Pecked to death

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.