Chipping Away

Fort Worth’s code of ethics is being rewritten — or gutted, depending on your point of view.
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Posted August 15, 2012 by PETER GORMAN in News
Cover08_15_12

Two years ago, members of the city’s little known and little used Ethics Review Committee found out what happened when you pissed off Mike Moncrief. The mayor tossed their board and major parts of the city’s ethical rulebook out the window.

It was a rather stunning example of the kind of personal power play that the ethics code was intended to prevent. Moncrief fired the committee members without prior approval of the council and appointed new members without regard for the code’s requirement that citizen input be sought.

What had the ethics panel done to draw such reaction? It had ruled that it was a violation of the city’s ethics code for three highly placed gas company employees to sit as members of a committee making recommendations on the details of an air quality test that had far-reaching implications for the companies that paid their salaries.

Perhaps as remarkable as what Moncrief did was the fact that he got away with it. A majority of the city council backed him. And now the things that he did are being written into — or out of — city ordinances and codes on a long-term basis.

One of the proposed changes that has activists worried most is what amounts to a free pass for city officials, allowing the city attorney to rule on a large percentage of conflict-of-interest questions and cutting the ethics board out of the process. Since the city council hires and fires the city attorney, there is no safeguard in place to keep the council from getting whatever opinions it wants.

Picht: “The ethics code was created to hold city officials in check, not protect them.” Lee Chastain

Picht: “The ethics code was created to hold city officials in check, not protect them.” Lee Chastain

A  second  possible  change  involves the way the ethics commission is appointed. Currently, the city council must reach out to the community for recommendations on ethics panel members. If the changes now being worked on are approved, the council will no longer have to do that.

A third key change being considered would allow advisory boards and committees to be exempt from the Texas Open Meetings Act — something that is legal but is not the current practice in Fort Worth.

A lot is at stake when a city’s ethics code and ethics commission are potentially weakened. Far-reaching ethical questions come up daily in a city the size of Fort Worth, said Robert Wechsler, a leading researcher on ethics issues for legislative bodies nationally.

“Millions of dollars in contracts and awards go out on a regular basis. Inside information on key areas for future city development is available to certain officials and businesspersons, but not to the average person. Friendships can color deals; so can animosity,” said Wechsler, research director for the nonprofit Cityethics.org. “And that’s why you have a code of ethics and an ethics review board, to make it clear what is an ethical conflict and what is not. With the rule of thumb being that if you need to ask the question, it’s probably a conflict.”

No one on the city council or on the ethics review commission is taking credit for pushing the changes, but no one seems to be working at stopping them either. The amendments are being written by the city attorney’s office — which provides legal advice to the council and other city officials.

“The ethics code,” said former council member Clyde Picht, “was created to hold city officials in check, not to protect them. So to have the city attorney, whose salary is set by the city council and who serves at the pleasure of that council, rewrite the city’s ethics code … well, I’m not sure that the city attorney is the best person to write the code meant to keep those officials in check.”

Despite the potential impact on the city and its taxpayers, the process of changing the ethics code is being done so far under the radar that even some community organizations that are generally quick to howl about ethical lapses and lack of transparency say they didn’t know what was in the works.

“We need a  strong  ethics code because if we don’t keep a separation between the city and the business of business, we’re going to end up with the kind of stuff we had with Moncrief,” said Jerry Lobdill, a retired physicist and longtime activist on gas drilling and other issues. “The business of the city is paid for by the taxpayers of the city, and a strong code of ethics and a strong ethics review board are there to remind city officials that they are public servants.”

He doesn’t expect the situation to get better any time soon. The city council, he said, “simply defies anyone to bring them to task.”

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4 Comments


  1.  
    betty.brink

    Good story, Peter. You’ve just explained better than anyone has yet, the “Fort Worth Way.”




  2.  
    Jerry Lobdill

    It is astonishing what the fascists who control Fort Worth have done to the taxpayers and other voters who have to live here. It’s the Fort Worth Way for sure.

    Stan Rogers composed and recorded a song, “Barratt’s Privateers”, in which the exclamation in the chorus exactly expresses my hopes for their ultimate reward.




  3.  
    jimsplace

    The City Attorney appears to have little or no regard for state law or the Attorney General Opinions. The matter of a City Attorney providing an opinion to a Public Official and that in turn would exempt the Public Official from any wrongdoing is contrary to Texas Attorney General Opinion GA-0068. In that opinion it states the following.

    “The City of Seguin may regulate conflicts of interest involving city council
    members by adopting ordinance provisions that are not inconsistent with
    Local Government Code chapter 171. Thus, the city may not attempt to
    exempt its officers from requirements imposed by Local Government
    Code chapter 171.

    Note the Attorney General Opinion specifically states “the City may not “ATTEMPT” to exempt its officers from the requirements of Local Code 171.

    Local Code 171 is part of Texas Ethics requirements.

    What Sarah Fullenwider proposes in the new Ethics Ordinance is exactly that, an attempt to exempt the City’s public Officials from the law.

    Fort Worth citizens do not need or want City Government Officials at any level that cannot be trusted.




  4.  
    Clyde Picht

    A large problem in having the City Attorney deem whether a city official gets a pass on an ethics violation is that he/she is looking primarily at the legal code and not an ethics code.

    When Mayor Moncrief and two council members flew on a Hillwood jet to Nebraska to confer with Cabela’s officials prior to awarding a tax abatement and inclusion in a TIF, the ethics issue arose. City Attorney David Yett ruled that if the city were to reimburse Hillwood something like $850 it would be legal. You couldn’t charter a private jet for $850. But that’s not the issue – it was still unethical because we had not voted on the tax incentives and all three council members subsequently voted in favor of those incentives. Were they promised anything in return for their votes? I would hope not but that trip was out of the public view and could leave the impression that some kind of deal was made.

    Ethics is not about what is legal. Ethics is about what is right versus what is wrong, what is correct versus what is incorrect, and what is moral versus what is immoral. The distinction is substantial. Not all laws are right or moral. That’s why the ethics committee was to be made up of representatives of the community. Of course that’s a long time ago when the City Council and City Attorney were ethical themselves.





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