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Denton city charter review committee talks ethics reform

The city’s charter amendment committee talked frankly this week about a lack of trust between   the community and its elected officials — and how to fix it.  

They will likely recommend a new charter amendment that requires the City Council to adopt an ethics ordinance. They will likely also send city leaders a report on what elements that ordinance should contain.

Committee chair Joe Mulroy said he didn’t expect the amendment and ordinance to solve the problems right away.

“We have to respond politically to the trust that has been sent down the hole,” Mulroy said. “It won’t be instant oatmeal.”

The committee met for three hours Wednesday night to discuss a possible amendment to the city charter.

The city charter serves like a constitution outlining the authority and duties of elected and appointed officials in Denton’s local government.

The meeting included an extensive briefing from an Austin-area attorney the committee hired to learn more about ethics laws. Alan Bojorquez, whose practice specializes in municipal law, filled his briefing on both state law and current city policy with many examples of ethical dilemmas from his own practice or from news headlines.

For example, he described how elected officials in one Rio Grande Valley community rode in a limousine with a city government contractor to attend a Dallas Cowboys game in Arlington. Later, they voted on that vendor’s contract.

Under state law, that type of largesse is legal, he said. In addition, the city had no ethics ordinance against accepting that kind of gift. That left one option for the community’s voters who disagreed that taking the gift was acceptable.

“Are you ready to own it when it’s on the front page of the newspaper?” Bojorquez said.

<br>Alan Bojorquez, courtesy photo

Alan Bojorquez, courtesy photo

One committee member, Jorge Urbina, asked Bojorquez how Denton’s current policy compared to other cities he worked with. Bojorquez answered that Denton’s rules were weaker.

The current policy was aspirational, reading somewhat like the laws for Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts -- and that could be enough, he said.  

However, the committee should consider whether new rules could address something more.

“What are the boogeyman that keep you up at night?” he said.

He told committee members that nothing in the city  charter prevents the city council from adopting new ethics rules right now — even before a charter revision takes place.

For example, state law requires a council member to declare financial conflicts and abstain from participating when an agenda item involves that conflict.

But nothing prohibits that council member from lobbying individual council members, trying to get information from the staff, or otherwise “putting their finger on the scale” to get the project passed, he said.

Should the charter amendment committee address that problem, they could recommend that the City Council adopt rules a couple of different ways, he said.

The city could continue to allow the council members to lobby each other, but require transparency: anyone who lobbies a city official must register with the city. Or, the city could prohibit such lobbying.

Even though Bojorquez said the committee had the option to do nothing, Mulroy urged fellow committee members to remember that ethics reforms were the committee’s primary charge.

“The community is looking for us to be demonstrative [with ethics reforms],” Mulroy said.

To that end, committee member Jim Alexander said any charter amendment  that ends up as a proposition on the November ballot should simply add a sentence or two; something like, "the City Council shall adopt an ethics ordinance." 

Legally, a ballot proposition could repeal language currently in the charter that refers to nepotism and conflicts of interest among elected officials. But Alexander warned that voters could misinterpret those deletions as watering down ethics rules.

 “We need to be very careful about taking that approach,” Alexander said. “Voters may look upon that skeptically and think we are watering it down.”

Committee members agreed that they would meet again and talk some more before making recommendations to city leaders. The committee intends to finish its work and make charter-change recommendations by early summer to get propositions on the November 2017 ballot. 

“Ethics must be put back in first place,” Mulroy said. “That’s what the community wants from us.”

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

Follow the work of the Denton Charter Review Committee here.