El Paso wrestles with serious matter: Frivolous ethics complaints

Texas city and county governments take ethics complaints against employees seriously. El Paso is no exception.

However, in an increasingly litigious world, El Paso is also like other Texas municipalities in that it sometimes must contend with frivolous ethics complaints. Though motivations for the frivolous complaints can vary, the complaints are often to score political points, gain media coverage, or both.

The El Paso City Attorney can refer ethics complaints that appear to be frivolous to a panel of the city’s Ethics Review Commission, which can then impose sanctions on the person who filed the complaint.

The problem is that the city’s ethics ordinance doesn’t state what the sanction can be.

There are currently proposed amendments to the ordinance to spell out sanctions for frivolous complaints, as well as restrictions on who can file an ethics complaint.

Residents only?

The city’s Herald-Post reports that proposed changes would allow only El Paso residents to file complaints, and anyone whose ethics complaint is found to be frivolous would be prohibited from filing complaints for up to four years.

Attorney and former El Paso Ethics Review Commission chair Stuart Schwartz said the board doesn’t have to contend with frivolous complaints. “If a complaint is frivolous, it’s never going to be accepted by the city attorney” and then passed on to the commission.

Schwartz said he wonders who would decide if a complaint is frivolous and what recourse a person would have after they’ve been sanctioned.

Freedom of speech concerns

“What process is there to reverse that determination and effectively violate somebody’s First Amendment right to speak out?” he said.

City Rep. Alexsandra Annello is also not sold on the proposed changes.

“I understand that there are frivolous ethics complaints all the time, but I just don’t know legally if we can limit people’s individual interaction with their government,” Annello said.

The proposals are on the city council’s February agenda.