Any reforms to the city’s troubled ethics ordinance are likely months away after a one-two bureaucratic punch this week. The delays are enough push any possible changes to early spring, when the city will be in the throes of a new mayoral election.
The City Council informally accepted the board’s first round of minor recommendations Tuesday, but Mayor Chris Watts said they would not adopt them piecemeal. On Wednesday, the Board of Ethics decided it would not meet again until January to discuss the conflict-of-interest definition.
“It’s been our biggest impediment to administering the ordinance,” said board member Ron Johnson, who is an administrative law judge by day.
Johnson’s comments came after board alternate Deborah Cosimo presented a meticulous comparison of the ordinance’s current definition to the city charter — which requires the adoption of the ethics ordinance and lists the requirements it must contain, including a clear prohibition of using public office for personal gain.
To get the board out of its circular discussions on the problematic definition, Cosimo proposed that they hire an outside attorney to help them. That idea didn’t get much traction, but a few of her specific criticisms did.
At first, board members hoped to appoint an ad hoc committee to work on a definition for the whole board to consider. But because their meetings are subject to open meetings laws, they couldn’t do it. Instead, they agreed that individual members and board alternates could do as Cosimo did and prepare a short presentation for the board to consider.
New board member Annetta Ramsay and board alternate Bob Swanson both volunteered to help before the ad hoc committee formation was scuttled.
In addition, board member Ronnie Mohair echoed Cosimo’s analysis that the definition of “pending matter” was also problematic. Board chairwoman Lara Tomlin said the conflict of interest discussion would likely dovetail into that definition, since it was a key dividing line in deciding when a conflict of interest existed.
For example, Watts asked the board last year if he or any other council member who owned property near the University of North Texas could vote on a new planning document for the neighborhoods. The board advised that it would be OK, since the planning document was just a plan and not a pending matter, such as a zoning change or similar issue.
The board is still expected to take up at least two other procedural matters for handling ethics complaints. Whether those changes have to be bundled with the others was not clear.
City Auditor Umesh Dalal did his best Wednesday night to distill the council’s swirling commentary and feedback on the recommended changes so far. He added that the council also said the ethics board shouldn’t be concerned about whether recommendations would be accepted or rejected by the council before drafting them.
Tomlin said that feedback was different from what she received before, which was to bring changes as they came.
“That has changed,” Dalal said.
“Did they give a definition of what was considered comprehensive?” Tomlin said.
He shook his head.
Ramsay said she has seen the council make changes from committee recommendations since she sat on the citizens charter committee that proposed the ethics rules — and that’s where things have gone awry.
She urged the group to makes its recommendations anyways.
“I think we need to be on the record,” Ramsay said.