making local government more ethical

Dallas Ethics Reforms Pass, But There Are Enforcement Problems

The Dallas ethics reforms described in a recent blog post were passed on Monday, according to the Dallas Morning News. However, according to James Ragland's column in yesterday's Morning News, the enforcement mechanism is still very weak.

First of all, the ethics commission is completely passive. It can act only upon a complaint.

Second, the new lobbyist registration and disclosure provisions are being handled by a city secretary's office whose staff has recently been cut in half. One additional staff member will be added to deal with a torrent of information.

Third, the check on council members' dealings with developers is nothing more than other council members. It's easy for them to make deals with their fellow members to get seconds for projects they want in their districts.

Ragland mentions an example from the past:
    Case in point: Back when the late James Fantroy was a council member, the city attorney ruled that Fantroy had a conflict of interest in a housing issue because his security company had a contract with the developer. Fantroy recused himself from voting on the contract, but council members still showed deference to his wishes on the project.
Ethics reforms that depend on self-regulation rarely hold up under pressure. And the ethics reforms themselves prove that pressure works in Dallas. Originally, most of the council was deadset against the reforms, but the mayor pressured ten of them into voting for the reforms in a straw vote last week. By Monday, all but two voted for one reform, all but one for another, and the third was passed unanimously.

Toward the end of Ragland's column comes the sad news that the city's ethics commission doesn't even meet much.
    The ordinance takes effect on April 1. By then, we may even get the ethics commission to wake up and hold a meeting. Somebody, other than the media, must step up and provide more stringent oversight.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics