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Denton Proposition D promises local ethics reform

One of the city’s five propositions on the November ballot puts the Denton City Council on notice.

If voters approve Proposition D, the City Council must adopt an ethics ordinance. Last year, one council member pushed for an ethics ordinance but failed. The city's current rules recently proved themselves unworkable. 

Mayor Chris Watts couldn’t say much about the council’s to-do list in the coming weeks, should voters approve Proposition D. By law, city leaders cannot use their office to campaign. He didn’t want to talk about what comes after the election in a way that could be construed as either endorsing or opposing the proposition, he said.  

However, if the measure passes, “we’ll certainly commit to getting it on the agenda as soon as possible,” Watts said.

Proposition D is one of five propositions to change the city charter. The charter acts like a constitution for the Denton city government. Proposition A would tighten language to make sure the city's elected officials live in Denton. Proposition B increases the number of signatures needed on a petition to recall a council member. Proposition C tightens language to ensure the City Council hires a city auditor.

Proposition E provides for monthly payments to elected officials. Currently, Denton's mayor and City Council members serve without pay. If approved, the payments wouldn't go into effect until after the next local election. That way, no current officeholder can be seen as campaigning for the stipend.  

The city propositions were given letters for the ballot because the state government also has a constitutional election. Texas has seven propositions on the ballot.

Early voting on the city and state constitutions ends Friday. Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 7.

How we got here

In 2015, then-council member Kathleen Wazny campaigned for office with the promise of ethics reforms at City Hall. But she had trouble getting traction for her ideas. The first issue — whether to get rid of a 10-year-old ordinance that made it a crime for council members to talk about closed sessions — languished for months.

Finally, in December 2015, the City Council repealed the ordinance. The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas had taken the unusual step of writing to city leaders telling them the ordinance likely violated the First Amendment rights of council members, the public and the press.

Kathleen Wazny served on the Denton City Council from May 2015 to May 2017.DRC file photo
Kathleen Wazny served on the Denton City Council from May 2015 to May 2017.
DRC file photo

In the first half of 2016, Wazny pressed fellow council members to adopt an ethics ordinance similar to those adopted by the cities of San Antonio and Fort Worth.

She made little progress. Some council members said they believed ethics provisions in state law were sufficient. A few council members said they were concerned that people would make politically motivated complaints to an ethics board.

Then, in October 2016, two council members, Sara Bagheri and Kevin Roden, faced separate ethics complaints from residents. Neither complaint led to sanctions, but the city government’s framework proved unworkable. Council members were put in the position of hearing ethics complaints against each other.

Then-City Attorney Anita Burgess proposed the City Council appoint a citizens' committee. The committee could take up ethics reforms along with a half-dozen other issues that had emerged relating to the city charter.

Ethics reform on track

From January to May of this year, a committee of 21 people (each council member appointed three residents) met monthly to review possible charter amendments. From its ranks, the charter amendment committee also appointed seven people to an ethics subcommittee. The subcommittee met weekly in April and early May to tackle ethics reform. 

"The ethics ordinance is what we spent the most time on in the full committee," said Patrice Lyke, who served as co-chair of the ethics subcommittee. "And it was the only topic that we brought in an additional person [an ethics expert] to talk with us about it." 

The ethics expert helped the committee think through a framework that would be useful now and in the future, Lyke said. 

"He could see the loopholes," Lyke said. 

Both subcommittee and full committee members suggested criteria and language to address specific concerns, Lyke said.

In the end, the committee took a two-pronged approach. First, they proposed an amendment that would become Proposition D. The proposition tightens charter language and puts the City Council on notice: Adopt an ethics ordinance. Then, the committee took the extra step of writing a letter to council members telling them what the new ethics ordinance should contain. 

In other words, the charter amendment committee spelled out the City Council’s to-do list for the coming weeks should voters approve Proposition D. 

Below is a summary of their recommendations for a new city ethics ordinance:

  • Elected and appointed officials shall recuse themselves from any discussion or agenda item wherein a conflict or appearance of conflict of interest may exist. Recusal shall mean not only NOT VOTING but also not participating in discussions, deliberations or lobbying regarding the matter or closely related matters, either in the public forums or otherwise.

  • Conflict of interest shall be at a minimum as defined in the state law and more stringent in that percentage of ownership shall not be greater than 2 percent or $500, whichever is less, nor income derived be greater than $1,000 for either prior or current year. Conflict criteria shall apply to officials and appointees who have financial relationships with parties in the issue.

  • Elected and appointed officials shall comply with all applicable laws of the State of Texas.

  • Ethics complaints shall be heard by a three-person panel with mediation and arbitration experience. The council should appoint no fewer than seven people to a pool for those panels.

  • Elected and appointed officials must participate in ongoing ethics training.

  • City employees are to be held to the same standards, but in a way that doesn’t interfere  with manager-employee relationships and policies.

To help voters learn more about Proposition D and the other charter amendments, the city has published meeting minutes and research materials committee members used on the city websit. The proceedings include a final 20-page report to the City Council on its recommendations. 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.

Charter Amendments

Denton voters will be asked to vote "yes" or "no" on the following changes to the city charter:

Proposition A: Shall Section 2.02 of the City Charter be amended to clarify that councilmember residency qualifications apply to the councilmember's domicile (principal residence), where the councilmember must have resided for at least one year prior to the election?

Proposition B: Shall Section 4.13 of the City Charter be amended to increase the percentage of petitioners required to trigger a recall election from twenty-five percent (25%) to thirty-five percent (35%)?

Proposition C: Shall Section 6.04 of the City Charter be amended to clarify that the internal city auditor shall be a permanent, full-time position and clarify the responsibilities?

Proposition D: Shall Sections 14.04 and 14.05 of the City Charter be repealed and replaced with a provision requiring the adoption of an ethics ordinance by the city council in accordance with Texas law and adheres to certain minimum standards?

Proposition E: Shall a section be added to the City Charter providing for councilmembers to receive an initial monthly stipend of seven hundred fifty dollars ($750.00) and the mayor to receive an initial monthly stipend of one thousand dollars ($1,000.00) during their respective terms of office and providing for restrictions on subsequent increases to the stipend amount?