A divided El Paso City Council adopted the city’s first code of conduct Monday but only after a bruising debate and over strenuous objections from two representatives concerned that the code will be “weaponized.”
The vote was 4-2, with city Representatives Peter Svarzbein and Alexsandra Annello asking why a measure the council hadn’t discussed was being pushed through in the absence of Reps. Cissy Lizarraga and Cassandra Hernandez.
“Had I been present I would have voted against the measure,” Hernandez said in a text message later.
Hernandez said she had heard Mayor Dee Margo mention it but didn’t know the vote on a code of conduct was coming until she saw the meeting agenda posted on the Friday before Monday’s meeting.
Deputy City Manager Cary Westin said the code of conduct, which applies to elected officials and board appointees, was proposed as an element of best practices common to large organizations and is intended to improve the workings of El Paso’s city government.
While just about every city has a code of ethics, codes of conduct governing elected officials are relatively rare, particularly among major cities in Texas.
Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Corpus Christi have no such code. Dallas has a relatively short one, 892 words, tucked into its code of ethics.
El Paso’s new code of conduct is 10 pages long and provides explicit directions on how to handle different situations along with common-sense advice.
Searching the internet, El Paso Inc. found passages identical to the new El Paso code of conduct in the codes of small cities, such as Bethel, Alaska; Brea, California; Hubbard, Texas; Moultrie, Minnesota and the Harris County Emergency Services District.
But Westin said the adoption of codes of conduct is becoming a trend in larger cities and cited Albuquerque, St. Louis, Oakland and Arlington, Virginia.
Annello and Svarzbein expressed concern that the code could be “weaponized” because it allows City Council to censure fellow members, stripping them of committee assignments and the right to make appointments to city committees.
The code also emphasizes the boundaries between elected officials and city employees, discouraging interference and prohibiting public criticism.
“Officials should never express concerns about the performance of a city employee in public, to the employee directly or to the employee’s manager,” the code says and recommends going to the city manager instead.
However, it would also prohibit a council member or appointed committee member from publicly criticizing the city manager or police chief.
“This is not the military,” Annello said, addressing Westin, a former Army officer, as is City Manager Tommy Gonzalez.
City Rep. Sam Morgan, himself a retired Army officer, replied, “You’re right, we’re not military. For me, a code of conduct is something that will give our institution the ability to grow and develop.
“I believe it is going to benefit all of us on this desk.”
The code encourages council members to be polite to each other and to the public at meetings and to refrain from debating speakers at council meetings. It also states that “only the mayor can interrupt a speaker during a presentation.”
In dealing with the news media, the code states, “The mayor is the designated representative of the council to present and speak on the official city position,” and city representatives should be clear on whether their comments reflect the city’s official position or their own viewpoint.
Svarzbein and Annello also objected that the measure came to council through the city’s Financial Oversight and Audit Committee, or FOAC, which has four city representatives as members, when the other representatives were unaware the committee was acting in such a capacity and had not authorized it.
“What designated FOAC to have oversight?” Annello asked. “Who gave them authority to have oversight over this document?”
Westin replied, “I did. I did not give them any authority. I chose to bring this to FOAC.”
He explained that it was the city’s internal auditor who recommended the creation and establishment of a code of conduct for elected officials in January, which is why the council’s financial oversight committee handled it.
A code of conduct for city employees is also in the works, Westin said.
City Rep. Claudia Ordaz, a FOAC member, said the committee effectively took on the role of a legislative review committee, a traditional kind of committee the city once used to vet city ordinances and policies before they went to the full City Council.
“Who agreed to the change of role? We have broken the rules of order,” Annello said, moving for a two-week postponement, which Svarzbein seconded.
Margo repeatedly pressed the council to quit talking and vote before he cut off the debate, leading to a 4-2 vote against Annello’s motion to postpone and then a vote to approve the code of conduct.
Afterward, Svarzbein said, “I was not comfortable approving a code of conduct for all board members, all volunteers and all elected officials with the time that we had.
“It was also concerning that we had four council members on FOAC who had weeks or months to review drafts of the document before were presented with it as a whole body.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.