For once, Mayor Mike Moncrief went through an entire meeting without muttering his favorite phrase — “it’s the Fort Worth Way.” Strange, since the Fort Worth Way was so evident in today’s special meeting of the Fort Worth City Council.
Back in July, the city’s Ethics Review Committee upheld an ethics complaint filed against the three gas drilling executives who served on a city air quality committee.
Local residents and environmentalists hailed the decision, saying that their longstanding complaints about the city stacking its gas drilling task forces with industry insiders had finally been heeded.
However, the three gas drilling executives hired a lawyer, appealed the decision, and pleaded their case before the council.
City Attorney David Yett began today’s meeting by saying that just because the Ethics Review Committee cited an ethics violation doesn’t mean a violation actually occurred.
An hour and much discussion later, the city council decided that:
1. The gas employees shouldn’t be punished and labeled as unethical for serving on a commission when it was the city council that appointed them — if anything unethical was done, the responsibility should fall on the council;
2. The city council itself didn’t see how they’d done anything wrong — after all they clearly stated that the three air quality committee members were linked to the gas industry;
3. The city attorney saw no ethical violation;
4. Oh yeah, and many other city task forces and commissions are stacked with insiders — it’s the way business has always been done around here.
With all that in mind, the council overruled the ethics review committee’s decision and exonerated the gas executives. City Councilman Sal Espino said the alleged ethics violation was actually just a “policy question.”
Moncrief said citing the gas drillers with an ethics charge would “have a chilling effect on our ability to attract the best and brightest” to city commissions. Detractors say “best and brightest” is code for “powerful and connected.”
But the circus of doublespeak didn’t stop there.
Moncrief thanked ethics review committee members for their long service and their “interpretation” of the ethics code — and then fired them all.
The current ethics commission members will hear two other cases currently on file, but after that they will be told to step aside and will be replaced by new appointees.
“Any future complaints will be heard by the new commission members,” Moncrief said.
After the meeting ended, I called Rebecca Lucas, one of the ethics committee members who had been dumped. She was surprised to hear about today’s appeal hearing — she didn’t know anything about it. This seemed odd to her because Moncrief had called her just this morning to tell her that she and the other ethics committee members were being canned but hadn’t mentioned the appeal hearing.
Lucas stood by the Ethics Review Committee’s original decision. When asked why she thought Moncrief fired her, she said, “The mayor didn’t give a reason, but the timing speaks for itself.”
Last month, Lucas had even predicted her fate. After the ethics committee ruled against the gas executives — or, in other words, questioned the city council’s method of doing business — Lucas told Fort Worth Weekly that her “days might be numbered.”
She was right — 21 days later she was given the ol’ heave ho.
One final thought from Lucas: While the city council is reviewing the ethics code, they might consider revising the loophole that allows city council members to have the final say on ethics violations even when they are the ones being charged with unethical behavior.
To Lucas, it seems unethical for city officials to be defendant, judge, and jury all at the same time.
That kind of radical thinking can get you excommunicated.
That’s the Fort Worth Way.