Leander City Council avoided potential legal action July 5 by not formally disciplining former Mayor John Cowman for alleged ethics violations.
By a 6-1 vote, the council accepted a June 13 Ethics Commission report but did not follow through on the committee's recommendations to issue two letters of reprimand and a letter of censure against Cowman, who is accused of using his city-issued cell phone and computer for personal use, requesting and receiving reimbursement money not owed to him, and submitting a memorandum that inappropriately directed city staff. The commission found no evidence supporting three other allegations.
Instead, the report will serve as letters of censure and reprimand, according to the motion made by Councilwoman Andrea Navarrette. Councilman Simon Garcia seconded the motion. Councilwoman Kirsten Lynch cast the lone dissenting vote.
The report is nothing more than a public record, Leander City Attorney Paige Saenz said, in much the same way a letter of reprimand or letter of censure would be. The decision would in no way affect Cowman's status as an elected official if he were still mayor, she said.
Cowman, who lost the May 12 election to Mayor Chris Fielder, attended the meeting but had no comment on the matter. Instead, his attorney, Eric J.R. Nichols, spoke on his behalf.
Nichols accused the discipline process of being flawed because there was no preliminary hearing before the Ethics Commission made its recommendations.
“The Ethics Commission ... acted outside its rules the city and this council set up many years ago for that commission,” he said. “The analysis from our perspective is straightforward—if the city takes action outside the city's own rules that violates a person's rights, the city is then vulnerable to legal action.”
In addition, Nichols said many of the things said about Cowman throughout the process were derogatory. Even members within the Ethics Commission, including Chairman Curtis Corley, were not pleased with the committee's decision, Nichols said.
“When the Ethics Commission chair [Corley] made his report, he described in his own personal view that things said about Mr. Cowman were nothing short of hateful and reflect the effort to run down this man who served this community well for many years,” Nichols said. “The chairman of the Ethics Commission made heartfelt comments about how things said about Mr. Cowman do not reflect well on the city he has lived in and supported for decades.”
Cowman does not take lightly his threats of legal action against the city, Nichols said, but he felt as if he had no choice. Nichols did not indicate plans to follow through on such legal threats because the City Council did not formally adopt the Ethics Commission's recommendations.
UPDATE (5:10 p.m. July 6): Nichols said it is he and his client's understanding that the city does not intend to take any further action regarding the complaints issued to the Ethics Commission.
At this time, no lawsuits have been filed, he said. Nichols said he also intends on reviewing the minutes from the July 5 City Council meeting and monitor any additional actions—if any—the city takes on the matter before considering taking legal action.