Ethics? Um... no thanks

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

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.

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.

"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."

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.

So life is complicated. We all know that. Putting your garbage in the alley is complicated. Why would people like Halstead of the Dallas Citizens Council suddenly discover their hearts swelling with concern for the burdensome complexity of new ethics rules, in particular?

Picture it this way. You've got the Mack truck; you've got the pedal to the metal; you know where all the holes are. Are you suddenly in a mood for renovations?

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