Poor Planning

So is David Spence, who resigned this month from his seat on Dallas' plan and zoning commission after being reprimanded by the city's ethics panel, a bad guy or a good guy done wrong?

Seeing how Dallas Observer staffer Rose Farley broke the story of his alleged ethical lapse, which involved improperly using his city title to obtain an otherwise confidential copy of an Oak Cliff businessman's liquor-license application, we'd be hard-pressed at this point to call him a saint ("Code Breaker," June 13). But is he such a sinner that he shouldn't sit on the plan commission?

Beats us. The ethics commission is a new baby in Dallas, the child of Mayor Laura Miller. Spence's case, the first real test of a new ethics code, was not a clear example of egregious evildoing. It involved what Spence calls "a silly neighborhood pissing match" replete with development issues and competing ideas of what sort of businesses are best for Oak Cliff and political infighting and squabbles tainted by ethnicity and claims of elitism. You know, the same ol' same ol' at City Hall.

As a kid, Buzz played a game called "smear the derogatory term for a gay person"--sorry, it was a backward era--that basically involved 60 boys all trying to tackle the one kid who had the football, who passed the ball onto the next fool once tackled. No points, no goal, just run and tackle and run and tackle. Buzz suspects that being on the Dallas ethics commission must at times feel like being a referee at a game of smear the derogatory term. Fun job. Those guys are volunteers, right?

And fairly or not, Spence sure sounds like the kid who suddenly found the ball falling into his hands when all he wanted to do was sit in the playground and study.

Yet he says his resignation was not prompted by the ethics commission's reprimand, which goes before the city council for a vote this week. His work on the commission was taking time from his family that he wasn't willing to give up, especially considering the hostile climate he faced, he says. He also says actions by the city attorney's office and council contributed to his decision, but wouldn't be more specific.

The real problem he has with the ethics code is not the rules, Spence says, but the way they're administered. The bar for bringing a complaint is set too low, and the accused are not given due process in order to defend themselves.

"The problem with the ethics code is that it is so ripe for being used for political intimidation," says Spence, who still denies that he used his title to obtain confidential information. He did not lobby for his own financial interest and sought ethical guidance from the city attorney early on, he says, but, "It's the easiest thing in the world to portray me or someone in my similar position as a bully or as being out for personal reasons. And frankly, you guys have done nothing but help them in that cause, and you'll do it in the future...The ethics commission and the Dallas Observer is a marriage made in heaven."

Uh-huh. And how exactly did you get the copy of that guy's liquor-license application again?

Still, Spence is an intelligent, articulate guy. He's committed to Oak Cliff. He owns property there. He didn't rob any banks or unduly enrich himself. How happy should anyone be that someone like Spence found his taste of public service bitter? More important, will his experience warn others like him away from volunteering to serve the city?

Buzz doesn't really care, and not just because we're looking for more stories like his to write, as Spence suggests. OK, so maybe that's part of it--we do like to have our fun--but another part is this: Spence did something he shouldn't have, and he faced consequences. Maybe more than he deserved, but nevertheless that's a rare and refreshing change for Dallas. There are no doubt bugs with the new ethics system, but at least there is a system. As for fears that civic-minded people like Spence may shy away from service, Buzz has some advice for all the commissioners and committee members out there: Keep volunteering. The city needs you. Just bring a thicker skin. If you screw up badly enough, it will fit nicely on the wall in the Observer's offices, next to Spence's.

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Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams

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