Following Complaint Against Sugar Land Mayor, H-GAC Says It Cannot Enforce Its Own Ethics Rules

Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman’s dual role as a member of the Houston Area Transportation Planning Board and a consultant at an engineering firm will not come under further scrutiny by the board. local after staff concluded that the committee cannot control its own ethics policies.

A three-month review of issues raised by opponents of Houston’s massive Interstate 45 reconstruction concluded Friday with only minor changes for the Transportation Policy Council, a subcommittee of the Houston-Galveston Area Council. Opponents had accused Zimmerman of having a conflict of interest in supporting the project when his employer, Halff Associates, is under contract with the Texas Department of Transportation to work on the project.

Asked to analyze the charges, H-GAC staff and lawyers concluded that while they had rules, they had no mechanisms to enforce them.

“Neither the TPC nor staff have the authority to investigate ethics complaints,” said H-GAC transportation program manager Craig Raborn.

Because the local council cannot investigate the conflict of interest complaint, it also cannot say if there was one, Raborn said. In his report, the agency said no further action was needed on the matterand recommended only minor changes to the policy so that managers are aware of conflicts of interest and can report them.

Zimmerman, who was not at the November meeting where opponents of the I-45 project questioned his votes, said Friday the accusations were “baseless” and defended his actions.

“I never crossed that line and used my trading position as a consideration,” he said.

Critics who raised the issue last year and called on Zimmerman to resign from the regional board, said they appreciated officials researching their concerns.

“Their analysis confirms much of what was stated in the letter – that Mayor Zimmerman of Sugar Land, in his official capacity as a member of the (transportation board), acted and championed a number of projects including his private employer directly benefited. of,” said Susan Graham of Stop TxDOT I-45. “Ideally, there would be existing avenues of redress to manage such conflicts within the (board).”

Graham said Stop TxDOT members were reviewing the Transportation Policy Council’s assessment before deciding whether they would explore other options for raising an objection to Zimmerman’s position.

At issue is Zimmerman’s role on the transportation policy council and his work as a principal consultant for Halff Associates, a Richardson-based civil engineering consultancy. Fifteen months after Zimmerman became mayor, he became a senior consultant for Halff.

On his LinkedIn page, Zimmerman said in his role that he is “responsible for business development across all practice areas, including land acquisition, land development, land use planning, municipal and transportation”.

In a Nov. 19 letter submitted to the political council, Stop TxDOT said Zimmerman’s day-to-day job was too closely tied to his role as a decision-maker.

“Zimmerman has used his power and influence on this committee to advance one of the most controversial infrastructure projects in our city’s history,” the group wrote. The letter called on Zimmerman to resign, as did the public speaker members of Stop TxDOT I-45.

Critics note that while Zimmerman vocally supported the project — both in media interviews and in Austin before state committees — Halff had part of a $5 million advisory job for the moves. utilities related to the I-45 project. In its valuation, H-GAC confirmed the contract and said Halff’s share was estimated at $3.05 million.

None of the allegations accuse Zimmerman of having any direct role in the work. Halff has more than 1,000 employees and a dozen offices in Texas.

Based on what the political board approved, Zimmerman never voted directly on a contract for which Halff was a subcontractor, because that work is covered by other contracts with TxDOT for the development of the project. Critics, however, argue that any votes that support the project as conceived benefit him and he has been among its most vocal supporters, even though Sugar Land is 20 miles from any construction.

Transportation board members, as is common on many councils across Texas, are expected to police themselves and report conflicts so they can abstain from voting. TPC’s ethics policy is primarily textual state ethics guidelines, which make violations a criminal or civil complaint.

Although the policy includes ethics rules on conflicts of interest, they are rarely, if ever, enforced. In the past decade, no disclosure form has been filed by any member of the Transportation Policy Council based on prior open file requests and recent analysis. However, declarations of conflict of interest have been filed by H-GAC board members, including Zimmerman in this capacity.

The analysis led to changes internally, meanwhile, for the policy advice. Meetings now include a reminder at the start for members to submit conflict of interest declarations.

Three separate parts of the state codes describe conflicts of interest, as they could apply to transportation board members. State law requires an elected official to declare a conflict if he or she has a “substantial interest” in a business, defined as owning 10% of the shares of the company or deriving 10% or more of its gross income from the company. Another part of the law obliges any member of a council to abstain from voting on a point which includes something in which they have a business relationship.

The Texas Transportation Code, on the other hand, defines rules of ethics for metropolitan planning bodies. In this article, it is said that the members of the board of directors cannot “accept any other employment or remuneration which could reasonably be expected to affect the independence of judgment of the member or employee in the performance of his official duties”.

The provision, however, only allows someone to file a complaint with the district attorney’s office, who can — if they believe the allegation has merit — seek assistance from the Texas Ethics Commission.

Zimmerman on Friday was defiant at times in responding to concerns raised by opponents of the I-45 project.

“I reject the baseless allegations that were made at the meeting,” Zimmerman said. “I will not resign and I will not resign.”

Zimmerman is running unopposed for a fourth and final term as mayor, noting Friday that his lack of opposition shows the faith of local voters.

“I guess I’m doing something right,” he said.

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Rachel J. Bradford