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Above Board

City Ethics and Campaign Review Board rarely bares teeth

December 26, 2013, 12:00 am
Mudslinging is already in full force for Santa Fe’s mayoral campaign season.

The most recent iteration concluded last week when the city’s Ethics and Campaign Review Board (ECRB) dismissed a complaint against mayoral contender and longtime city councilor Patti Bushee.

Though the four ECRB members who attended the meeting voted to drop the complaint that alleged Bushee had improperly spent her own funds on her publicly-funded campaign, some did so reluctantly, acknowledging a “hole” in the ethics code that doesn’t cover the kind of payment Bushee made [blog, Dec.

16: “Ethics Board Dismisses Complaint Against Patti Bushee”].

Javier Gonzales, who is running against Bushee for mayor, quickly blamed the board’s decision on its “own inability to enforce both the letter and the spirit of the public finance system.” In other words, Gonzales argued that the city’s ethics code needs more clarity.

The vote demonstrates that the nearly decade-old ECRB still has an ill-defined role in city politics. Created in the wake of the underhanded advertising tactics of a group called Grassroots Santa Fe in the 2004 city election, the ECRB was intended to make sure city elections are being run cleanly and fairly.

In its early years, the board handled a complaint by then-city council candidate Ron Trujillo against Carol Robertson-Lopez, who was running for reelection. Trujillo’s campaign manager alleged that Robertson-Lopez had put her campaign signs on city-owned property in violation of the law.

The ECRB voted to dismiss the case, but the real decisionmaking happened behind closed doors, much to the consternation of Jim Harrington, a lawyer and state chair of Common Cause New Mexico, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in elections.

“I was upset with the fact that it was decided in a subcommittee, out of the public,” Harrington tells SFR.

Indeed, until recently, the ECRB had a knack for appointing subcommittees to look into any complaint it received, leaving citizens with no way to gauge how the ECRB comes to make many of its decisions.

In 2010, the board weighed its most serious complaint yet— an allegation that then-City Councilor Matthew Ortiz violated the ethics code by not disclosing that he was an attorney for Advantage Asphalt and Seal Coating when he voted to give the firm city contracts. (The paving company’s owner was later indicted for allegedly defrauding the county government out of more than $1 million.)

In his defense, Ortiz argued that the city’s ethics code was vague in its description of “conflict of interest.”

The ECRB was intended to make sure city elections are run cleanly and fairly, but it still has in ill-defined role in city politics.

The ECRB eventually fined Ortiz nearly $500—the maximum amount allowed under the state constitution—and rewrote the ethics code in an attempt at more clarity. Still, some criticize how the ECRB handled its first complaint under the new rules— one that accused city councilor Rebecca Wurzburger of improperly using city-funded projects to promote her private consulting company.

Though the board eventually reprimanded Wurzburger for not disclosing outside payments for two international trips related to her public work as a city councilor, it threw out the larger complaint that she had improperly blurred the lines between her private work and her role as a public official.

Among those who were upset about the outcome is Fred Flatt, a neighborhood activist who served on the ECRB for four years. He sounded off at at board meeting:

“You guys need to show a little spine,” he said, reminding the board that two previous ECRB members under the old ethics code had recommended an audit into Wurzburger’s alleged violations. “It’s too late now to do an investigation. But maybe when the next complaint comes up, you’ll have the guts to do it.”

Flatt laments at how the board waits for a citizen to file an ethics complaint instead of actively pursuing investigations on its own. He and former city councilor Karen Heldmeyer have also criticized the lawyerheavy makeup of the board (a majority of board members are required to be attorneys), arguing that the ECRB is meant to respond to concerned members of the public and not get bogged down in legalese.

“It should be proactive,” Flatt says of the ECRB. “If something is looking fishy on the reports, it should be investigated.”

But Harrington argues that having more attorneys helps prevent political witch-hunts and allows those with pending complaints against them to properly seek due process.

“There could be screwball claims that come to that board,” Harrington, himself an attorney, says. “Lawyers stay within the bounds.”

He adds that people who criticize the ECRB as a “do-nothing board” miss points of progress like how since inception it has recommended new ordinances after each election, all of which went on to earn approval by the City Council.

Another problem that’s come up is that board members, who were appointed by councilors and who have financially supported them in campaigns, have often recused themselves from decisions about those councilors, leaving few people to actually make decisions. For example, board member Paul Biderman has said he will continue to sit out any vote about any member of the current City Council because of his role as an alternate municipal judge.

To Heldmeyer, who filed the ethics complaint against Wurzburger two years ago, there’s at least one area in which the board is improving. The ECRB’s relatively short process on the recent Bushee complaint, which took just three weeks to resolve, contrasts sharply with the grueling seven-month stretch on the Wurzburger case.

“If you compare the speed with which they’re doing this compared to the speed they handled Rebecca with, it’s not comparable,” Heldmeyer says.

 

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