Ethics Reform at City Hall

Last Wednesday, the Dallas City Council was scheduled to vote on several proposed ethics reforms. In a moment I’ll go through our (seven-hour) discussion and resulting straw votes, but I first want to address a Dallas Morning News editorial from the weekend that pushed for hasty decisions and chided those of us who want to take six weeks to ensure a thorough, well-thought-out ordinance.

If you need a job, consider working as a writer with The Dallas Morning News.  No experience necessary, and you’ll be writing front-page, headline stories tomorrow.

Here’s what you do:  You don’t actually write an article.  Just give your new editor an idea for a story — a few notes you’ve scribbled down on the back of a napkin.  Tell him he can’t read or edit the story before it goes to print.  He’s got to print it as-is, sight unseen.  None of that time-consuming, arduous fact-checking and proof-reading.  Let me know how that works out.

Of course, The Dallas Morning News would never print an article they haven’t read, but that’s essentially what they want the Dallas City Council to do with ethics reform.

In late August, in response to the recent federal corruption trial, I and four of my colleagues requested that the city attorney brief the council on lobbyist registration processes used by the state legislature and other major cities in Texas.  We wanted to develop a lobbyist registration process that would strengthen ethics at city hall and create greater transparency.

We eventually received that briefing two weeks ago.  The mayor also tacked on his proposal for a lobbyist registration process, as well as his proposed changes to our zoning process and campaign finance reforms.  He wanted us to vote on his proposals a week later (last Wednesday).

Keep in mind, the final ordinances hadn’t yet been written, and, in lieu of any legal documents to examine, we were expected to vote on a list of bullet points and call it good legislation.

Those of us who understand that bullet points aren’t law and that only ordinances have any legal consequence wanted the opportunity to review the final ordinances before voting on them.  We wanted time to put some teeth into the mayor’s proposals, and we wanted to hold two public hearings to get input from Dallas residents on this important matter.

Seven of the council’s fifteen members (myself included) proposed moving the ethics reform vote to mid-December and holding two briefings and public hearings in between.  That would let us review the ordinances and thoughtfully debate amendments, yet still provide a swift response for needed ethics reform.  For this “interminable delay” of six weeks, The Dallas Morning News Editorial Board derided us as “scrambling in a determined effort to derail the Dallas mayor’s plan to vote on ethics reforms.”

To which I say:  What ethics reform? You mean the mayor’s toothless proposals?  Anyone who has actually taken the time to read the cornerstone of the mayor’s reforms — lobbyist registration — knows it won’t do a single thing to prevent corruption.  It’ll kill a lot of trees, waste a lot of city staff time, and result in a lot of paper work for lobbyists, but it won’t actually do anything to prevent corruption.  It will merely require paid lobbyists to list which city officials they’ve had contact with in the last three months.  Big deal.  A smart lobbyist would shoot a two-line email to every single councilmember then list everyone on his quarterly report to camouflage the real target of his lobbying efforts.

How exactly does that prevent corruption?

Window dressing is not enough.  It’s not enough to rush feeble, ineffectual laws that do nothing, then pat ourselves on the back for supposedly cleaning up city hall.  We have an opportunity to bring real transparency to what happens behind closed doors at 1500 Marilla.  We have the chance to illuminate the relationships between lobbyists and councilmembers and reduce the likelihood of corruption.  Without substantive changes, the mayor’s proposals fail on all counts.

In the end, we were unable to move the vote to December, but we were able to move it two weeks so that we can at least read what we are voting on.  (To which the DMNEB sniffed, “Unfortunately, the council didn’t manage to take final action on the proposals.”)

I proposed several amendments last Wednesday. Some were successful, some were not, but all were intended to strengthen the ethics reforms proposed by the mayor. There’s no reason to create a complex process if it doesn’t actually have a chance of preventing corruption.

