Albert Einstein has been broadly credited with first saying that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” Though surely not inspired by the city of Denton’s ethics ordinance, judging by recent events, the definition would must assuredly apply.
Over the past month alone, we have seen: four members of the nine-member Board of Ethics rule that a City Council member was in violation of the ordinance but issue no sanctions as a result; an ethics complaint against a newly elected City Council member thrown out the week after the election; dueling guest essays on this page debating law versus ethics; and the resignation of board’s sitting chairman.
Despite the best intentions of those who crafted Denton’s ethics ordinance, it’s clear there are flaws limiting its effectiveness. On this point, even the mayor — one of the ordinance’s primary authors — agrees.
For one, the ordinance’s definition of a “conflict of interest” has been problematic from the beginning, made clear when the first three complaints brought before the board were dismissed this past December. The ordinance defines a conflict as “any income or ownership in a business, or ownership of property over $600” but is nebulous enough to allow even the appearance of a conflict to fuel a complaint.
Critics of the definition have faulted the authors for deviating from the state threshold for determining what constitutes a “substantial interest” in an entity involved in government business. The state has established that ownership of 10% or more of a business or income exceeding $2,500 would be the threshold. But more importantly, the state calls for an official holding a substantial interest to recuse him or herself only if a vote would lead to a “special financial effect” on the entity.
By writing an ordinance in which any substantial interest would create a conflict, whether the entity in question received a special benefit or not, the city has ensured confusion in both advisory opinions issued by the board and complaints made to the board. In February, the Board of Ethics sent a two-page letter to the City Council asking that the conflict definition be changed on top of other minor changes to the ethics ordinance.
As well, the protocols put in place for fielding and considering a complaint have created confusion, with complete confidentiality extended to the complaint and complainant, to the point that not even the person targeted can see the complaint. This flies in the face of two centuries of American jurisprudence, in which “the accused shall enjoy the right to … be confronted with the witnesses against him.” How can one prepare a proper defense if never informed of the nature of the complaint?
The manner by which members are selected for the board also has led to problems. Most of the decisions have been rendered by incomplete boards, with numerous vacancies due to recusals. In some cases, board members have had to recuse themselves because the complaints being considered are against the people who appointed them. In one case, a board member had to recuse himself because the complaint being considered had come from him.
With so many obvious deficiencies, it doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Denton’s ethics ordinance is at a critical juncture and needs immediate changes. Reputations and the ability of our city to make sound decisions are on the line, so the time to break from this cycle of confusion is now.
The city should shelve its ethics ordinance until its flaws can be corrected and its definitions brought into line with the rest of the state.