Donna Blumer made a pronouncement to her peers on the Dallas City Council at mid-morning. "It seems as though things are unraveling," she said simply.
They were. The council had spent all morning last Thursday slugging through the language used to describe the duties of the soon-to-be-created city ethics commission, and nerves were getting frayed. Blumer had already been told by Councilwoman Maxine Thornton-Reese that she was evil and going to hell. It was that kind of meeting.
Mayor Ron Kirk, playing Daddy, told the council they would stay until the ugly work was done. That work entailed changing or deleting by vote sections of the recommended operating manual of the ethics commission: how many there are, what they are allowed to investigate, and what constitutes an ethical conflict.
It was like asking sharks and eels to debate vegetarianism.
The city's proposed ethics code calls for an independent commission to hear citizen complaints about city officials and employees. City Council meddling, however, has now determined the fate of that commission: It will serve to apply makeup whenever the blemish of corruption appears on the city government's face. Powerless, limited in scope, and toothless since conception, the commission and the revised city ethics code will almost certainly be voted into existence during the council's June 28 meeting, in compliance with Kirk's wishes.
Why the grim prognosis? Well, watching the city council debate the language of the new ethics code--fiddling with the fetus--gives very little hope it will be born healthy. The proposal was the work of a task force that was forged after six months of compromise and debate, and the council had to agree on its substance before signing off on it.
So last Thursday, the council dedicated a full day of debating to the code's wording, meticulously excising entire sections and crafting loopholes in the proposed code. Progress continued as the day dragged on: compromise through fatigue. Some members thought the commission was designed to get them, others wanted them gotten. Cover-your-ass maneuvers and personal slights were common, but the repetition never seemed to dull any of the participants' tastes for that style of governance.
Jaded audience members maintained that Kirk wanted to see an eviscerated ethics commission, which would be essentially useless for everything but shielding him from criticism. Thursday's effort was devoted to making a commission that fit his ideals; namely one that could never call him on anything.
The focus was, indeed, that narrow and self-serving. The only observer who could have left the meeting smiling would have been legendary journalist H.L. Mencken, and only because it proved that his grim view of government was right.
It wasn't just that Kirk and his allies on the council watered down the code to allow jumbo jet-sized conflicts of interest to pass under the ethical radar screen, or that they carried their personal and political vendettas into a public debate over a public entity. It wasn't just what they did, it was how they did it.
There they sat, all day, not so much legislating as nitpicking and sniping, shouting one another down like beer-hall politicians. Every theoretical comment about ethics or government was taken as a veiled partisan attack. While debating a point, Councilman Don Hill at one point screamed, "We're not all crooks!" At another point he was on his feet throwing air punches across the table.
The council scarred the ethics commission so badly with their tampering that it's unlikely anyone will trust the commission to do anything. It was already flawed in the eyes of critics from both sides: The "do-nothing" crowd said the ethics commission was unnecessary and problematic. The "activist" crowd railed that the proposed commission had no power to punish and lacked scope.
Hill, one of the do-nothings, made big shows of reminding his peers he never wanted the commission to begin with. His view: His colleagues are not corrupt, and the insinuation that they are irks him. He refused to entertain the possibility that Dallas' public officials ever do wrong.
"I'm not going to vote for anything that has that as an underlying assumption," Hill said. "I reject that. That's not what I know about the 15 people I serve with."
Hill may be a first-term council member, but surely he has enough savvy to recall January's headlines. This entire debate on ethics was spawned by former Councilman Al Lipscomb's conviction on 65 federal bribery and conspiracy charges. With some effort, he could also reacquaint himself with former council member Paul Fielding's 1996 guilty plea to extortion and bankruptcy fraud. Where would we ever get the idea that conflicts of interest exist on the council?
Detractors of the ethics commission say they fear a government body dedicated to witch hunts. It is clear that among those who fear witch hunts the most are the witches.
Take, for example, the council's "compromise" on nepotism, one of the products of Thursday's briefing. A true nadir of political discourse, each member had to decide whether to ban all council relatives from serving on city boards and commissions or just some relatives.
