Ethics Reform: You've Got to Know What Needs Changing Before You Can Change It

Ethics: They're hidden somewhere in City Hall, and it's a tough case to crack.
Ethics: They're hidden somewhere in City Hall, and it's a tough case to crack.

Since becoming Mayor, Mike Rawlings has been consistently passionate about a few key things: South Dallas, DISD, pizza, economic development, Halloween, ethics reform -- not necessarily in that order. On Rawlings's issues hit list, ethics reform is perhaps the most high-minded and difficult to pin down, even for the Ethics Advisory Commission.

The conversation at yesterday's ethics commission meeting raised a few interesting questions, among them: "What needs to be changed, exactly?" and "What can an advisory committee with no enforcement power do to create the changes they deem necessary?"

The commission's role has allegedly become more significant since Rawlings made their focus his focus. "He really emboldened and bolstered the Ethics Advisory Commission's role," said commission chair Randy Skinner. Rawlings tapped council member Jerry Allen to lead the ethics charge, and Allen called upon the ethics committee to create a list of best ethics practices.

Previously, commissioners mainly served to review ethics complaints and advise council when asked, but now they're more hands-on, and there's a sense that someone's at least listening ... maybe? But as for what that change might look like and the issues it might involve, no one seems to know ... yet?

"Are we accomplishing what we were created to accomplish?" commissioner Mickie Bragalone asked, pointing out that the committee has almost no authority. She repeatedly questioned whether the role of the commission, as an advisory body established by and for city council, was defined in a way that would allow them to actually impart change at City Hall. "Have we been created in a way to do what we need to do to fill those gaps?" she asked.

Other commissioners appeared to be experiencing an existential crisis.

"I'm unclear about the role of this commission," Commissioner Roger Wedell said, questioning what, exactly, they had set out to change. "The conversation began with 'We're going to change' ... indicating that there's something that needs to be changed ... I just remain unclear about what the goal is and why we started with the assumption of change."

"What does the culture of ethics look like? How do we define it?" asked commissioner Linda Camin.

A few commissioners pointed out that once they have more information to work with, they'll be better equipped to define and tackle the issues. The City Auditor is preparing a report that will identify gaps in the Dallas ethics code, taking into account how other cities handle the issue.

Next month, the City Attorney's Office will offer recommendations to the commission on how to curtail baseless ethics complainers without ostracizing citizens with valid concerns. First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers said his office is comparing the ethics codes of peer cities to determine how best to conquer the issue. He said he would have that information prepared for the next meeting in January.

Skinner tells Unfair Park that there's been an issue with a handful of people filing unjustified ethics complaints about city employees. Skinner said certain people will file a complaint, taking city staff's time to examine the issue and respond, only to refile a slightly different complaint at a later date, wasting more time and resources. Skinner said that while the committee is at a crossroads now, waiting on information from the city attorney's office and the auditor, the group will be able tackle issues more effectively once there's information on the table for discussion. After all, "ethics reform" sounds great, but you can't change something if you can't define what's wrong in the first place.

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