In May 2010, the city was about to conduct an air quality study at drilling sites around town. A council-appointed committee was charged with making recommendations on which company to hire.
Ashford thought the presence of three gas-drilling employees on the committee violated the city’s ethics code. The employees, he complained, derived more than 10 percent of their annual income from the gas drilling industry — the threshold set by the code for determining whether officials have “substantial interest” in an issue and therefore must recuse themselves from voting or providing input.
“Well, the three members of the ethics review committee at the time — there were supposed to be five, but Moncrief let two slots go vacant — heard the complaint,” Ashford recalled. “And they agreed with me.”
Moncrief definitely did not. When the board issued its ruling, the mayor fired them. He did it on the same day that the council held a special meeting to hear the gas company employees’ appeal of the board’s decision.
At that Aug. 19, 2010, special meeting (“Has Fort Worth Lost Its Moral Compass?” Sept. 22, 2010), then-City Attorney David Yett explained to the council that despite the ethics review committee’s findings, the council didn’t have to see it that way.
They didn’t: The ethics violation finding was reversed. According to the minutes of that meeting, Moncrief said it “was typical and standard operational procedure to ask citizens who were subject matter experts or industry experts to serve on the city’s task forces, commissions, boards, etc. He stated that the city had done this for years.”
After the violation was overturned, according to the minutes, “Mayor Moncrief requested a complete review of the city’s ethics ordinance.” Of course, Moncrief added, the council “certainly wanted to assure that the citizens had recourse when appropriate and to ensure public officials were independent, impartial, and responsible to the citizens of this great city.”
He also requested that the city attorney “bring to the council interim revisions that could be made to the city’s ethics ordinance to protect task force members” as well as any other interim changes thought necessary while the complete overhaul was being done.
And that set the tone for what’s been done since, said Ashford. “They were talking about what the city council wanted, but to me the ethics committee is there to protect the citizens from wrongs that the city officials might be doing.”
Louis McBee, a longtime activist and a co-founder of the North Central Texas Communities Alliance, believes the entire rewriting of the ordinance is being done to protect city officials. McBee has also filed ethics complaints. “Every complaint that Jim Ashford and I lodged was simply dismissed by the ethics review board,” he said.
Burdette — one of only two city officials who returned phone calls to the Weekly for this story — disagreed. “The suggested changes … will define and clarify some things in the current ordinance to make them more understandable to everyone,” he said. “I don’t have a feeling that anything that’s been suggested lacks transparency.”
The ethics revision process seems to be flying under the radar of even some of the city’s most active watchdogs.
Several groups and organizations said they knew nothing of the code rewrite; others, including two longtime activists, said they are so disgusted with the way the city is handling this and other issues that they’re giving up on Fort Worth altogether.
“Something’s wrong there,” Wechsler said. “That goes to the heart of trust in government.
“The whole point of a city or state or any other agency or business having a code of ethics is to provide the community with a sense of trust,” he said. “And when an ethics code is written in such a way that provides little transparency, well, that public trust is shaken.” Ethics go beyond laws, he said, in recognizing that the appearance of undue influence or unfair dealings can be injurious to a city, regardless of whether the letter of the law has been followed.
“It’s really not difficult,” said Picht. “If you don’t have ethics in government, you have nothing.”