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The Dallas City Council's Ethics Relapse

People hate lawyers and lobbyists. Not me. I hate people.

If you wonder why, I offer you last week's outlandish hearing on city council "ethics."

Back in April, the city council passed major revisions to its ethics code, loosening the rules that restrict companies from showering City Hall with money when they have business before the city council.


Angela Hunt

Just what you and I were hoping for, right?

Some council members cried foul. East Dallas councilwoman Angela Hunt said the whole thing got passed by a kind of parliamentary trick and that the new rules increased chances for corruption. She and four other members demanded a special re-hearing to review the whole thing.

So last week, there was a re-do. Tom Perkins, Dallas' city attorney, stood up and gave the council his legal opinion. The rules had to be loosened, he said with a straight and sober face, to allow more people to give them money sooner after the council votes on issues important to those people.

"There are companies or businesses that will always have a matter pending before the city council during some designated period," he said. "As a practical matter those companies would be prohibited from contributing to city council candidates."

Many on the council—most notably our mayor—were gratified by Perkins' words. Their attitude seemed to be: Well, he's the lawyer.

So whom do we like better so far, the lawyer or the people he works for?

The entire purpose of the current ethics laws—passed at the end of 2009 following the City Hall corruption trial—was to shut down the money-for-votes traffic at City Hall. Stop. Do not proceed. Federal pokey ahead.

During his trial, former council member Don Hill, who was sent up the river for 18 years, argued that previous city attorneys had told him and the rest of the council that, basically, some money could be accepted in exchange for certain votes. I believe Hill's term for it was "economic development."

The court brushed that defense aside, recognizing that people often pay their lawyers to tell them some very outlandish stuff. That doesn't make the lawyers bad. It makes the people bad—or maybe just stupid—for taking the advice, right after paying the lawyers to give them specifically that advice.

Like, "Here's five bucks, tell me I'm handsome."

"You're handsome."

"Oh, I knew it!"

The 2009 rules made sense: If someone's company, or a company someone lobbied for, had business before the council, that person was prohibited from making a political donation to a council member or the mayor until 60 days after the council had voted on the company's issue.

But under the changes adopted at that April hearing, most employees—and all hired representatives—are allowed to pony up cash at any point, even on the day of the vote. And the period of time when the company itself can kick in some greenbacks was cut from 60 to 30 days.

When they reconsidered it last week, Perkins explained why he had authored the new, looser rules. For this, I must ask a question. We all know what temerity is, right? Chutzpah. Nerve. Temerity is an important quality for good lawyers to have. For this next statement, Perkins had to summon up just a whole huge truckload of temerity:

The post-Don-Hill-up-the-river ethics rules, Perkins said, were causing a hardship for companies that wanted to give more money to council members right after important votes. "That's the message we heard from businesses and companies that regularly do business before the city council," Perkins said.

My word. I am in awe. His name should be writ in the annals of Dallas City Hall forever as "Temerity Tom."

Sorry, Mr. P., but that is most definitely not what happened. And as much as I hate to inject myself into a story—moi meme, as they say in French—I feel compelled to tell what did happen, because I happen to know.

I have written a lot about lobbyists over the years. People think lobbyists are naughty. I don't, not always. It depends. I have written some relatively favorable things about lobbyists, not praising them or anything, just saying if you do happen to die, and if you do find yourself up there on the cloud, and they've got some kind of big indictment of you that they want you to read, don't bother telling them, "The lobbyists made me do it." It won't wash. The lobbyists are not always the bad guys.

That's not lavish praise for lobbyists, I know, but lobbyists and lawyers are kind of starved and scarred like feral cats. Give them one ounce of emotional cat food, and they're yours for life.

Anyway, I know a lot of lobbyists in Dallas. And last month, at the very moment that the city council was unanimously voting to adopt the new Don-Hill-is-too-cool rules, several lobbyists called me. Aghast.

Our conversations were, as almost always, deeply off the record. But the general flavor was, "Oh, no! They just slipped through a change in the law so they can come after our clients for even more money for their damn votes."

