Dallas City Hall needs an inspector general and ethics reform

The Dallas City Council will vote Wednesday to pass meaningful ethics reform and instill a genuine culture of ethics at City Hall

The following was adapted from my email newsletter. To sign up, visit mayorofdallas.org.

The Dallas City Council on Wednesday will vote on many important contracts, board and commission appointments, municipal judge appointments, zoning cases, grants, funding allocations, new ordinances, and amendments to the city code.

But a single agenda item lies at the heart of all of those votes. And that item is Item 91, my ethics reform proposal.

A vote to approve Item 91 would be historic. It will help restore trust in Dallas City Hall. It will demonstrate that this city council is serious about ethics. And it will prove that your best interests are our only interest.

Hopefully, the vote on this proposal — this monumental and much-needed paradigm shift in the way the city does business — will be unanimous.

Ethical behavior should be the foundation of everything the city government does. Past city officials, emboldened by a lack of enforcement, were able to abuse the system undetected for years — until their corrupt actions became blatant enough for the FBI to investigate. This kind of self-dealing has cast a cloud over everything else that happens at 1500 Marilla.

And on the other hand, frivolous complaints are too often moved forward through an unusual process, which wastes time, allows for the politicization of ethics, and fosters distrust and suspicion that makes public servants’ jobs more challenging.

The spirit of the city’s existing ethics code is understandable and even laudable. But in practice, the code is a mess. It has become a Frankenstein’s monster of good intentions, legalese, special exceptions (and exceptions to exceptions), and noticeable omissions. The law is needlessly complicated in some places and hopelessly vague in others. In some cases, it might seem easier to work around the code than to comply with it.

And perhaps most troubling of all, the current code lacks teeth, putting the burden primarily on residents to investigate and prosecute alleged ethical lapses by government officials.

Enough is enough. The time has come for the Dallas City Council to pass meaningful ethics reform and instill a genuine culture of ethics at City Hall that can help snuff out corruption before the feds have to step in.

Click here to watch the story.

Item 91, if approved, accomplishes the following:

  • Creates the inspector general position. This is the most crucial part of the ethics reform package. Currently, if you see something shady in the city government and want to do something about it, you have to read an extremely complicated ethics code, file a formal complaint that alleges a specific violation, and then show up to a hearing to become the prosecutor of said complaint against a city official or employee, who will be represented by an attorney paid for by the city. (If you want your own attorney, you’re on your own). That’s absurd. Under the new system, an inspector general — a professional who will be hired by the city attorney — will monitor compliance with the ethics code, initiate and conduct investigations, throw out vexatious complaints, and prosecute cases that have merit. In essence, the city will finally have an ethics “cop on the beat” who keeps an eye on councilmembers, city staff, and anyone doing business with the city. In addition, the inspector general will be able to issue advisory opinions to help city officials and employees understand what is and isn’t allowed before they act.
  • Allocates funding for the Inspector General Division. The agenda item includes up to $197,558 to start the new office. That’s a bargain in a $4.3 billion budget, especially when you consider that inspectors general from other major cities say their offices ultimately have helped save taxpayers millions of dollars. And this new office will centralize other ethics and compliance functions that already exist at City Hall, but are currently fragmented in other city departments.
  • Revamps ethics training. The Inspector General Division will include a chief integrity officer, who will work with the city manager, city auditor, and city secretary’s liaisons to structure the city’s mandatory ethics training for city officials and employees. There won’t be excuses for not knowing the rules. This revamped training will help the city establish a culture of ethical excellence.
  • Allows the settlement of complaints. A prosecution isn’t always necessary. Mistakes happen, and sometimes they are accidental or careless. But those errors still need to be corrected. The new rules allow a city official or employee to admit wrongdoing and settle the complaint without going through the whole ethics process.
  • Expands the Ethics Advisory Commission (EAC) to 15 members. The EAC effectively acts as a panel of judges during ethics hearings. Currently, the commission has seven members. The expansion to 15 members will mean no single city councilmember can appoint more than one person (which is currently allowed). The new EAC will also include some special qualifications for members to ensure there is expertise on the commission.
  • Clarifies the need for recusal. The conflict-of-interest section has long been a source of confusion. It will be replaced by a new personal benefit section that calls for recusal if the vote provides a personal benefit to a city official, their relative, or someone with whom they have a business relationship. This includes a prohibition on taking action on an item if that city official or employee has an economic interest in a property within the notification area of the matter. It also includes a prohibition on lobbying a councilmember regarding matters that include the sale or lease of city-owned or city-controlled real property.
  • Streamlines the gift policy and disclosure processes. No lobbyist can give gifts or other expenditures totaling more than $300 to a city official in a year. The reporting process for gifts, travel, campaign finance, and other disclosures will also be streamlined.
  • Simplifies the ethics code. The existing ethics code was written in an extraordinarily complicated way. Item 91 will revise and restructure portions of the code to be more comprehendible so that anyone doing business with the city can understand the rules. More simplifications and language revisions will be needed next year, but this is a big step in the right direction.

Some will say this proposal isn’t perfect, and yes, there will be other tweaks and changes in the future. However, it is clear that Item 91, as proposed, would be a sea change for Dallas.

Passing these reforms now is vital. That’s why, only days after the city council officially voted to approve a Back to Basics budget — one that put public safety first, cut the tax rate, and invested in neighborhoods and infrastructure — in September, I introduced this ethics reform proposal and made it the Dallas City Council’s top priority for the last three months of 2021.

The proposal, which was developed by a task force of experts, went to the Ad Hoc Committee on General Investigating and Ethics, chaired by intrepid City Councilmember Cara Mendelsohn. It was championed there by City Councilmember Paula Blackmon, who has extensive experience in government.

Click here to read the column from Councilmember Blackmon and Tom Leppert.

This has been an inclusive effort, and the reform proposal has been managed with the urgency and attention to detail that it deserves. After four committee meetings, a full council briefing, multiple memos, several analyses, numerous meetings with staff, and ample opportunities for public input, the vote is finally here before the New Year.

As Councilmember Blackmon and former Mayor Tom Leppert wrote recently in The Dallas Morning News, the vote Wednesday “is a mandatory first step to restoring the trust in the process of working with Dallas City Hall. The days of backroom deals and favoritism must end.”

A vote in favor of Item 91 is a vote for a better, more transparent, and more ethical city government. I am extremely proud of this proposal — and will be even more proud when the city council comes together Wednesday to make it the law.

You can tune into the meeting, which starts at 9 a.m., by clicking here.

Have a great day, and take care.

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News, speeches, statements, and other information from the Office of Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson

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