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What? Huh?

The man is chairman of the Trinity River Committee. This land use plan they're talking about is a scheme to take all of the land along the river completely out of the normal zoning process, put it under its own staff and apply all-new rules and concepts to it. It's totally a creature of the committee that Oakley has been chairing for five years! More to the point, the city attorney's staff has been present for all of those committee meetings.

What do they need an independent review for? If they can't remember the meetings, they need prescription drugs. Or other work.

I asked Oakley if it was not true he had presided over the whole effort to split zoning and land use for the river away from the normal zoning process and put it into something called the Trinity River Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

He said, "What does that have to do with anything?"

I said, "That shows that there has been an overall effort, an overall look at the Trinity River and at rezoning the Trinity River under your watch."

"And?" he asked. "Go on. Let's run the trail. And what does that create?"

"That creates the Trinity River Land Use Plan," I said.

"OK," he said. "Show me where the conflict is."

I wound up reading and re-reading the same line to him from the city attorney's opinion: "The Trinity River Comprehensive Land Use Plan would have an economic effect on the properties you own..."

But I got nowhere. Oakley insisted he could have no conflict as long as he recused himself from specific votes on specific zoning changes directed at specific properties owned by him. "Even if it's under my watch, the only thing that creates a conflict of interest by city charter is if you own land where you're doing a zoning change itself."

I looked at the city's ethics code, and nowhere does it make this wiggly fine-print distinction about zoning-votes-only that Oakley keeps harking to. The code says, "To avoid the appearance and risk of impropriety, a city official or employee shall not take any official action that he or she knows is likely to affect particularly the economic interests of the official or employee."

I'm not a lawyer, but I am a fairly decent interpreter of C.Y.A.-ese, and I have to say I sniff more than a whiff of it in this opinion. For example, the opinion makes many references to state law on conflict of interest, which is much more broad and permissive than the ethics code Laura Miller got passed after becoming mayor.

Far from the kind of technical narrow tests Oakley suggests, the city's ethics code goes big and broad. It calls on city officials "to carefully consider the public perception of personal and professional actions and the effect such actions could have, positively or negatively, on the city's reputation both in the community and elsewhere."

The code also states emphatically that not voting is not enough. An official with a conflict must "immediately refrain from further participation in the matter, including discussions with any persons likely to consider the matter."

City Attorney Perkins and Assistant City Attorney Gwendolyn Satterthwaite called me late last week to echo the defense Oakley had offered of himself the day before (this gets complicated). They said the comprehensive land use plan was divided into sub-areas. Oakley was OK, they said, if he had stayed out of any discussion of his own sub-area. He says he did.

But Perkins and Satterthwaite conceded they hadn't studied the plan. They agreed they did not know if the plan has overarching elements that affect all areas and therefore would affect Oakley's area. I would suggest that's why they call it "comprehensive." I think I'll hold them to the language in the letter: "The Trinity River Comprehensive Land Use Plan would have an economic effect on the properties you own..."

Look, I wouldn't blame you if you thought this was beating a dead horse, given that Oakley didn't win and he will leave the council this week. But I believe there's a much larger and more important point here.

This is the kind of stuff that the stupid toll road comes from—all this clever speech and fine print and cards up the sleeve. That's why having an election on it is so vital.

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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