"Give me a clear definition of nepotism," complained Barbara Mallory Caraway.
One would think her face would grace the dictionary next to the term. Last September, Mallory Caraway reappointed her husband, Dwaine Caraway, to the park board. That's nepotism. Also considered by logical citizens as nepotism: Maxine Thornton-Reese appointing her daughter, Lynnetta M. Williams, to the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund Board, and Hill nominating his wife, Vivian Hill, to the Municipal Library Board.
"I think your wife exercises significant influence over you," said Councilwoman Sandy Greyson, one of three members who supported voting the task force's recommendations without change, to Hill.
"She does exercise influence on me, and so what?" retorted Hill.
Then came the art of the worthless compromise, offered by Mayor Ron Kirk in a show of magnanimity. His compromise: You can't appoint immediate relatives to high-profile entities, like the ethics commission. His hat tip to his embattled board allies: "Some members have become lightning rods...the issue has become heat, not substance."
His best line: "You can't get people to serve on these boards anyway."
Nice. In all of Dallas it's impossible to find people who will serve on boards and commissions outside your own families?
Even better, the council members had to vote for the nepotism compromise before being offered a vote on the task force's recommended total ban on nepotism. John Loza summed it up: "I'm not in favor of the compromise, but I'd rather vote for it...than have nothing."
The vote proceeded as the mayor wanted: His measure passed, 8 to 5. The total-ban vote failed with a tie, but Councilwoman Donna Blumer, a strong proponent of a tough ethics code, had to leave the briefing early for family medical reasons.
And so on. As the meeting progressed, the number of members of the ethics commission was reduced from 15 to 7, increasing the chance of political tampering by failing to allow each elected council member to make an appointment. The mayor debated the conflicts of interest between the city and clients of law firms--while he draws a salary reported at about $200,000 a year from the downtown law firm of Gardere & Wynne, a powerhouse firm that sports some big-name clients who do business with the city.
In skirmish after skirmish, paragraphs were excluded, words changed. The words "should have known" were cut from language dictating the degree of responsibility city officials have for spotting conflicts. Councilwoman Laura Miller wore out the city attorney's staff looking for conspiracies. It went on and on.
With each deletion a new loophole was born, a new path to squirm in case of a jam, a new way to gain absolution despite guilt. As one heckler put it, "You should decide what the meaning of 'is' is."
The room itself was a pit of cynicism. The only people watching were those convinced the new ethics commission wasn't going to work anyway. At the start of the marathon day there were perhaps 10 people in attendance, mostly Green Party members summoned by the activist group Common Cause. (During the lunch break, some Green party members got the same kind of treatment as Blumer. Councilwoman Thornton-Reese accused them of racism for not standing for the prayer at the start of the meeting because it was invoked by a black man. The Greens tried to reply that it was a separation of church and state issue for them, but to no avail. More constructive discourse.)
By the end, there was but one elderly man in a straw hat reading Nader for President, dozing off. A handful of reporters and a pair of Common Cause gadflies also stayed to the bitter end. The council was running out of steam and compromises were coming quicker.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Maybe Kirk is right when he points out the apathy on behalf of the Dallas citizenry when it comes to municipal politics. Maybe we do get the government we deserve, at the end. The council members who voted to gut the embryonic ethics commission are in the enviable position of not having to explain their actions to their constituents. No one cares, apparently, except for a handful of the elderly and the unemployed.
So there it is. The new ethics rules have about as much chance of preventing or settling ethical debates at City Hall as the League of Nations had of averting World War II. Councilman Alan Walne, in a rare flash of involvement, summed it up neatly when he discussed the watered-down nepotism rules: "If there's not a problem, there is a perception out there that there is one...If we only do half, we haven't addressed anything."
Goodbye, ethics commission. You've been stricken in the womb, engineered in utero to be born as what they want you to be: a guard dog raised by burglars to wag its tail with menace while they make off with the silverware.