Pecked to death

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Take, for example, the council's "compromise" on nepotism, one of the products of Thursday's briefing. A true nadir of political discourse, each member had to decide whether to ban all council relatives from serving on city boards and commissions or just some relatives.

"Give me a clear definition of nepotism," complained Barbara Mallory Caraway.

One would think her face would grace the dictionary next to the term. Last September, Mallory Caraway reappointed her husband, Dwaine Caraway, to the park board. That's nepotism. Also considered by logical citizens as nepotism: Maxine Thornton-Reese appointing her daughter, Lynnetta M. Williams, to the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund Board, and Hill nominating his wife, Vivian Hill, to the Municipal Library Board.

"I think your wife exercises significant influence over you," said Councilwoman Sandy Greyson, one of three members who supported voting the task force's recommendations without change, to Hill.

"She does exercise influence on me, and so what?" retorted Hill.

Then came the art of the worthless compromise, offered by Mayor Ron Kirk in a show of magnanimity. His compromise: You can't appoint immediate relatives to high-profile entities, like the ethics commission. His hat tip to his embattled board allies: "Some members have become lightning rods...the issue has become heat, not substance."

His best line: "You can't get people to serve on these boards anyway."

Nice. In all of Dallas it's impossible to find people who will serve on boards and commissions outside your own families?

Even better, the council members had to vote for the nepotism compromise before being offered a vote on the task force's recommended total ban on nepotism. John Loza summed it up: "I'm not in favor of the compromise, but I'd rather vote for it...than have nothing."

The vote proceeded as the mayor wanted: His measure passed, 8 to 5. The total-ban vote failed with a tie, but Councilwoman Donna Blumer, a strong proponent of a tough ethics code, had to leave the briefing early for family medical reasons.

And so on. As the meeting progressed, the number of members of the ethics commission was reduced from 15 to 7, increasing the chance of political tampering by failing to allow each elected council member to make an appointment. The mayor debated the conflicts of interest between the city and clients of law firms--while he draws a salary reported at about $200,000 a year from the downtown law firm of Gardere & Wynne, a powerhouse firm that sports some big-name clients who do business with the city.

In skirmish after skirmish, paragraphs were excluded, words changed. The words "should have known" were cut from language dictating the degree of responsibility city officials have for spotting conflicts. Councilwoman Laura Miller wore out the city attorney's staff looking for conspiracies. It went on and on.

With each deletion a new loophole was born, a new path to squirm in case of a jam, a new way to gain absolution despite guilt. As one heckler put it, "You should decide what the meaning of 'is' is."

The room itself was a pit of cynicism. The only people watching were those convinced the new ethics commission wasn't going to work anyway. At the start of the marathon day there were perhaps 10 people in attendance, mostly Green Party members summoned by the activist group Common Cause. (During the lunch break, some Green party members got the same kind of treatment as Blumer. Councilwoman Thornton-Reese accused them of racism for not standing for the prayer at the start of the meeting because it was invoked by a black man. The Greens tried to reply that it was a separation of church and state issue for them, but to no avail. More constructive discourse.)

By the end, there was but one elderly man in a straw hat reading Nader for President, dozing off. A handful of reporters and a pair of Common Cause gadflies also stayed to the bitter end. The council was running out of steam and compromises were coming quicker.

Maybe Kirk is right when he points out the apathy on behalf of the Dallas citizenry when it comes to municipal politics. Maybe we do get the government we deserve, at the end. The council members who voted to gut the embryonic ethics commission are in the enviable position of not having to explain their actions to their constituents. No one cares, apparently, except for a handful of the elderly and the unemployed.

So there it is. The new ethics rules have about as much chance of preventing or settling ethical debates at City Hall as the League of Nations had of averting World War II. Councilman Alan Walne, in a rare flash of involvement, summed it up neatly when he discussed the watered-down nepotism rules: "If there's not a problem, there is a perception out there that there is one...If we only do half, we haven't addressed anything."

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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo

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