If You Think Ethics Reform at City Hall Was All Mayor Tom's Idea, Pass That Pipe, Willya?

In an editorial today The Dallas Morning News gives all the credit for better ethics at City Hall to Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert because, "In the end, Tom Leppert didn't blink."

They must have sent a greenhorn over to cover the city council's straw vote on ethics reform last week. An experienced reporter would have known that Mr. Leppert never blinks --- a trait that usually gives people the willies.

In this case The News's editorial page is on a mission. It wants people to know that Tom Leppert -- by all appearances soon to be a Republican candidate for Kay Bailey Hutchison's Senate seat -- is the one, the only source of disinfectant for the toxic corridors of City Hall, still stenchy from a sordid federal corruption trial.

"Several city council members spent last week scrambling in a determined effort to derail the Dallas mayor's plan to vote on ethics reform," the editorial page moaned. "Their colleague Angela Hunt ostensibly was on the side of reforming the ethics code, but she spent some of her microphone time trying to stop the vote."

Reality check: Hunt is the reason we're having this conversation. Leppert only jumped on it after Hunt put together a caucus of colleagues to ask the city attorney for a briefing. And when he did race out front of the parade, Leppert was, as usual, all prance and no tuba. His proposal for "lobbyist reform" read like something probably drafted by one of his own favorite, well, uh ... you know ... lobbyists. It featured some flashy language requiring professional lobbyists to list everybody they talk to at City Hall.

For most professional lobbyists, that would be easy: everybody at City Hall.

We can thank council members Hunt, Ann Margolin and Linda Koop for adding the only real teeth in this poor gum-smacker: At the council debate so sneeringly dismissed by the editorialists, council members greatly expanded the list of people required to report their lobbying activities to include the stakeholders typically hiding behind the façade of paid lobbyists.

Now the language to be voted on by the council November 9 will include people seeking tax abatements, housing tax credits (a big factor in the corruption trial), historic development tax abatements, federal grant money administered by the city, tax increment financing (the real money in City hall giveaways), and economic development grants or loans (with an exception for neighborhood groups).

For a fuller and even more acerbic assessment of the mayor's proposal and the things the council had to do to fix it, see Hunt's blog posted moments ago. (A brief excerpt: "To which I say: What ethics reform? You mean the mayor's toothless proposals? Anyone who has actually taken the time to read the cornerstone of the mayor's reforms -- lobbyist registration -- knows it won't do a single thing to prevent corruption.")

The council and the mayor all know how things really work -- well, almost all of them. Much of the council's frustration was born of knowledge that the mayor's proposal -- a list of bullet points not even reduced yet to specific language -- missed the broad side of the barn from two yards away, which is no mean trick.

Led by Hunt, Koop and Margolin, the council tacked on new language aimed at real-life scenarios in which people really do try to bend the council to their will on votes worth tens of millions of dollars to them. If any of that new language survives the Novembver 9 vote, none of the credit will belong to Leppert.

For me, the most frustrating comment on all this was from Mayor Leppert's sidekick on the council, Ron Natinsky. When Hunt offered the one measure that might have affected Leppert's favorite lobbyist, Carol Reed -- a measure that would have barred campaign-runners from also lobbying the council -- Natinsky complained it was a measure that would have effected only Leppert.

And your point, Mr. Natinsky?

Oh, well. Expect to see lots more Leppert puffery on the editorial page as the Dallas cashocracy tries once again to buy itself a Senate seat. I wonder why it never occurs to them to try a candidate who does blink.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze