The Mayors Proposal for City Council Ethics Reform Misses its Target: the City Council
Wait a minute. I know I almost promised last week that I wouldn't write about the Dallas City Hall federal corruption trial again soon. But you know—almost promising is when you really wish you were going to keep your promise, but you can't promise you will.
So, tell me. The big outcome from the trial is that the city council is going to clamp down on lobbyists? I didn't know any lobbyists were found guilty of anything. Or charged.
I do know that a prominent Dallas city council member was found guilty of seven out of nine felony corruption charges, as was his appointee to the Dallas Plan Commission, his wife, the head of one of his favorite community organizations and his used car dealer. I don't believe his dog was involved.
You know what? Most lobbyists are pretty honest. It's a handshake business. If word gets out that a lobbyist lies or breaks his word or tricks people out of their votes, nobody will shake his hand.
I'm not saying they're sweethearts. But vile seducers, leading our council people astray? That's a real reach for me.
City Council member Angela Hunt said to me last week, "I don't believe the public cares that much about lobbyists. What the public wants is a way to keep us city council members from being corrupt."
Look at the mayor's proposal for lobbyist registration: Under the mayor's proposed rules, a lobbyist would have to file a separate report for each client, including the client's name and business, a list of issues the lobbyist is working on for the client, a list of proposed official actions the lobbyist is seeking, a list of city officials contacted, a list of the lobbyist's employees or agents working for the client, a list of lobbyist expenditures broken down into general office expense, advertising and publications, salaries and fees, lodging and travel, with all expenditures over $500 listed by date, name of recipient and purpose, and a list of all gifts over $25 by date, recipient, cost and purpose.
Yeah, you could do that. Or, as Hunt suggested in the city council briefing on the topic, you could tell the city council not to accept gifts. At all.
Wow. Think of all the paperwork that would save. To say nothing of putting the moral onus back where it belongs.
We don't elect lobbyists. They don't take an oath. They don't work for us. I don't know what they owe us, exactly.
Now, city council members and mayors, that's different. We do elect them. They do take an oath. And we do have a right to demand integrity.
You know what they say about integrity. It's doing the right thing even when you're not on television. By that rule, I have to admit that I have reservations about this new role Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert has assumed as captain of the ethics team. Example: Current Dallas City Council ethics rules say that a person appointed to a position by the council or the mayor may not be the treasurer of a political committee. Leppert appointed the late Lynn Flint Shaw to the DART board. He also made her chair of the "Friends of Tom Leppert" fund-raising committee.
At some point after I started asking about it, Leppert came up with a Dallas city attorney's opinion saying that "Friends of Tom Leppert" is not a political fund-raising committee. It's a friends committee.
This is the same law office, by the way, that gave the council an opinion six years ago saying that a former council member, the late James Fantroy, was handling everything just right even though he was demanding that people who wanted his official support for development projects give contracts to his security guard company.
In the recent Dallas City Hall corruption trial, the FBI and federal prosecutors seemed to feel the Fantroy scenario was part of a pattern of corruption—the Dallas city attorney's opinion notwithstanding.
I always thought there was a better way the mayor could have handled the Lynn Flint Shaw appointment. He could have said, "Yes, this was a mistake. It was an oversight. It won't happen again."
Instead he comes up with a CYA lawyer letter and admits nothing. And that's only one reason I'm suspicious of Leppert's line on ethics. The other is that he's all about goring somebody else's ox while keeping his own ox snug in her stall.
If the focus is to be on lobbying—and certain reforms might be in order—the type of reform Leppert is pushing won't faze the kind of lobbyists with whom Leppert himself is closely associated. But it will go directly against the other kind.
The other kind—the ones who don't work from inside the mayor's office—are the lobbyists who actually work. They are lawyers, planners or engineers themselves, or they hire such people. They represent clients by meeting with city staff at the nuts and bolts level, before an issue ever gets to the city council.
Under the mayor's proposed rules, all of those meetings would have to be densely accounted and reported. I'm of two minds. As a reporter, I guess I'd love to see those reports. I'm sure I would stay interested in them for at least several weeks before I went back to Web surfing for kayaks.
But I also have seriously icky feelings about the constitutionality of it. I have always taken pride in telling rural county clerks that my identity is none of their damn business when I'm asking to see county records. About the time you start making people sign sworn documents every time they petition their government, I think you may be wearing out the right of petition.
Then there's the kind of lobbyists who are most closely associated with Leppert such as Carol Reed, who runs all of his political campaigns and serves as his ongoing political consultant and fund-raiser. Reed, as we learned in the corruption trial, also goes to City Hall to represent commercial clients on issues before the city council.
Reed doesn't have to call anybody halfway down a totem pole in any city department. I wager she doesn't know people halfway down totem poles. Her report sheet on contacts with city officials would read, "Lovely evening at Winspear with mayor and council."
Because that's all she needs. She calls up a council person, and it's like, "Hi, you remember me. I'm Ms. Pound-Gorilla, but you can call me Eight Hundred."
Hey, look. If you think I'm being mean to her, let me tell you something. Every time I write this stuff, her billings probably go up 10 percent. "Dallas Muckraker Accuses Lobbyist of Being Too Effective"—the kind of headline one dreams of only after too much Champagne.
Hunt has proposed that political campaign-runners be barred from lobbying the council. She thinks the rule should be that you can run campaigns, or you can lobby the council, but you can't do both.
I don't know. If I'm going to get all scrupulous about the Bill of Rights and the reporting issue, I guess I should worry about this one too. I'll try. But here's what I notice first.
Hunt's proposal, which I guess we might as well go ahead and call the Carol Reed Rule, is the one, the only idea brought forward at the recent city council briefing that indicated any enthusiasm at all for reform by anybody other than the mayor. The rest of the council pouted and whined and acted as if they were insulted anyone should think they need reforming.
Well, you know, council, that's kind of what people think when somebody from your house gets hauled off in the paddy wagon. Eyebrows do get raised.
But Hunt's idea is the only one that would inflict any pain whatsoever on the mayor. Not by accident, everything the mayor has proposed pushes the onus away from himself and his house lobbyist.
So how did The Dallas Morning News editorial page react to Hunt's idea? In that very strange and convoluted language I call "Beloese," the paper sort of lumped Hunt in with the bad council members who don't want any ethics reform at all.
"...when the mayor is struggling to persuade most council members to give an inch," the News intoned in an October 20 editorial, "Hunt's suggestion that they go an extra mile is doomed to fail."
Yeah. Sure. Let's try that logic out on some other situations just to see how it walks. When you are struggling to get the kids not to stay up all night drinking and smoking pot, the idea of getting them to go to school in the morning is doomed to fail.
Or this: If the mayor and council are already arguing about ways to blame their own failings on other people, any effort to get them to take responsibility themselves is doomed to fail.
Doomed? Oh, come on. We can't be that bad off. Let's take maybe a minute here to see if we could possibly imagine a way to turn some of this around.
For example, instead of requiring lobbyists to file reams of paperwork listing everybody they have talked to, why not ask the city council members and the mayor to list every lobbyist they talk to? It would be nice to have their full calendars accessible on the Web. And right away.
Another possibility: Instead of setting all kinds of artificial limits for gifts and inducements the council members do and do not have to report, how about asking them to report everything—every dinner, every sports event, every weekend outing that they accept?
We could ask them to tell us whenever they stand to profit by any amount from a council decision, directly or indirectly. See what I mean? Once we decide to put this back on them, where it belongs, there are lots of ways we could go. And should. I don't think the public's expectation of basic honesty at City Hall is doomed to failure, no matter what the Morning News says.
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