Even before their meeting last Thursday afternoon, City Plan Commissioners had decided to hold off voting on XTO Energy's second application for a gas drilling site in Dallas -- leaving time for the city council to figure out what to do with XTO's first application, maybe even delaying that call until after a panel of experts weighs in. (The Hensley Field permit is, at the moment, on the agenda for the December 8 meeting.)
The only decision plan commissioners made on the issue last week was to leave it open until February -- but there was one strange moment, just before the XTO talk began, when a handful of commissioners got up to recuse themselves all at once, leaving just seven members present for the rest of the meeting. It happened quickly, one member following another away from the table, as commission chair Joe Alcantar worried aloud whether they'd even have a quorum to go ahead with the rest of the meeting (they did, barely).
It was doubly strange because the commission had already batted around XTO's first application in two separate meetings, without anyone stepping aside. At the time we wondered what could've changed since then -- had all five commissioners bought into property near the drill site along Joe Pool Lake? Or were they "recusing themselves" to get the hell out of there before a long discussion they already knew wasn't going to end with a vote?
Of course not. Turns out the mass-recusal snowballed from commissioner Gloria Tarpley's concern after she found out that, late last year, XTO had been purchased by Exxon, a company in which she and her husband own stock. (Sam offers this correction: the sale wasn't finalized till June.) So she e-mailed the City Attorney's Office. As she explained in an email to Unfair Park yesterday, "I was advised that this might pose a conflict of interest going forward, so I recused myself from last week's hearing involving XTO."
Commissioner Ann Bagley told us the connection between the companies was "not in any of the materials that were presented us," and once she heard why other members were recusing themselves, she figured, as an Exxon stock-holder herself, she'd better bow out as well. "It was better to not have any perception that can come back to bite us," she said.
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Bagley said she and other members had asked the City Attorney's Office for individual opinions as well, and were waiting to hear back before the issue comes up again. If owning stock in Exxon is enough to warrant recusal from votes on a gas drilling permit, that'd go the same for the city council if -- and when -- XTO's first application comes up for a vote.
"When these situations arise, we look not only at state law, we also look at the city's code of ethics," First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers told us yesterday. "Much of the game is just making sure that we have all the facts -- in this case, we're talking whatever interest they may have in a particular company," and then confirming Exxon's ownership of XTO.
While he couldn't comment on individual questions from commissioners, Bowers directed us to the city's code of ethics, which suggests officials should recuse themselves from discussions and votes "likely to affect particularly the economic interests" of a business in which they hold "an economic interest." That, in turn, includes "legal or equitable property interests in land, chattels, and intangibles, and contractual rights, having more than de minimis [negligible, or trifling] value."
The code makes an exception for owning an interest in a mutual fund that includes, say, Exxon stock, if they're not the ones managing the fund.