Ethics? Um... no thanks

Dallas business leaders fight to protect us from too much ethics

"The average board and commission member is going to be required to have an attorney to help with the proposed document," she said, "all of which is at the expense of the board appointee."

Donna Halstead, president of the Citizens Council, said, "I think there is the potential for problems in recruiting qualified people to serve on boards and commissions. I think it would create headaches for the [city] council in finding good people to serve."

So what is it that those benighted ordinary persons won't be able to decipher? Well, for example, Elliott points to a section in the proposed code that is titled "Unfair Advancement of Private Interests."

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.

In his letter, he asks the Clintonian question: "What does 'unfair' mean?"

For one thing, the section in question goes on for some nine paragraphs explaining what it means. But there also is the general popular folkloric meaning to fall back on: not fair.

You knew that one, right?

In this great concern for the mental limitations of the average citizen, the one thing the anti-ethics faction always seems to forget to tell you is that there is already an ethics code controlling the behavior of all city employees and officials. It's been there for years.

In general, the personnel rules of the city of Dallas require that employees not take part in "dishonesty" or "conflict of interest." The existing code is fairly complex and even nitpicky in places. But the entire process of devising a new code came about because people kept driving Mack trucks through the loopholes in the old one.

Keep your mind on former City Manager John Ware: He represents the city in negotiations for the new sports arena deal -- such a breathtaking giveaway that it almost fails passage in a general election in spite of the huge sluice of political money pumped into it by Tom Hicks and other arena interests. But it does pass. Soon afterward, Ware announces he is leaving City Hall and going to work for Hicks.

While Ware was city manager, the existing city code said that no city employee may "personally participate in a decision, approval, disapproval, recommendation, investigation or rendering of advice in a proceeding, application, request for ruling or determination, contract, claim or other matter under the jurisdiction of the city, if the officer or employee is negotiating or has an agreement concerning prospective employment with a person or organization which has a financial interest in the matter, and, in the case of an employee, it has been determined by the city manager that a conflict exists."

Pretty specific, eh? Legalistic too. I bet Ware may even have had to consult an attorney before driving his Mack truck through that one.

After Ware went to work for Hicks, both said that Hicks had never thought of offering Ware a job until after the arena negotiations had been completed. If this explanation squares with the existing code of ethics, then it's a good argument for getting a better code.

The argument that the proposed code is too legalistic and burdensome is a deception. The proposed code would replace an existing code. The existing code is legalistic and burdensome. It just happens not to work.

There is also this fact to consider: Things are complicated all over. If they're worried about people not being able to understand the city code where it deals with ethics, maybe they will also want to work on my favorite part of the code, which has nothing at all to do with ethics -- Chapter 18, section four, subsection b: "Placement of Containers for Alley Collection Service." I have been interested in Chapter 18 for several years now, ever since I was ticketed for putting my garbage in the alley the wrong way.

Perhaps you believe any ordinary person should be able to figure out how to put his or her garbage in the alley. Well, something I know that you may not know, because I paid a lawyer $500 after I got in big trouble, is that Chapter 18, section four, subsection b, says, "It shall be unlawful for any person to place any container within any alley within the city."

That's right. You can't put it in the alley. Ever.

What they mean is, you can't put it in the right-of-way part of the alley, where the trucks would squash it. You have to put it on the side. OK, duh. But what if the only way you can keep your garbage out of the right-of-way is to build a rack for it on your fence? That brings in provision one of subsection b:

"...a platform rack for the container or containers shall be constructed so that the top of the containers shall not be lower than level with the top of the fence nor higher than five feet above the bottom of the fence or the ground at the fence."

My lawyer, a brilliant man and well paid, actually did no better than I with this language. He spent 15 minutes or so sketching fences and garbage cans on a legal pad. Then he looked at the ticket again, mumbling to himself, "They always screw these things up." Moments later he found a technical legal error in the way the code inspector had filled out the ticket. We showed up for our date in municipal court, Rumpole and miscreant, and got the whole thing kicked.

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