Here’s a run-down of the changes the council made to the mayor’s proposals on Wednesday (approved by straw vote):

LOBBYIST REGISTRATION

Amendment 1  (Proposed by HUNT):

Require activity reports (but no registration or registration fee) to be filed by any applicant, property owner, or purchaser with a property under contract who lobbies a city council member on any of the following municipal questions relating to public subsidies after the question has been posted on a council agenda or a council committee agenda:

A.   A tax abatement.
B.   A housing tax credit.
C.   An historic development tax abatement.
D.   Federal grant money administered by the city.
E.   Tax increment financing.
F.   An economic development grant or loan.
*Exception for neighborhood associations, crime watch groups, and homeowner’s associations.

The original proposal required only paid lobbyists to report their behind-the-scenes contacts with city officials. I proposed expanding the registration process to include others who lobby city officials for major city subsidies or grants:  applicants as well as real property owners and purchasers. These financial stakeholders stand to gain or lose a great deal as a result of a city council decision.  Thus, they are most vulnerable to corruption, whether as an instigator or victim, and their contacts with city officials require the most scrutiny.

Without this addition, the ordinance was unlikely to have any real chance at preventing corruption because it was focused exclusively on paid lobbyists.  I would not have supported the lobbyist registration proposal had this amendment not been included.

Amendment 2 (Proposed by KOOP, MARGOLIN):

Require simplified activity reports (but no registration or registration fee) to be filed by any applicant, property owner, or purchaser with a property under contract who lobbies a city council member or a member of the city plan commission after an application for the zoning case has been filed with the city on any of the following “designated zoning cases” where:

A.   The property is:
1) 10 acres or more in size for a multifamily use; or
2) 25 acres or more in size for all other uses; or
B.   The zoning application proposes:
1) 200,000 square feet or more of floor area for a retail or commercial use; or
2) 1,000,000 square feet or more of floor area for an industrial use; or
3) a density of 60 units or more per acre for a multifamily use regardless of parcel size; or
C. The city staff recommendation and city plan commission recommendation on the zoning application do not agree.
*Exception for neighborhood associations, crime watch groups, and homeowner’s associations.

Councilmembers Margolin and Koop came up with the idea of limiting the lobbying registration process to “significant” zoning cases. This was a great idea — it focuses our registration process on the big cases, not every small case that comes along. The council further refined the definition for “significant zoning cases” at Wednesday’s meeting with help from planning department staff.

My contribution to this amendment was to include property owners and purchasers (the original proposal included only the zoning applicant).  Zoning cases usually have a lot of players, all with something at stake.  By expanding the definition, we capture other parties who might lobby the council.

Amendment 3 (Proposed by HUNT):

Expand information contained in activity reports to include the type of contact (e-mail, letter, telephone conversation, or in person) a registrant has with a city official.

I tried to get even more information disclosed, like the date of meetings with councilmembers, their location, and attendees. That, to me, would really shed light on the lobbying process. But I couldn’t get enough support for that, so I settled for requiring disclosure of the type of contacts made to each city official. I also tried (unsuccessfully) to get monthly, rather than quarterly, reporting, to ensure timely public disclosure before a council decision.

Amendment 4 (Proposed by HUNT):

Eliminate the exception to lobbying registration for a regularly-employed individual who is paid regardless of lobbying activities and whose lobbying activities are not more than five percent of his or her regular responsibilities in any calendar year. (The exception is contained in the definitions of “compensation” and “expenditure” in the proposed ordinance.).

The original proposal excluded from the registration process those who spent less than 5% of their time lobbying. But this seemed like a loophole, and that was confirmed in talking with officials from other cities who have that threshold. Who monitors and audits the rule? Nobody. So we took it out. If you’re paid to lobby you’re a paid lobbyist.

Amendment 5 (Proposed by HUNT):

Establish a flat annual registration fee of $300, with unlimited clients.

The proposed ordinance had a $20 fee for every new client, but that would just mean more paperwork for the limited staff at the city secretary’s office. I proposed a flat fee to simplify things.

Amendment 6 (Proposed by HUNT):

Require lobbyist registration, registration fee, and activity reports by any person receiving $200 or more in outside compensation or reimbursement for lobbying purposes in a calendar quarter (with no expenditure amount triggering registration as in the proposed ordinance).

