Ethics? Um... no thanks

Dallas business leaders fight to protect us from too much ethics

Here's a difficult public relations puzzle: Let's say you are the downtown Dallas business establishment, and you are very unhappy about the new ethics code under consideration by the city council.

Why are you unhappy? Because you already control the city council through juice. Cash. The money.

At least eight of the 14 seats on the Dallas City Council are influenced, if not owned, through the mechanism of good old-fashioned American dollar bills from the business establishment in the form of campaign contributions. The main engines of business support for council members are the Dallas Citizens Council, a private business group that meets in secret; the Breakfast Group, a similar organization; and the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce.

Councilwoman Mary Poss feels for the little people who can't understand the city's proposed ethics code.
Martin Menocal
Councilwoman Mary Poss feels for the little people who can't understand the city's proposed ethics code.

So these people would be interested in ethics reform exactly why?

Not surprisingly, the Citizens Council and the Chamber are leading the behind-the-scenes fight against a new ethics code. But how can people like this come out in public against ethics? Easy. They say they're against ethics because the little people aren't ready for them yet.

When the proposed code was presented to the council two weeks ago, the only members who said they were in favor of it were Donna Blumer, the Far North Dallas conservative; Sandy Greyson, the mid-North Dallas moderate; and Laura Miller, the Oak Cliff firebrand.

The rest of them, egged on by Veletta Lill of East Dallas, complained that the proposed ethics ordinance now under consideration is too complicated for people with ordinary minds to understand; that people will have to hire lawyers and accountants to advise them on it; and that these problems might preclude noble members of the lower classes from participating fully in governance (that lofty goal of that lofty, lofty Dallas Citizens Council).

Two weeks ago, Councilwoman Mary Poss, a northeast Dallas law-and-order/neighborhood type commonly believed to be the next mayoral candidate of the Citizens Council and Chamber, distributed to the entire city council a six-page, single-spaced legal opinion she had sought from an attorney explaining why the whole ethics policy now under consideration needs to be thrown out. The letter itself speaks volumes about the ticklish task faced by the anti-ethics crowd.

A special task force of lawyers, judges, and civic leaders has been working on the proposed new ethics ordinance since last January. But in his letter to Poss, attorney William D. Elliott concludes that the ordinance the task force wrote isn't even worthy of serious consideration:

"This code is ill-suited for the task intended and should be withdrawn for further work," Elliott writes.

He says the document condemns itself with its own overcomplexity, vagueness, and general sloppiness. He cites in particular a number of grammatical errors: "For example," he writes, "the code contains numerous noun possessives, failure to use the active verb form, confuses that/which, uses 'it' as the subject of sentences, etc."

If we were to reduce this whole exercise to a writing critique, I would have to point out that one of the phrases in the above sentence is missing its verb and therefore violating the rule of parallelism. But picking through Elliott's treatise for grammatical gaffes would be an exercise in mean-spirited pettiness.

I think I'll do it.

Arguing that the complexity of the document creates pitfalls for "many a citizen," he writes: "This is especially the case, if attacks on the completeness of a financial disclosure form is used as a political weapon."

Tsk-tsk. Subject-verb agreement!

In one of many summings-up, he writes: "In other words, this code of ethics seems designed to trip up citizens, not guide our citizens in discharging a common ethical guide and foreclose more affluent citizens from being willing to serve." I am left wondering whether the affluent citizens have been foreclosed or not foreclosed. And which would be good?

He suggests later in his letter that a better system for initiating action on violations might be "to have the City Attorney seek authority from the City Council based upon information and belief of a violation and then have the City Council authority prosecution."

But that would raise the question: If city council authority prosecution, but prosecution authority vacation, who authority prosecution alteration?

All right. I could go on. I did do some research on Elliott, and he has a national reputation as the go-to guy on certain federal tax issues so complex that I'm not going to try to understand them ever. He was also a good sport about this when I reached him in his car on his way home for Thanksgiving (just the call he was hoping for, I know): He blamed his gaffes on that device that has made stenographers of us all and thereby cursed our lives -- the laptop computer.

But Elliott did stick to his guns on the core assertion: that the overall quality of the proposed ethics code for city employees and officials, errors or none, is overly legalistic and heavy-handed.

"My objections are substantive," he said, "because of the whole notion being introduced here -- the codification of people's moral behavior."

When I spoke to Poss, she echoed Elliott's concern that average people won't be able to figure out the document.

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