San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

April 15th, 2009
Court to move forward on ethics policy

Above, left to right, are Hays County Commissioner Jeff Barton, Judge Liz Sumter and Commissioner Karen Ford.

News Reporter

Companies perceived to have shady histories may soon find it harder to do business with Hays County after county commissioners Tuesday voted unanimously to revise the process by which they hire firms for professional services.

The revised policy, likely to be finalized in two months, would bar the county from doing business with companies involved in convictions for felonies or crimes “of moral turpitude” within the last five years, according to a resolution sponsored by Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle). The restrictions apply to any company, its parent company, its subsidiaries, certain of its subcontractors, and “key personnel.”

Some companies would not be covered under the county’s new ethics policy because, with some exceptions, state law requires counties to hire the “lowest and best bid” for non-professional services contracts worth more than $25,000.

“We require high ethics from our employees,” Barton said. “We work hard to build an ethical culture here in Hays County, and I think we’re all interested in applying that same standard to companies that do business with Hays County. It may be a sign of the times that we need a policy like this. I think this sort of policy is very rare in local government. It’s a chance for us to take a lead. And I think if you look across the board, I think the public is ready for that kind of action from local government. We’ve had corporate bailouts and corporate scandals in the financial industry. We’ve recently had brought home the issues of KBR in Iraq, with good engineers here in Texas, and yet that broader company has had some ethical challenges, I guess it’s fair to say.”

Tuesday’s vote came a week after commissioners voted unanimously to reverse a decision they made in February to award KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root) an engineering design services contract on FM 110 worth more than $600,000.

After two Iraq War combat veterans voiced their opposition to KBR at the March 24 commissioners court meeting when the court was expected to execute the contract, the court instead decided to give Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) time to reconsider moving forward with the company. Ingalsbe was on the selection committee that chose KBR for design work for FM 110/San Marcos Loop. Commissioners awarded the contract to S & B Construction, LTD, last week.

Of Barton’s resolution, Ingalsbe said: “I think it is something that we need to move forward on. I think if we have disclosure from companies, we can avoid some situations and issues that … we have had to endure for the past several weeks.”

Among incidents involving KBR, the company is under investigation by the U.S. Army for negligence that led to at least one death of a U.S. serviceman in Iraq. A KBR executive was also found guilty of bribery in a separate incident.

KBR’s troubles may not necessarily have disbarred it from working for Hays County had the proposed ethics policy already been in place. Barton specified two exceptions to the proposed policy, one of which would allow the county to hire a company able to convince commissioners, in a public hearing setting, that extenuating circumstances warranted its consideration for a contract. The other exception would be triggered if the otherwise banned company was a sole provider of a service “critically important to the health, welfare, and safety of citizens of Hays County.”

Said Hays County Judge Liz Sumter during the discussion preceding the vote: “I do believe it is time to review our code of ethics policy as well as our anti-fraud policy that we have in the county, and maybe broaden (it) beyond what we actually have in place today. But, I have I question. I wonder — and I like the title of it, “Ethics Begins at Home” — but would this include other government entities that we would do business with?”

Barton replied that the resolution was intended to only cover firms providing professional services. He said the county would have no grounds to halt business with the government of Texas if a highly placed state official were convicted of a relevant crime.

“Governments can be found guilty of all kinds of things,” Barton said, pointing out that Hays County had been guilty in the distant past of violating rules enforced by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Sumter advocated paralleling new ethics policies for purchasing professional services with existing codes of conduct for county employees.

“I just want to make sure we don’t treat those who do business with us differently than we treat ourselves,” Sumter said.

Commissioners’ special counsel Mark Kennedy, who sits on the committee tasked with drawing up the new policy, said the committee will make the two standards congruent, and said he supports using the existing Code of Ethics for Hays County (CEHC) as a vehicle for the new hiring policy.

All entities presently wishing to do business with Hays County are required to sign the CEHC, which prohibits both contracting parties from engaging in behavior such as the giving of gratuities and kickbacks. The CEHC requires all parties to avoid situations resulting in conflicts of interest. Companies are required to sign the CEHC before begriming work.

Barton’s resolution would require all entities offering professional services valued at $10,000 or more to disclose whether they or their affiliates are under government investigation, or have been convicted of a felony or a crime of moral turpitude (such as fraud or larceny). Such disclosure by an entity would not automatically disqualify it from receiving a contract with the county.

Kennedy said the ethics policy review committee, to include Hays County District Attorney Sherri Tibbe and county attorney David Mendoza, could have preliminary standards ready for the commissioners’ approval within the next two to three weeks as an interim measure before the final policy is completed.

“We are going to have a lot of contracts coming soon with the pass through toll agreements, the contracting starting on those,” Kennedy said.

Barton said the new policy will be “one small way” to have an effect on “national and international trends,” which, he said, is why he called the proposed policy change “Ethics Begins at Home.” Barton said positive national and international trends should be established through local action rather than imposed from the top down, a sentiment echoed by Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) and Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos).

“It’s sort of a way we can be living that bumper sticker, thinking globally and acting acting locally,” Ford said.

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