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City Council may take up ethics reform

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

City ethics reform may find momentum Monday as the City Council takes up the discussion over lunch.

Or not.

District 3 council member Kathleen Wazny has championed ethics reforms since being elected in May. But the council, which often meets the first Monday of the month over lunch for informal conversations, appears to have found little common ground on the matter.

In October, they disagreed on how to handle a 10-year-old ordinance that likely violates individual council members’ rights to free speech. In recent weeks, council members Kevin Roden and Greg Johnson have called publicly for a council consensus on writing new ethics rules before committing any more staff time to the issue.

Wazny said she understands some council members believe Texas ethics laws are adequate.

“But I’m not satisfied with that,” Wazny said. “This is not a little town of 15,000 people with a small budget. We are quickly approaching a population of 130,000 people and a $1 billion budget.

“I want the highest standard for our council and city employees. Other cities have followed this path, putting one more layer than the state.”

Denton’s annual budget reflects a full array of city services, including a landfill and water, sewer and electric utilities.

Wazny pointed to San Antonio, where a broader ethics ordinance has worked well for that city. She said she’s not stuck on copying its rules, however. Other cities, such as Fort Worth, have drawn up ethics rules that work well for them, too.

San Antonio has a 38-page code of ethics that handles a broad range of potential issues beyond state law. The rules also apply to the city staff.

In 2012, for example, San Antonio officials considered revising their ethics codes after a controversy involving the staff. An assistant city manager negotiated a new job with a construction company about the same time that a city committee scored construction bids for a $300 million expansion of the San Antonio Convention Center. The assistant city manager sat on that committee.

Most cities with a sturdy ethics code have an independent commission review complaints and host hearings. The commission has the authority to investigate, and make findings of, violations of the ethics code and city charter. Penalties are written into the ethics code as allowed by a city charter and state law.

A new city ethics code could require registration of lobbyists as well as greater campaign finance and personal financial disclosures from elected officials. It might also restrict conflicting outside employment for staff as well as elected officials, define the unfair advancement of private interests, limit some political activity, and govern the treatment of confidential information (including continuing confidentiality by former employees and officials).

Typically, cities with tougher ethics rules also have sanctions for people who make frivolous ethics complaints, to prevent their abuse.

Critics say ethics commissions provide another layer of government bureaucracy and could discourage good businesses from working on city projects.

Wazny says those concerns are overblown.

“If you don’t have anything to hide, you should embrace this completely,” she said. “We want to hold the public’s trust.”

Ethics rules can go a long way to keeping the public’s business in line with how the public expects its tax dollars to be treated, she said.

“Gosh, everyday you read in the paper about somebody in trouble for something,” Wazny said.

The Denton city charter prohibits nepotism. The City Council also has a standalone ordinance on the treatment of confidential information. That increasingly controversial ordinance, adopted about 10 years ago, does not apply to the staff.

A Texas Freedom of Information of Foundation attorney reviewed the ordinance in an August letter, detailing for city leaders how it compromises the First Amendment free-speech rights of individual council members, the public and the press.

Yet the council was unable to agree how to address the ordinance’s problems in October. Wazny offered to take it back to committee. She chairs the council’s ethics committee. Roden and council member Keely Briggs are also members of that committee.

Wazny expects a vote on revisions to that ordinance to come out ahead of any other ethics reforms, perhaps as soon as the council’s regular meeting on Dec. 15, she said.

She declined to specify what changes the council ethics committee proposes to the ordinance, as that meeting, too, was held behind closed doors. As the ordinance stands today, a council member still faces criminal penalties for talking about “confidential” matters.

The changes may not be enough for it to get unanimous council approval, she said.

“It may be scaled back, but it’s still there,” Wazny said. “I believe it should be repealed.”

The council luncheon is scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. in the work session room at Denton City Hall, 215 E. McKinney St., and will be videotaped. Interested residents can watch the meeting live-streamed on the city’s website, www.cityofdenton.com, and on DTV (Channel 194 on Charter, 38 on Verizon or 12 on Grande). Once the video recording is filed, viewers also may watch the footage on demand through the archived meeting page.

In addition to talking about potential ethics reforms, the City Council also is scheduled to talk about homeless people, panhandling, graffiti and litter downtown.

 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.