Denton City Hall exterior for stock photo use

Denton City Hall

As it nears its first birthday, Denton’s Board of Ethics has found its footing, moving forward on more key values during a meeting Wednesday: How to boost its transparency and how to get its legal advice.

The board regrouped last month after a contentious and complaint-filled election season. The group welcomed Denton lawyer Charla Bradshaw as a new board member and elected Lara Tomlin, a prosecutor in the Denton County District Attorney’s Office, as chairwoman. Depending on the discussion and decisions Wednesday, the board could make it easier for people to follow its actions and help curtail legal expenses associated with its operations.

City Attorney Aaron Leal took a hands-off approach to the development and implementation of Denton’s ethics ordinance over the past year and a half. The stance was necessary, as the city attorney is subject to the ordinance. In fact, Leal was among three city officials named in the first-ever complaint filed under the new ordinance last year. The complaint was deemed unfounded. But, with those first meetings, the city brought in outside attorneys to attend Board of Ethics meetings and provide counsel when necessary.

No other city board or commission has required this level of outside legal counsel for its normal deliberations. Board Vice Chairman David Zoltner has said he has been concerned about the cost.

Last month, the board decided it would seek legal counsel as needed. During Wednesday’s meeting, members are expected to discuss in greater detail the kind of assistance the board can receive from the city attorney’s office versus outside counsel.

In addition, members are expected to discuss and direct the city staff on how to handle the audio recordings of its meetings.

Some meetings at City Hall are videotaped, including City Council, Planning and Zoning, Public Utilities Board, Economic Development Partnership Board, Mobility Committee and Traffic Safety. Board of Ethics meetings are only audio recorded, in part to help in the creation of meeting minutes.

Meeting minutes capture the action, and often the intent behind the action, too. Minutes give busy public officials, and the busier public, a chance to quickly follow decisions or a chain of events through several meetings.

Sometimes that chain of events begins with a city board or commission before going to City Council. Over the past few years, the city staff has increased its publication of agendas, minutes and recordings of board and commission meetings to boost that transparency.

However, it can take weeks, even months, for minutes to be drafted and approved. Minutes become, then, an unworkable option for someone who missed a meeting and wants to review independently what happened a day or two later.

In addition, draft minutes are a work in progress and not often considered a public document. Therefore, the first opportunity to read past meeting minutes often comes just before the body’s next meeting, when they review and approve them.

To fill the gap for transparency’s sake, the city publishes meeting videotapes online. Similarly, the Board of Ethics will consider Wednesday whether to publish the audio recording of its meetings online.

The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. in the conference room at City Hall, 215 E. McKinney St.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

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