OK, so maybe stench is too strong a word. (Schutze is shaking his head no.) This is actually what council member Jerry Allen said when kicking off today's meeting of the council's Budget, Finance and Audit Committee: There's an "image problem" at City Hall, which has been "tainted by ethical acts, and the challenge for us is to find ways to establish a clear ethical standard and use it to reduce the negative perceptions that rightly exist with citizens."
Allen said yet another ethical overhaul isn't just his idea -- it's Mayor Mike's too. Remember? Sure you do. Thing is, Dallas has an Ethics Advisory Commission -- has since 2000. Which clearly ain't workin' out too well. So back to basics we go. Again.
Said Allen, it's time to "put in a new ethical culture at City Hall. This change is not going to happen overnight, winning back the trust of the citizens won't be easy, and we'll do this one brick at a time as we build back the foundation" of trust. At which point everyone held hands and sang a Billy Joel song. Or not.
Allen's remarks were by way of introducing Gary Morris and Michael Webb of the home Greater Dallas Business Ethics Award, which acknowledges companies that act above-board. Allen really, really wants that award, which Morris's group has been handing out since 2000 to "very positive beacons of ethical behavior in our community." And then there's Dallas City Hall.
Morris and Webb spent quite a while explaining ethics to the council committee, which includes Ann Margolin and Tennell Atkins, the latter of whom insisted, "We try to be fair, but we're not perfect." At one point, Morris made ethics awful simple to understand: "Do unto others are you would have them do unto you." But, said Atkins, this is "not something that'll happen overnight." And why not?
Because, as Margolin pointed out, City Auditor Craig Kinton is in the middle of doing an ethics audit of the city, which Allen said is due in about three months. "We're going to ask [for] a benchmark on where we're at when it comes to ethics and an ethics culture compared to other cities," Allen said, adding that the council is also asking the Ethics Advisory Committee to also "prepare a list of best practices ... and to review our code of ethics." Thirty days after that audit's turned in, Allen said, the commission will return with its findings and recommendations.
"And then, as the commission is doing this, I would hope that maybe we keep it as simple as possible," he said. "[Earlier in the meeting] we were talking about: Do not do anything your mother would be disappointed in you for. As I was talking to professors at SMU about this, they said, 'God was able to put it all into Ten Commandments on one piece of paper.' It's important we keep this simple."
At which point Randy Skinner, the chair of the Ethics Advisory Commission, chimed in, insisting that, look, the city's made "great progress" when it comes to writing guidelines for how elected officials ought to conduct themselves. But there's a long way to go, he said, especially since the city's inch-thick ethics rulebook "doesn't cover campaign contributions or the campaign cycle, which is where we seem to have some challenges. And it doesn't cover the clients -- the public -- we deal with."
The city, he said, also lacks "an understanding, maybe because of the culture we live in with so many moral compasses, [of] how do we conduct ourselves among each other. And then in the public arena it's also about perception. ... There is a perception if you do business with City Hall [that] you pay to play. That's where there's a challenge, there has to be an eduction in the public arena and even [among] the business entities. Some of them believe: 'If we're going to get something passed at City Hall, we have to make campaign contributions.' How do we make it a culture that filters down to the voting booth -- that ethical violations are not wanted, desired and will not be tolerated."
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Morris said, look, that's easy: "Claim that moral high ground."
Allen liked that.
"Claim the high ground," he repeated. "Claim the high ground."
Wait, what's that, Jim? Sorry, Schutze is shaking his head again.