Final hearing set on potential ethics violations by Granite Shoals councilor

Phil Ort ethics review commission

Ethics Review Commissioner Jeffrey Kahl (left) questions Granite Shoals City Councilor Phil Ort (right) regarding his actions that were potentially violations of the city’s ethics ordinances. Kahl, Mark Morren, and Seth Smith were appointed by the council in September to review Ort’s case and determine whether he violated the ordinances by failing to fulfill public information requests, insulting residents and city officials, and sharing confidential information. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

A Granite Shoals ethics review commission has found reasonable grounds to move forward with a final hearing to determine if Councilor Phil Ort is guilty of violating the city’s ethics ordinances and, if so, a punishment. The hearing has been set for 4:30 p.m. Dec. 13 at City Hall.

The three-person commission made the decision during a preliminary hearing Monday, Nov. 21. Appointed members Jeffery Kahl, Mark Morren, and Seth Smith all voted in favor of pursuing an investigation into Ort’s alleged violations.

On Oct. 17, Granite Shoals resident Susan Bushart filed an official complaint with the city claiming Ort violated the city’s Code of Ethics and the Public Information Act by failing to fulfill a public information request in September and sharing confidential information using his city email address.

If the ethics review commission determines Ort is guilty of the violations, the strongest action it can take is to write a letter of censure that admonishes him. The City Council has already written a letter of censure against Ort, condemning him for the same reported violations.

An official complaint against Ort filed by the city to the Burnet County attorney, specifically for potential violations of the Public Information Act, was submitted in October. The case is currently under review, according to Granite Shoals City Attorney Joshua Katz.

For a stronger punishment, such as suspension or removal from office, to be handed out, Ort would have to be found guilty of a felony or misdemeanor of “moral turpitude” as stated in section 3.05 of the city charter. This refers to a crime that disrespects and antagonizes social norms.

The Monday night meeting was the commission’s first since it was formed on Sept. 27 to address allegations that Ort violated the city’s ethics ordinances by refusing to fulfill a public information request submitted by resident Kiel Arnone for access to 41 complaints the councilor claimed to have received in reference to a lighting ordinance. The refusal to fulfill the request, which included destruction of related documents, is said to have violated both state law through the Public Information Act and city ordinances through the Code of Ethics. 

Bushart, the resident who filed the complaint with the city, also accused Ort of sharing confidential information with her that was obtained during executive sessions of the City Council, which would also violate the Code of Ethics. The information in question was regarding supposed backroom deals and controversy surrounding former City Manager Jeff Looney, who was fired in June.

Commission member Morren led the preliminary hearing and heard comments from both Ort and Bushart before the commission made its decision to hold a final hearing.

When asked by Morren for his side of the story, Ort said there were no grounds for an ethics complaint because he had not been convicted of any crimes. 

City Attorney Katz stepped in at the request of Morren to clarify that the responsibility of the commission is to determine if Ort violated the city’s ethics ordinances, not criminality. While some of Ort’s actions could have overlapped between violations of the Public Information Act and the Code of Ethics, the commission only has the power to determine ethics violations.

Ort went on to defend his actions, saying he was protecting the privacy of those who submitted complaints to him by refusing to fulfill Arnone’s information request on Aug. 30. Evidence was presented before the City Council on Sept. 20 that supported another accusation against Ort, that he had fabricated many of the 41 complaints he claimed to have received in regard to his proposed Dark Skies Ordinance.

The ethics review commission will conduct its final hearing on the matter at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 13, in council chambers at City Hall, 2221 N. Phillips Ranch Road. However, a provision in the ethics ordinance provides an opportunity for two 15-day delays on a decision at the request of the subject of the investigation and the discretion of the commission.

dakota@thepicayune.com

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