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Denton City Council to talk ethics Tuesday

An ethics expert laid out his work plan for city leaders that should yield the first decisions in what will become Denton’s new ethics ordinance sometime next year.

Austin-based attorney Alan Bojorquez provided the City Council a six-meeting master schedule and a 15-page worksheet for its next meeting Tuesday afternoon. If the City Council keeps to the schedule, new ethics rules could be in place by the end of March, in time for the spring elections.

Volunteers and activists worked for years toward new rules that provide more meaningful disclosures and inspire more courageous conduct on the part of city officials.

For example, voters currently can see some information about elected officials on their campaign finance forms and personal finance disclosures. State law provides for penalties for incomplete and untimely filings, but lax enforcement means local officials rarely face sanctions. The forms also contain information reported without much context. 

Will the city require additional disclosures? That question probably won’t get answered Tuesday. However, if the council sticks to Bojorquez’s proposed schedule, questions about required disclosures likely will get answered when the council next meets on ethics during a Saturday work session on Jan. 27.

This Tuesday, the council will answer other basic questions about the ethics ordinance: Who is covered? What’s the point? Who will implement and enforce the code? Will city staff be assigned to help the oversight body? Will that body provide advisory opinions? Will the city require ethics training?

To help answer those questions, Bojorquez provided the City Council sample language from ethics ordinances adopted in a variety of Texas cities, including Baytown, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Lakeway, Plano and San Marcos.

Each of those cities answered the same questions in a variety of ways. For example, in Lakeway, the code of ethics applies to council members, commissioners, employees, candidates and volunteers. But in Dallas, the code also applies to people doing business with the city.

Cities had several ways to say why they had adopted ethics rules, but most could be summed up as such: Public service is a public trust, and city officials and employees are stewards of the public trust. A code of ethics is meant to encourage high ethical standards by all involved, and is not meant to be used as a political weapon to intimidate or embarrass others.

Chris Watts, Mayor
Chris Watts, Mayor

In previous discussions, Mayor Chris Watts and other council members already pondered who would enforce the code. Bojorquez provided several examples of cities that appoint an ethics commission to oversee the ethics rules. However, Denton could ultimately opt to hire a compliance officer or contract an auditor to do the job.

The council has many decisions to make on how much authority that oversight body would have; for example, the authority to provide ethics training, evaluate disclosure forms and monitor conduct, and provide enforcement. 

The council also must decide whether to allow the oversight body to recommend changes and additions to the ethics ordinance.

For the oversight body to work efficiently, the City Council also needs to decide how to provide support. In Fort Worth, for example, the city attorney’s office supports its ethics board. In El Paso, the city manager’s office provides staff support. San Antonio has both a board and a compliance auditor, who is appointed by the city’s internal auditor.

Council members will also be asked to decide whether to allow advisory opinions. A council member can ask in advance whether proposed actions would violate the ethics rules in El Paso. If they receive an advisory opinion from the oversight body, they are protected later from an ethics complaint. 

Should they allow advisory opinions, the City Council also needs to decide whether the oversight body, the city attorney, outside counsel or someone else would provide those opinions. 

Finally, on Tuesday, the City Council could settle on how much ethics training to require. In Plano, city officials receive the training soon after they come on board. They must review their training annually. 

The City Council meeting is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Tuesday in the work session room at City Hall, 215 E. McKinney St. More information on the agenda can be found here

Video of the meeting will be streamed live at www.cityofdenton.com. 

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