So Perkins' line about how companies and lobbyists wanted the rules changed so they could give council members even more money for their votes was—how do I put this?—lawyerly.

In fact, all this would have slipped under the radar if the lobbyists had not called me. We immediately posted a story on our news blog, Unfair Park, calling attention to what had just been done.

I'm not saying the city council reconsidered its action—and called a special hearing on the matter last week—because the Dallas Observer published an article. Listen. If we had dead-certain, 100 percent knowledge that City Hall was going to collapse at a given moment, they would all stay in there and die just to tell us to stick it.

But after our story, the issue crept into the mayor's race. Candidate Mike Rawlings slammed rival Ron Natinsky, a member of city council, for voting for the looser rules, accusing Natinsky of choosing "money over ethics." And at a mayoral forum last week, both Rawlings and David Kunkle, the former police chief, pledged to make ethics rules much tougher if elected.

(Natinsky, incredibly enough, balked. Unsolicited political advice for Ron Natinsky: When running for mayor, always be for ethics.)

Some council members also felt that Dwaine Caraway had hoodwinked them by slipping the ethics changes into something called the "consent agenda." Every Friday, each member receives a copy of the following Wednesday's meeting agenda. For the April 13 meeting, the agenda was 20 pages. Of that, the "consent agenda" consisted of 75 separate items on 15 pages. Consent agenda items are usually small-bore issues not worth debating. That day's included an item to contract to install waste-water mains and another contract "for the construction of erosion control."

The council almost always adopts the entire consent agenda wholesale by unanimous vote. It's a way to get a lot of business done quickly and without nodding off.

Any council member can demand that an item be pulled from the consent agenda and debated by the full council, and every council member ought to read the consent agenda to make sure there aren't items that need to be debated. But they never do. Doesn't happen. Being on the council is supposed to be a part-time job. They have funerals and graduations to attend all weekend, and then there are people waiting outside their offices for them on Monday morning. They only look at the consent agenda if somebody calls them up and points something out.

The gentleman's agreement, then, is that nothing too big lands on the consent agenda. Hunt and other council members felt Caraway had pulled a fast one on them by slipping a very controversial issue into the middle of the consent agenda.

At last week's do-over, some council members stubbornly defended their vote to loosen the rules, insisting there was nothing tricky about slipping it into the consent agenda.

"As far as I'm concerned, I looked at it. I listened to what our city attorney had to say in executive session," Jerry Allen said. "I knew it was coming up, because it was on the agenda."

Caraway also took umbrage.

"That is somewhat of a slap in the Dallas city council's face as far as I'm concerned," the mayor said. "Certainly on the Dallas city council it is not our intention to slip something in."

Caraway harped on the fact that the consent agenda that day had been adopted unanimously. "Every council member that was present at that meeting unanimously approved the consent agenda," he said.

But the consent agenda is always adopted unanimously. That's why they call it the consent agenda.

Council member Vonciel Hill, a lawyer and former judge, put her finger on the bull's eye when it was her turn to talk. It's always interesting to me how unlawyerly lawyers can be when they need to do some quick damage control.

"We may have unanimously voted to accept this," Hill said, "but my position is that we unanimously screwed up. This is an item that should have been discussed publicly."

"I agree with the terminology that it was slipped in," Hill said.

Member Pauline Medrano proposed that the city council form an ad hoc committee to revisit the ethics question, to see if some or all of the changes approved April 13 should be rescinded. It's unclear how long that will take.

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But you can take this to the bank: When they do this again, it will be in full public view and as "an item for individual consideration" by the council, in a room full of reporters and TV cameras.

In full daylight, how many council members are going to speak up in favor of rules that effectively allow companies with business before the council to sluice money into council accounts through their employees and representatives? I predict we will see a major re-blooming of virtue on the council when the lights come on.

So the lawyer just did what he was paid to do. The lobbyists let the dogs out. We had a part. The political candidates played a role. And now the council people will be born again as champions of truth, transparency and all that is sacred and noble in America. Good people, in other words.

I told you how I feel about people.

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