San Benito mulls ‘ethics ordinance’

SAN BENITO — The law’s closer to hitting the books here.

For years, many residents have called for a so-called “conflict-of-interest ordinance.”

Last night, city commissioners approved the first reading of an ordinance prohibiting city officials from using their office for personal gain.

“The importance is transparency — that elected officials are as transparent with our business that could possibly conflict with the city; that we’re up front,” Mayor Celeste Sanchez said after the meeting.

City Manager Manuel De La Rosa proposed placing the ordinance on the books.

“It is among my duties as city manager to see that the ordinance is proposed to the City Commission for their consideration and action,” De La Rosa said in a written statement.

De La Rosa said he and City Attorney Ricardo Morado worked to propose the ordinance.

“After discussions with the city attorney, we worked out this draft, which is up for review,” De La Rosa said.

The proposed ordinance prohibits city officials from using public office for personal gain and requires elected officials to recuse themselves from city business in which they could face conflicts of interest.

“A city official with knowledge of such conflict of interest shall immediately refrain from further participation in the matter, including discussions with any persons likely to consider the matter and promptly file with the city secretary a written statement disclosing the conflict of interest,” the proposed ordinance states.

The proposal also would prohibit city officials from accepting gifts intended to influence their official duties, requiring that they report gifts of more than $50.

Under the proposal, officials also are prohibited from using “confidential information” for personal gain.

“A city official shall not use official or confidential information about any person or entity, gained by virtue of his position as a city official for any purpose other than the performance of official responsibilities to the city,” the proposed ordinance states.

The proposal also would prohibit city officials from using city facilities, personnel, equipment and supplies for personal purposes.

Under the proposal, the City Commission has authority to review and investigate any violations.

Although such an ordinance wasn’t on the books, the so-called ethics ordinance was “normal operations,” Sanchez said.

In 2012, the case of former Mayor Joe Hernandez divided this politically charged town.

Before a July 2011 city meeting, Hernandez signed an affidavit in which he disclosed a conflict of interest but went on to discuss the matter during a workshop.

A residents’ complaint accused Hernandez of proposing a revision to a city ordinance that would have allowed mobile vendors to operate in town while he let a snow cone stand do business on his lot next to his barbershop.

In late 2012, Hernandez chose to enter the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office pre-trial diversion program, which placed him on a one-year probationary period as part of a deal in which prosecutors agreed to dismiss a misdemeanor charge of abuse of official capacity if he satisfactorily completed the term.