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Denton City Council rolls up its sleeves for ethics reforms

The basic outline for ethics reforms at Denton City Hall emerged Tuesday afternoon — one that would set high goals for employees, elected and appointed officials as well as new rules to deal with complaints. 

Alan Bojorquez, a municipal ethics expert and attorney, briefed the City Council on current practices and ethics issues for about two hours during the council's work session. He provided examples from recent news headlines, including an ethics complaint lodged against Round Rock's mayor. The mayor is an attorney with a law firm that holds Round Rock's tax collection contract. 

The Denton City Council hired Bojorquez to assist them in writing the city's first ethics ordinance. Mayor Chris Watts told Bojorquez and council members he wanted to get the work done, but not in a hasty way. 

"This is probably one of the most important things that this body will craft, and will last far into the city's future," Watts said.

In November, Denton voters overwhelmingly approved a change to the city charter that requires local ethics rules. The vote came after people in the community and on the council advocated for ethics reforms for several years. The need for reforms came into sharp relief last year after residents filed complaints against two different City Council members. Neither ethics complaint led to sanctions, but council members were forced into reviewing complaints against fellow members. 

Council member Gerard Hudspeth asked Bojorquez to bring options for how to appoint and run an independent body that would review ethics complaints. 

"I think that is going to be a key area," Hudspeth said. 

Several council members also asked about how best to bring public comment into the next few months of ethics talks. Council member Sara Bagheri suggested that the council suspend its rules for work sessions to allow for public comment, and council members agreed.  

Council member Dalton Gregory asked Bojorquez to bring options that incorporate the charter amendment committee's recommendations. 

Earlier this year, a 21-member citizen committee debated several possible amendments to the city charter. The group spent the lion's share of its time on proposed ethics reforms. After recommending the charter change for ethics reform, the committee also brought forward a list of recommendations for a new ethics ordinance. The committee recommended that the city require more financial disclosure than required by state law. 

For example, most people have a definition for conflict of interest, Bojorquez said, but everyone's definition is different. State law defines conflict of interest with specific dollar and percentage figures in certain situations. Under state law, a council member doesn't have to abstain from voting on a contract if the deal represents less than 10 percent of their income. 

Depending on individual earnings, 10 percent could represent widely different amounts for different council members. So, the charter amendment committee recommended that the city set the conflict threshold at a dollar amount ($1,000), rather than a percentage. 

In addition, the committee recommended that council members also be required to fully recuse themselves in conflicted items. In other words, the city would also prohibit a conflicted council member from participating in discussions, deliberations or lobbying regarding the matter or closely related matters, in public forums or otherwise. 

The next work session with Bojorquez  is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 19. Bojorquez pledged to have an outline for the proposed ethics ordinance to City Hall in time for the document to be posted online with the council agenda on Friday, Dec. 15. 

Public comment on that outline will be welcome, council members said. 

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

In Other Action

During its regular meeting Tuesday, the Denton City Council also: 

  • Agreed to begin payment of monthly stipends to the mayor and council members as authorized in the November city charter election.

  • Approved a set of agreements with the city of Carrollton and Crawford & Associates for interim internal auditing services.

  • Awarded a public works contract for the Cooper Creek sewer line, between Prominence Parkway and Old North Road, to Condie Construction Co. Inc. for $3.1 million.

  • Approved a contract for engineering design services for work needed at the Lewisville Lake Water Treatment Plant, including a new main electrical control building, drainage improvements, zebra mussels control measures and other upgrades, to Freese and Nichols Inc. for $1.5 million.

  • Approved an increase in the posted speed limit to 40 mph along University Drive from Bonnie Brae to Locust streets.

  • Authorized a $1,750 contribution to KUZU-LP (92.9) and a $1,500 contribution to the Denton Black Film Festival from council contingency funds.

  • Allowed an airport lease from Mark Hicks Transport LLC to be assigned to Polygon Enterprises and a collateral lease from U.S. Trinity Holdings LLC to be assigned to Guaranty Bank.

  • Updated titles and positions for certain classifications of fire department personnel.

  • Awarded a computer network maintenance contract to Presidio Networked Solutions Group for $164,531.