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Denton voters order ethics reform at City Hall

Denton voters gave the City Council its marching orders Tuesday when they overwhelmingly approved Proposition D: Adopt an ethics ordinance.

More than 87 percent of the city's voters agreed to change the ethics language in the city charter, which acts like a constitution for city government. With Proposition D now law, the current City Council and future city councils are required to put ethics rules on the books and keep them there.

The City Council doesn't have many meeting times left between now and the holidays to get started on the new requirements, said Mayor Chris Watts.

"But I would like to get it on the agenda before the end of the year," he said.

The City Council needs to decide how members want to proceed and the time frame to do the work. Members should also decide how they want to gather information, including sample ordinances and public input, Watts said.

Denton Mayor Chris Watts
Denton Mayor Chris Watts

He didn't think the council would have a difficult time now that the voters have spoken.

"It's going to take some time and we'll need to have some candid conversations, but we've done that before and we can do it again," Watts said. "We'll hash it out and get whatever resources we need."

Denton doesn't necessarily need to start from scratch to write good rules. Other cities across the region, the state and the country have workable ethics ordinances to govern elected and appointed officials as well as public employees. Before coming to Denton, City Manager Todd Hileman was village manager in Glenview, Illinois, which had an ethics ordinance.

Also, the charter amendment committee gave the City Council a long list of elements it expected to see in the ordinance. The committee developed the list after hours of conversation and a consultation with a municipal ethics expert.

It recommended the following:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Elected and appointed officials shall comply with all applicable laws of the state of Texas.

4. 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.

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

Former council member Kathleen Wazny said she stayed up Tuesday night to watch results from her home in Austin. Wazny worked hard to get ethics reforms when she was a Denton City Council member from 2015-17, but the conversations floundered.

"It was so frustrating," Wazny said.

She said she was happy Denton voters understood what was at stake and voted for Proposition D.

Her advice to the City Council?

"Embrace it and get it done," she said.

Keely  Briggs, Denton City Council District 2
Keely  Briggs, Denton City Council District 2

Council member Keely Briggs supported reforms for three years and voted  for Proposition D, she said, adding that the mayor has laid out the voters' expectations of the City Council with the right tone.

"I will not be letting us drag our heels on fulfilling the directive from the citizens to craft and implement an ethics ordinance," Briggs said in a prepared statement. "As a sitting member of the council ethics committee I expect that we will be called to roll up our sleeves and get to work very soon.

"I would like to add that the purpose of an ethics ordinance is not to get people in trouble, it is to keep people out of trouble by more clearly drawing the lines of what will be considered ethical and unethical behaviors," she added.

The City Council will likely canvass the election results at the end of this month. That brings the first opportunity for council members to discuss the new rules, although Briggs said she would bring the matter up at Tuesday's work session meeting to be sure.

Three other propositions passed Tuesday and will become part of the city charter, too. More precise language ensures that the city's elected officials live in Denton and the City Council hires an internal auditor. The mayor and council will also receive stipends, although payments won't begin until next year, after the next election and budget cycles. To start, the mayor will receive $1,000 per month and council members will receive $750.

Voters rejected a measure that would make it more difficult to recall council members. Jennifer Lane, an activist who helped with two recall efforts in 2015-16 (one successful and one not), said the subcommittee that reviewed the city charter requirements for recalling council members may have misread the community.

On the ballot as Proposition B, nearly 60 percent of voters opposed the measure, which would have increased the percentage of signatures required for a successful recall petition. Lane said the problem wasn't the percentage requirement, but that so few people vote in municipal elections.

"If politicians want to be recall-proof, they need to get out the vote," Lane said. 

Overall voter turnout in city elections has been inching upward the past few years, although it dipped Tuesday.  Even council member Don Duff, whose district includes the election-savvy voters at Robson Ranch retirement community, said he was having trouble persuading people to head to the polls. 

About 6.4 percent of Denton's 74,987 registered voters cast ballots in Tuesday's election, the lowest overall turnout since the city's election in 2013, when 4.36 percent of registered voters cast ballots. 

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