Victor Vital, the lawyer who represented Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston before the city's ethics advisory commission this week, won a victory even harder to achieve than a favorable verdict in court. In court you have the rule of law.
The ethics commission, on the other hand, is sort of a witch’s brew of compromises cooked up between Mayor Mike Rawlings, who wanted to be the ethics mayor when he got elected the first time, and his own political operatives, who tended to be a bunch of backstabbing shiv artists. That’s always the problem: Politicians are always in favor of tougher ethics, unless it means they might lose the next election.
Hence we wound up this time with a kangaroo court accusation against Kingston, timed to hurt him in last month’s general election, in which the original accuser, the one who got the ball rolling, was allowed to remain anonymous. That’s only constitutional in high school.
Of the six members of the ethics commission who were present for an hours-long hearing on a complaint against Kingston, all six wound up voting to clear him. In talking to me afterward, Kingston rejected my references to marsupials and said he had respect for the basic process as carried out by the members of the commission. “I don’t think that those are just hardcore political operators seeking to hand out political punishments,” he said. “I think some of them really want to be legitimate.”
OK. Everybody’s such a gent. I guess that’s where I come in. My main ambition in these things is not to be taken for a total sucker. First, you have the fact that this pops up just before an election. Second, you have the fact that the person making the charge wanted to be anonymous and got away with it. Oh, gosh, could that be the case because the person making the charge works for one of the political chop-shops out to kneecap Kingston and mayoral candidate Scott Griggs?
And why would I suspect that? Well, look at the charge itself. Kingston was accused of pushing for a change to the zoning for his neighborhood to allow accessory dwellings, or so-called granny flats, usually garage apartments behind big houses on ample-sized lots.
First of all, this is something Kingston has been talking about for years, because everybody in his part of town talks about it. I live in his part of town. And look, there is a certain underlying reality here that most people in East Dallas won’t talk about because everybody has to have such good manners all the time.
The reality is that a ton of people already have these things, illegally. What Kingston was doing by getting the zoning changed, in part, was making a lot of people honest.
That’s not why he said he was doing it. He said allowing people to build accessory rental housing units on their back lots would expand affordable housing. But I can guarantee you, when that thing passed, a number of people told their tenants they could walk right down the front walk instead of slipping in and out via the alley all the time.
Kingston built one of these things for himself. The accusation was that he got the zoning change done so that he could build his own granny flat and get rich renting it out. Vital, his lawyer, explained to the ethics commission that a legislator, in this case a council member, is only guilty of a conflict if he gets a law passed or money appropriated to benefit himself alone.
Let’s say he talks the body into signing off on a contract with a company that he turns out to own. As a certain well-known elected leader would say, BAD! But if he votes to fix the streets in a large part of town where he happens to live, NOT BAD! He isn’t helping himself in any way that doesn’t help everybody as well.
But that’s just my own example. Vital offered the commission a couple of much more pointed, real-life instances to think about. One involved a senior council member who voted in favor of a tax break for seniors that would apply to her own home. Another was a case in which the mayor voted for favorable treatment of an institution where a member of his own family was employed.
Vital’s point was not that those votes were shady or suspect. It was the opposite. In order to vote for good things for most people, no legislator can avoid voting for something that might also be good for herself or himself.
That’s why the law doesn’t say they can’t vote for things intended to benefit everybody else that may also benefit them individually. The law says they shouldn’t vote for something that benefits them uniquely, alone, solo, to the exclusion of the public.
And that’s where I come back to the business of not wanting to be made a sucker. It’s obvious what this was. I never took the accusation seriously for one minute. This was a shiv attack and a stab in the back from the beginning. Hats off and congratulations to Vital for coming up with a winning argument, but I think the argument only had to be made because the anonymous person had turned simple logic inside out and upside down.
Ask it a different way. Hey, everybody in East Dallas has been talking about mother-in-law apartments for years. Half the people with big enough lots for them have got them already, operating under the table. Would you object if Kingston came up with a zoning change to sort of rationalize, control and legalize the whole thing for everybody else, and then he built one himself?
If one of my neighbors had stopped me to ask that question three months ago, my first response would have been that the question was too long: “Why would you take my time with a question like this?” I would have complained. “Do you have any idea how many errands I’m supposed to run today?” But then, as I have said already, not everybody in East Dallas has a picture-perfect personality. I just think the answer is so obvious that the question sounds stupid, unless you are hunting, hunting, hunting for a way to stick a knife in Kingston’s back right before an election.
Speaking of personalities, Kingston’s personality is … What shall we call it? … somewhat unusual among people who run for elective office. He doesn’t carry around a lot of false modesty. No false modesty. At all. But I thought that was what everybody wanted these days, the tell-it-like-it-is guy, not afraid to get red in the face, Trumanesque at times. It’s never too hot in the kitchen for him.
Apparently not everybody wants that. His opponent is saying his entire decision to run for office against Kingston was based on his feeling that Kingston isn’t nice enough. Nice enough for what? Nice enough for Dallas City Hall? City Hall is like a nice-guy roach trap. They go in, but they don’t come out.
I’ve been talking to and dealing with Kingston for years. Like anybody else who deals with him, I get a little bit of a haircut sometimes. If he’s mad at you or thinks you got something wrong, he tells you. But I have never once found Kingston to be mean or a bully.
The thing he is not long on is modesty. That’s OK with me. I have never been a huge modesty fan. I am not a fan of malignant narcissism, either, but I don’t mind it when people stick up for themselves. So I wasn’t surprised by his answer the other day when I asked him why attacks like this fake ethics complaint, timed before an election, are so often the way the old guard goes, especially when the old guard is going after Kingston, mayoral candidate Scott Griggs or former City Council member Angela Hunt.
Couldn’t they just say they think these guys are stupid? Couldn’t they go after them on specific votes they’ve made or policy positions they have taken? Couldn’t they say they don’t like their clothes? Their moms? Why does it always have to be this shiv attack on specious grounds by a secret assailant?
“It’s the only strategy,” he said. “How else are you going to take a look at my record in an objective light and say anything other than bravo?”
That’s the kind of response that I have taken to calling Kingstonian.
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“Seriously,” he said. “Set values aside and just look at legislative output, total number of ideas turned from a memo into an ordinance. I am so far in the lead that second place barely matters.”
I agree with Kingston that the people opposing him, Griggs and Hunt in her day, seem to be sort of flummoxed by their lack of the usual susceptibilities. They’re not on the council as a way to make money, win contracts or get invited to parties in the Park Cities. The people who want to bend them to their wills on things like public works projects must find it frustrating that these three offer so few good handholds. So the accusers go for fake handholds. And then they have the nerve to say the three are not nice enough. Phew. That’s plenty twisty.
I am writing Monday on a related topic — editorials in The Dallas Morning News. I am writing about one in which the Morning News irately accuses Griggs and Kingston of being on a “moral high horse.”
Oh, well, they can’t have that, can they? People in public office on moral high horses. They need to get all those local elected officials back down on the low horse.