The Mayor’s Proposal for City Council Ethics Reform Misses its Target: the City Council

Wait a minute. I know I almost promised last week that I wouldn't write about the Dallas City Hall federal corruption trial again soon. But you know—almost promising is when you really wish you were going to keep your promise, but you can't promise you will.

So, tell me. The big outcome from the trial is that the city council is going to clamp down on lobbyists? I didn't know any lobbyists were found guilty of anything. Or charged.

I do know that a prominent Dallas city council member was found guilty of seven out of nine felony corruption charges, as was his appointee to the Dallas Plan Commission, his wife, the head of one of his favorite community organizations and his used car dealer. I don't believe his dog was involved.

You know what? Most lobbyists are pretty honest. It's a handshake business. If word gets out that a lobbyist lies or breaks his word or tricks people out of their votes, nobody will shake his hand.

I'm not saying they're sweethearts. But vile seducers, leading our council people astray? That's a real reach for me.

City Council member Angela Hunt said to me last week, "I don't believe the public cares that much about lobbyists. What the public wants is a way to keep us city council members from being corrupt."

Look at the mayor's proposal for lobbyist registration: Under the mayor's proposed rules, a lobbyist would have to file a separate report for each client, including the client's name and business, a list of issues the lobbyist is working on for the client, a list of proposed official actions the lobbyist is seeking, a list of city officials contacted, a list of the lobbyist's employees or agents working for the client, a list of lobbyist expenditures broken down into general office expense, advertising and publications, salaries and fees, lodging and travel, with all expenditures over $500 listed by date, name of recipient and purpose, and a list of all gifts over $25 by date, recipient, cost and purpose.

Yeah, you could do that. Or, as Hunt suggested in the city council briefing on the topic, you could tell the city council not to accept gifts. At all.

Wow. Think of all the paperwork that would save. To say nothing of putting the moral onus back where it belongs.

We don't elect lobbyists. They don't take an oath. They don't work for us. I don't know what they owe us, exactly.

Now, city council members and mayors, that's different. We do elect them. They do take an oath. And we do have a right to demand integrity.

You know what they say about integrity. It's doing the right thing even when you're not on television. By that rule, I have to admit that I have reservations about this new role Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert has assumed as captain of the ethics team. Example: Current Dallas City Council ethics rules say that a person appointed to a position by the council or the mayor may not be the treasurer of a political committee. Leppert appointed the late Lynn Flint Shaw to the DART board. He also made her chair of the "Friends of Tom Leppert" fund-raising committee.

At some point after I started asking about it, Leppert came up with a Dallas city attorney's opinion saying that "Friends of Tom Leppert" is not a political fund-raising committee. It's a friends committee.

This is the same law office, by the way, that gave the council an opinion six years ago saying that a former council member, the late James Fantroy, was handling everything just right even though he was demanding that people who wanted his official support for development projects give contracts to his security guard company.

In the recent Dallas City Hall corruption trial, the FBI and federal prosecutors seemed to feel the Fantroy scenario was part of a pattern of corruption—the Dallas city attorney's opinion notwithstanding.

I always thought there was a better way the mayor could have handled the Lynn Flint Shaw appointment. He could have said, "Yes, this was a mistake. It was an oversight. It won't happen again."

Instead he comes up with a CYA lawyer letter and admits nothing. And that's only one reason I'm suspicious of Leppert's line on ethics. The other is that he's all about goring somebody else's ox while keeping his own ox snug in her stall.

If the focus is to be on lobbying—and certain reforms might be in order—the type of reform Leppert is pushing won't faze the kind of lobbyists with whom Leppert himself is closely associated. But it will go directly against the other kind.

The other kind—the ones who don't work from inside the mayor's office—are the lobbyists who actually work. They are lawyers, planners or engineers themselves, or they hire such people. They represent clients by meeting with city staff at the nuts and bolts level, before an issue ever gets to the city council.

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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

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