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Denton must pass solid ethics ordinance

Profile image for Denton Record-Chronicle Editorial
Denton Record-Chronicle Editorial

Statements articulating our beliefs and ideals are a good thing regardless of whether people adhere to them 100 percent of the time.

Take the Ten Commandments, for example. People are still killing each other, stealing from each other and committing adultery. However, with that said, displaying the commandments is still a good reminder of what human beings should avoid to live in peace with each other.

Same thing is true about setting a high standard of ethics at City Hall, Denton ISD and county government.

Earlier this month Denton voters sent a strong message that they want to see more accountability at City Hall.

Citizens want a professional city auditor to look into allegations of waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayers' money. And they want city government to adopt a new ethics ordinance that is stronger than the weak state laws prohibiting City Council members and city employees from indulging in conflicts of interest.

We've found that a lot of people are not quite sure what a city ethics ordinance should allow or should prohibit. So, we are going to try to put this in terms that the average person can understand -- without complicated lawyer language that leaves us saying, "What?"

In private life, doing favors for friends, family members and business associates is a good thing. In public life, however, it's a bad thing when a City Council member uses his or her elected office to do favors for friends, family members or business associates.

Council members and government employees are supposed to act in the public interest and restrain any instinct to play favorites. City Hall is a billion-dollar-a-year business with a lot of contracts to award and jobs to fill every year. Good ethics require a commitment to a level playing field.

Now, some people might say we can't legislate ethics and morality. Those things are either lodged in one's heart, or they are not. No law or government regulation will ever prevent some people from dealing from the bottom of the deck, according to this argument.

But, like the aforementioned Ten Commandments, a strong ethics ordinance with teeth sets the standard for human behavior at City Hall. Transparency is one of the keys to a good ordinance.

Each City Council member should file financial disclosure statements, detailing things such as property ownership and financial interests in local businesses. These filings should include the names, addresses and places of employment for a council member's close relatives -- children, parents, spouses, brothers or sisters.

Then, interested citizens can check those filings when they have questions or concerns about a council member's official actions. This kind of transparency reinforces the city's commitment to the level playing field.

It will be important for the City Council to pass a solid ethics ordinance that rings as clear and true as the Ten Commandments.