Questionable ethics at city hall have gone mostly unchallenged in recent years because residents weren’t sure how to combat them. Not anymore.

A recent surprising decision by the city’s typically lethargic Ethics Review Committee has sent ripples of excitement through neighborhoods and given residents hope that somebody might be listening.

The committee was created 20 years ago to review complaints, issue opinions, and advise city officials on ethical and moral quandaries. But in the past decade the panel has met only a handful of times, despite a city ordinance that calls for quarterly sessions. Two members dropped out of the committee years ago. Nobody replaced them.

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metro_1Prior to Ashford’s complaint, the ethics committee had considered a dozen complaints in the past 20 years, and all but one were dismissed or denied.

So jaws dropped last month when the three continuing members actually held a meeting, heard a complaint, and ruled in favor of the complainant, Jim Ashford. He and others were upset after the city put XTO, Devon, and Chesapeake Energy representatives on an air quality committee. Residents compared it to asking foxes to guard a henhouse.

The ethics panel found that indeed there was a conflict of interest in letting gas employees oversee their own industry.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Ashford said. “The committee listened very well and asked a lot of questions. I was surprised at how thoroughly the decision was presented.”

The industry wasn’t as pleased. Chesapeake is appealing the ruling, marking the first time an ethics panel decision has been appealed in Fort Worth.

Ashford’s complaint didn’t exactly tread new territory. For years residents have criticized Mayor Mike Moncrief and the Fort Worth City Council for allowing gas company employees to dominate task forces, committees, and conversations on drilling oversight. City officials have shrugged off the complaints.

If the ethics committee’s ruling is upheld on appeal, Ashford hopes it will set precedent on how involved industry officials can be on other panels dealing with drilling issues.

Meanwhile, another complaint has been filed, and it too could set precedent if upheld. East Side resident Louis McBee filed a complaint on July 15, citing a conflict of interest involving Chesapeake and council member Danny Scarth. In past years, McBee has run unsuccessfully for Scarth’s council seat and for mayor.

Scarth votes on issues involving Chesapeake even though he has leased his property’s mineral rights to the company. Several other council members earn money from gas leases, and Moncrief earns hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from the energy industry, including Barnett Shale drillers.

The ethics ordinance prohibits officials from taking part in issues involving companies in which they hold a substantial interest. However, defining substantial interest can be subjective. To determine whether the mayor or council members should recuse themselves from voting on gas issues, City Attorney David Yett applies an income test to see if their gas revenues exceed 10 percent of their gross incomes.

Yett, citing attorney-client privileges, does not say how he advises elected officials. But council members don’t often recuse themselves from gas industry vote, and Yett has publicly said that the mayor has no conflict.

The city ordinance cites another method of testing to determine whether a conflict of interest is involved: Elected officials with a substantial interest in real property with a fair market value of more than $2,500 are deemed to have a conflict.

“State tax codes say a mineral interest is real property,” McBee said. “My argument is that Danny has a real property contract with Chesapeake and therefore should be recusing himself.”

If the ethics committee upholds his complaint, McBee hopes that the precedent will apply to other council members, including the city’s most vocal industry cheerleader.

“When your only business is oil and gas like the mayor, everything you do that benefits that industry is going to benefit you,” he said.

The ethics committee advises council members but doesn’t tell them what to do. City council members can ignore the advice. So complaints against council members, even if upheld, might not lead to any corrective action.

McBee has been down this road before. He filed a complaint against Moncrief and former council members Jim Lane and Wendy Davis in 2004 after they accepted rides on a jet owned by a company that received tax breaks in a development deal. The ethics panel didn’t support his complaint, and, according to McBee and others at the meeting, the panel’s members showed bias toward city officials and disdain toward McBee.

If his most recent complaint isn’t upheld, McBee said he’ll seek satisfaction in district court since the real property test is included in state law as well as the city’s ordinance.

Ashford is also asking the city council to fill the ethics panel’s two open slots. City ordinance says three votes — not just a majority of those voting — are required to uphold a complaint. As a result, Ashford’s complaint required a unanimous vote since only three members remain on the panel.

The city’s legal department is currently reviewing the ordinance and considering revisions, city spokesman Jason Lamers said.

“I would expect some appointments to be made with that,” he said.

After the panel’s recent decision to uphold Ashford’s complaint, longtime committee member Rebecca Lucas joked that city officials might be looking for more than two new members. “My days might be numbered,” she said.

Residents aren’t exactly comforted by promises. Moncrief refused to breathe new life into the ethics panel after he was elected as mayor in 2003, despite pressure from former council members Clyde Picht and Chuck Silcox. Three years later, Moncrief finally sent a one-page memo to neighborhood groups seeking nominations for the committee. Moncrief ended the letter by thanking everyone for helping in “this important process.”

Four years later, no appointments have been made

Ashford, McBee, and others want the ethics panel to begin meeting at least once every three months. For years, the committee has met only after a complaint was filed.

“These folks are volunteers, and so to convene them when there is no action to be taken is a waste of time for them,” Lamers said.

McBee disagreed, saying regular meetings can instill ethical best practices and reduce the need for formal complaints.

Lucas recalled asking city officials years ago about how often the panel should meet. Only when a complaint is filed, she was told. But after reviewing the ethics ordinance this week, she agreed that the committee should be meeting quarterly. “We ought to meet to decide if we are going to meet more regularly,” she said. “It’s a possibility, sure.”