The Waters Are Murky as Dallas City Council Seeks Clarity Before Ethics Reform Vote

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Davis_Williams_Cothrum3.jpg
Sam Merten
Council member Carolyn Davis talks to zoning lawyer Kirk Williams as Willie Cothrum (right) listens.
If nothing else, the city council's hastily planned ethics reform briefing early this morning showed that this group is capable of a spirited debate. For the most part, Mayor Tom Leppert has been able to keep everyone, with the exception of Angela Hunt and former council member Mitchell Rasansky, on the same page, sharing their toys with no complaints.

But today, Dave Neumann, a Leppert ally, told him that the mayor's rushing the vote on this issue and even held his hand up to Leppert at one point as if to say, Back off, dude. I've got the floor.

Carolyn Davis continued to focus on the elephant in the room. While everyone else danced around the council's sudden hard push for ethics reform after Don Hill and four others were convicted of corruption involving City Hall, she's keenly focused on it.

"No one should have done what they've done, but I don't want this meeting to be about strictly corruption," Davis said. "I want this meeting to be about this is what we're supposed to do here in the city of Dallas. So if I'm sitting here because some quote unquote corruption happened, then I think we're sitting here for the wrong reasons."

Sure, she prefaced this statement by asking City Attorney Tom Perkins how many council members had been busted for corruption and tried to minimize the three convictions, but she proved capable of cobbling together a rational thought, even if she wasn't trying. Leppert claims he has had these ethics changes in the pipeline since he got in office. So why now? Of course, it's because of Don Hill. If amending the ethics rules was so important, it shouldn't have taken the federal convictions of a former mayor pro tem and city plan commissioner to trigger action.

Most of the disagreements focused on the amount of detail required with the lobbyist component, prompting Ron Natinsky to urge council members to support a succinct and simple plan so that it can be implemented as quickly as possible. Jerry Allen agreed.

"The individual responsibility falls right on the head of on the councilman," Allen said. "At the end of the day, you cannot legislate ethics to folks. People are either going to follow the rules or they're not, so let's keep it simple."

The council is putting the responsibility of filing on the lobbyists, not themselves, so Allen is correct. The burden ultimately falls to the council members, which are the ones we're scared about, right? They're the ones with the votes. They're the ones we're supposed to trust, not the lobbyists. And when the lobbyists get caught in a pinch, the feds apparently see no problem with how their bidness is done. Kathy Nealy got a free pass, and Carol Reed wasn't even subpoenaed in the Hill trial.

So when the next Don Hill gets a seat on the council, it won't be their job to report any shady activity. We're counting on the lobbyists. And, heck, even if it was the council member's job to keep track of everything, is a $500 fine going to deter them?

After council members heard amendments co-authored by Ann Margolin and Linda Koop, which are below, and Angela Hunt explained hers, the council went into executive session and then emerged so Tennell Atkins could complain about the rushed 8 a.m. meeting, although he didn't show up until shortly after 9:30. Atkins, along with Hunt and Neumann, strongly supported deferring the item, which is set for a full council vote on Wednesday.

Leppert said a list of all the amendments, which will be voted on separately, will be given to council members Tuesday morning, and there's no timetable for when Perkins will have final ordinances drafted. The mayor said the council is much further along in this process than it was with the verified response and smoking ban issues, although Hunt reminded him that there were seven subcommittee meetings about the strengthened smoking ordinance compared to zero for the proposed ethics reform.

Leppert balked at Hunt's amendments to strengthen the ethics reform changes already on the table, saying, "The logical next step is to literally record every meeting."

Zoning lawyer Kirk Williams and Dallas Cothrum of Masterplan both expressed concerns about the volume of paperwork involved. Williams also noted that he has attorney-client privileges to consider, and Cothrum said Dallas is already the most expensive place to file a zoning case, and it takes the longest to get through the process. However, both were willing to comply with any new rules. "We are big believers in being transparent," Cothrum said.

I'm all for ethics reform, and as much as I salivate at the thought of getting a peek at some of the dough lobbyists like Reed and others are pulling in, I have a hard time understanding how any of this will stop corruption. It all sounds like a bunch of paperwork that guys like Willie Cothrum are going to have to fill out. And what good does that do?Ethics Amendments - Koop & Margolin

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