The original proposal defined a paid lobbyist as someone who was either paid OR who spent money on lobbying efforts. Why track the people who spend money but aren’t paid?

Amendment 7 (Proposed by HUNT, LEPPERT):

Only require expenditures with a cumulative value over $5,000 in a calendar quarter to be disclosed and categorized in activity reports.

The proposed ordinance had required lobbyists to disclose expenditures for a lot of things that seemed irrelevant to me: advertising and publications; compensation to other than full-time employees; reimbursement to others; personal sustenance, lodging, and travel; and other expenses. I didn’t understand why we would care what a lobbyist spent on advertising or personal sustenance. But the mayor made a good point — significant expenditures in these areas indicates a real interest in influencing a council vote (increasing the likelihood of corruption). I agreed, and proposed that we limit reported expenditures to those above $5000 so we would capture only the larger cases.

Amendment 8 (Proposed by KOOP, MARGOLIN):

Add a provision prohibiting any person bidding on a city contract from lobbying a city council member from the time the advertisement or public notification of the request for bids is made until the time the contract is awarded by the city council. This would not prohibit a bidder from speaking at the city council meeting where the award of the contract is considered.

Councilmembers Koop and Margolin proposed this, and I agreed whole-heartedly.

CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTION LIMITS

Amendment 1 (Proposed by HUNT):

Add a provision prohibiting any person requesting any of the following public subsidies from the city from making a campaign contribution to a city council member from the time the item is posted on a council committee agenda or a council agenda until 60 days after the date the city council votes on the matter:

  • A tax abatement
  • A housing tax credit
  • An historic development tax abatement
  • Federal grant money administered by the city
  • Tax increment financing
  • An economic development grant or loan.

The original proposal applied only to zoning applicants.  Zoning cases are only a small part of the consequential matters we hear.  I proposed expanding the prohibition to include others appealing to the city council on significant decisions.

Amendment 2 (Proposed by HUNT, KOOP, MARGOLIN):

Add a provision prohibiting any person responding to a request for bids or request for proposals on a city contract from making a campaign contribution to a city council member from the time the advertisement or public notification of the request for bids or request for proposals is made until 60 days after the date the contract is awarded by the city council.

This was proposed by Councilmembers Koop, Margolin, and me. People requesting city contracts don’t need to be giving us campaign contributions. It smells bad. (I had also tried to prohibit gifts as well as any business dealings with councilmembers, but I didn’t have enough support.)

Amendment 3 (Proposed by KOOP, MARGOLIN):

Apply campaign contribution restrictions to “designated zoning cases” as defined above.

The original proposal prohibited campaign contributions for any zoning case. Councilmembers Koop and Margolin proposed to limit this restriction to significant zoning cases (which are most vulnerable to corruption). I think it was a smart way to prevent undue influence of councilmembers, or even the appearance of impropriety, while eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy with smaller zoning cases (where the likelihood of corruption is very small).

ZONING PROCESS CHANGES (Proposed by KOOP, MARGOLIN)

The following matters require two seconds by councilmembers, which indicates a thorough understanding of the matter:

  • A “designated zoning case” as defined above
  • A tax abatement
  • A housing tax credit
  • An historic development tax abatement.
  • Federal grant money administered by the city
  • Tax increment financing
  • An economic development grant or loan.

The original proposal would have required three seconds to move forward any motion on a zoning case.  Councilmembers Koop and Margolin proposed that multiple seconds be limited to significant zoning cases, and that only two seconds be required.

In my opinion, councilmembers are already responsible for thoroughly understanding the matters on which we vote, so I was indifferent to this new rule requiring two seconds. I supported the change.

Only two other councilmembers — Hill and Margolin — supported my proposal to prohibit campaign consultants for the mayor or councilmembers from also serving as lobbyists on issues that will be decided by the city council or a board appointed by the city council. Campaign consultants for powerful members of the council exert too much influence over other councilmembers when that consultant is also working as a paid lobbyists on matters pending before the council.

We’re scheduled to vote on this November 9.

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