San Benito approves ethics ordinance

SAN BENITO — The city is laying down the law.

For years, residents have called for a so-called “ethics ordinance.”

City commissioners this week approved the ordinance prohibiting city officials from using their office for personal gain.

After officials win election, the Texas Municipal League holds seminars to teach them about ethics laws, Mayor Celeste Sanchez said yesterday.

“We know it. We know we cannot use our positions for personal gain and we can’t use our executive power to influence anyone,” Sanchez said. “Now, having it in writing and on the books, there’s no excuse for anyone to say they didn’t know.”

When he took office in 2015, Commissioner Esteban Rodriguez pushed to put the ordinance on the books.

“It’s a long time coming,” Rodriguez said of the new ordinance. “Anyone who works for the city has to follow the rules. That’s what an ethics ordinance does.”

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

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

“A city official may not use his or her official position to unfairly advance or impede personal interests by granting or securing or by attempting to grant or secure for any person (including himself or herself) any form of special consideration, treatment, exemption or advantage beyond that which is lawfully available to every other person or organization,” the ordinance states.

The ordinance 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 ordinance states.

The ordinance also prohibits city officials from accepting gifts intended to influence their official duties, requiring they report gifts of more than $50.

Under the ordinance, 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 ordinance states.

The ordinance also prohibits city officials from using city facilities, personnel, equipment and supplies for personal purposes.

The ordinance allows residents to file complaints against city officials.

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

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 resident’s 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.