ethics code is effective and not political.
Harrington says the current code contradicts itself; at times, it is unnecessarily specific and, at others, too broad. He believes this is because many sections were, in fact, created in response to political situations.
“The concern is so many of these darn things at the city happen because somebody is after somebody else,” Harrington says. “You can probably see them if you read the code carefully. You remember back. ‘Oh, so and so was trying to get so and so here; that’s why we got this in there.’ A lot of that is getting cleaned out.”
Both Harrington and Bane say that while Ortiz’ situation set the ethics code reform process in motion, these reforms, unlike previous amendments, don’t target any individuals.
“If anybody ever accuses me of being politically motivated on this, I’ll chop off their head,” Bane says. “We have approached this in the most honorable way possible. It’s an honest effort to try and get the best ethics ordinance we can.”
Mayor Coss says he expects a study session with city councilors to convene and discuss the draft in early February. After that, he expects the city will move to publish a new ordinance amendment.