“It is essential in a democratic system that the public has confidence in the integrity, independence, and impartiality of those who act on their behalf in government. Such confidence depends not only on the conduct of those who exercise power, but also on the availability of aid or redress to all persons relating to the conduct of public affairs.
“All city officials and employees are stewards of public trust. To ensure and enhance public confidence in city government, each city official and employee must not only adhere to the principles of ethical conduct set forth in this code, but they must also scrupulously avoid even the appearance of impropriety at all times.”
These words were excerpted from the opening declaration of a powerful ethics ordinance being enacted by a growing number of Texas cities — most notably Fort Worth, Plano and San Antonio, where it originated. Hopefully, Denton will be next on the list. This ordinance, or a variation, is now under consideration by Denton’s City Council.
Let’s examine the San Antonio Model (SAM) in particular and take a quick look inside its nine chapters and 38 pages to better understand why Denton should embrace higher ethical standards. Then, let’s compare it to Denton’s outdated and impotent “ethics policy.”
First, SAM clearly and unambiguously defines what constitutes a conflict of interest — whether it’s for public officials, lobbyists or contractors, SAM lets everyone know exactly how the field is striped and what happens if anyone steps out of bounds.
Our current ethics policy offers little more than behavior and decorum tips: “I will be progressive”; “I will be service-oriented”; and “I will pay my taxes.” (Read the actual Ethics Policy Resolution on the city’s website.)
Who are considered public officials? That question is a key distinction between SAM and our current ethics policy. SAM, and most other templates, apply to both elected officials and city staff members, and holds everyone to the same high standards and expectations.
Our current ethics policy completely exempts city staff members.
A new ethics ordinance will address possible temptations and opportunities that arise when elected officials and city staff deal with private proposals and inside information. In addition, SAM prohibits special gifts and honorariums.
Moreover, SAM formally authorizes the creation of an independent ethics review commission for handling complaints. It sets strict membership criteria prohibiting elected officials, staff members or their immediate families from serving on the commission. It has internal mechanisms and controls to ensure impartiality and complaint anonymity as much as possible.
Thus, SAM defines an in-house process avoiding costly or drawn-out state involvement on such rare occasions it might actually be needed.
Ironically, any complaints filed under our current ethics policy could be handled by the very same council member who might be the subject of the complaint. That would be like a batter calling his own balls and strikes. Our current policy is indefensible on this very critical point.
Some argue that Texas state law creates an adequate layer of ethics laws and guidelines. But if that’s enough, why are other cities enacting one more layer of standards? When it comes to ethics standards, reach high and don’t settle for adequate.
In summary, for more reasons than can possibly be detailed in this space, Denton desperately needs an ethics ordinance — a law and not just a policy.
SAM is a proven legal template, requiring little revision, and could be swiftly enacted after reviewing it with our Denton City Charter. It already serves many Texas cities and has been shown to “clean up” city governments merely by its adoption even without formal complaints.
How? A San Antonio city attorney confides that its Ethics Review Commission has been unneeded since its creation. It seems having council members and city staff keenly aware of what the new rules look like has had a self-policing effect, making actual complaints unnecessary. It has “helped immeasurably,” he said.
Kathleen Wazny, City Council member and ethics committee chairwoman, is spearheading the effort to create an ethics ordinance for the city of Denton, patterned after SAM, the San Antonio model.
Curiously, she could encounter headwinds. My question for the City Council and for the citizens of Denton: Why oppose a stronger code of ethics?
As this moves forward, please contact your City Council members. Denton needs an ethics ordinance.
Public service is a public trust.
DAVID ZOLTNER is a Denton veterinarian.