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. Continue reading

My Suggestions on Ethics Reform

Today I sent the following suggestions to my council colleagues on how we can put some real teeth in the Mayor’s proposal to regulate lobbyists and limit campaign contributions:

The purpose of creating a lobbyist registration system is to reduce the likelihood of corruption at City Hall.  But for this system to be effective, we must focus on the nature of the problem, then develop a system that will, to the fullest extent possible, create a climate hostile to such corruption. 

What corrupt activity are we trying to prevent?

Buying influence from the mayor and councilmembers.  Trading money for a favorable vote. 

Who would have incentive to bribe an elected official?  Who would a corrupt elected official think they could extract a bribe from? 

Someone who’s got a financial stake in a decision by the council.

Are paid lobbyists the problem? 

No.  But like smoke denotes fire, paid lobbyists indicate there’s somebody who has such a significant financial stake in a council decision that they would expend money on a professional to fight on their behalf.

How do we keep a “financial stakeholder” from paying off the mayor or a councilmember? 

We can’t.  People who are corrupt will find a way around any rule we create.  But we can shed so much light on the relationship between a financial stakeholder and city officials that we make it very difficult for them to trade money for influence.

So how do we shed light on the relationship between financial stakeholders and city officials? 

By requiring them to disclose the same information we are requiring paid lobbyists to provide.  And by requiring both lobbyists and financial stakeholders to disclose information that illuminates and gives context to the extent of their relationships with city officials.

The following changes to the proposed ordinance attempt to accomplish just that.  Continue reading

Campaign Contribution Restrictions Need To Go Further

The City Attorney put forth a proposal to restrict contributions made by people who have pending zoning case to the mayor or councilmembers.  The proposal would prevent zoning applicants from contributing to councilmembers 60 days before zoning notices are mailed out and 60 days after the council votes on the matter.

I think this is a necessary and important reform.  But, again, we need to go further if we want to reduce the appearance of impropriety or the risk of corruption.

Zoning cases aren’t the only matters where significant financial interests are at stake.  Tax abatements, TIF project requests, housing tax credits, contracts with the City of Dallas — all of these matters have very serious monetary consequences for the applicant.  So why not expand the proposed contribution limitations to include these matters as well?

As for the timeframe on the restriction:  sixty days is too short, especially when zoning cases often begin up to a year before zoning notices are sent out (the trigger for the 60 days).  So a zoning application may be on file, that applicant may contribute to a councilmember’s campaign, and then several months later the council actually hears the case.  The 60-day time period wasn’t violated, but there may still be an appearance of impropriety.  Instead, we should restrict contributions to a year before the application is made to the city and a year after a decision is made.  Similar triggers would need to be determined for the other matters decided by the council (TIF requests, tax credits, etc.).  I would not object to placing the same restrictions on non-incumbent council candidates, not just officeholders, to ensure a level playing field.

This would most likely have a chilling effect on contributions to councilmembers — who can predict when they will bring a zoning case before the city, bid on a city contract, or request TIF funds? — but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  We don’t need the appearance of a “pay to play” system in Dallas, and broadening the scope of the issues covered by this reform, as well as expanding the time limitation, will go a long way in reducing the appearance of impropriety and helping the City of Dallas regain the public trust.

Lobbyist Reform Needs to Go Further to Reduce City Hall Corruption

In response to a request by me and four of my colleagues, today the City Attorney is providing a proposal for a lobbyist registration process for the City of Dallas.

Right now, people who are paid to persuade city officials to vote a certain way on an issue are not required to register with the city or, more importantly, to disclose which officials they’re lobbying. We need to shed as much light on this process as possible and bring as much transparency to these interactions so we can reduce the likelihood of corruption and the appearance of impropriety.

The city attorney looked at other major Texas cities and the State of Texas for their lobbying registration process. For the most part, it’s a good proposal. But in several ways, it doesn’t go far enough.

The most important part of lobbyist registration is revealing which city official — councilmember, city board member, city staff member — the lobbyist met with on a particular issue, who was present, where they met, when they met, and for how long.  This needs to be disclosed within 48 hours of the meeting, to ensure that as the matter is considered by the council or city board, the public knows what’s happening behind closed doors before the issue is heard before the council or city board.

Under the current proposal, the lobbyist only has to provide a list of city officials he or she met with, and submit that to the City Secretary on a quarterly basis.  There’s no explanation of when or how often the lobbyist met with the councilmember (once or twenty times? for five minutes or two hours?), who was present at the meeting (a lobbyist staffer or an influential Dallasite?), where they met (city hall or The Mansion?), how often they met (once or twenty times?), or how long the meeting was (five minutes or two hours?). These are the types of disclosures that will make city hall more transparent and help reduce the likelihood of corruption.

There’s also a provision in the current proposal that limits lobbyists from giving city officials gifts with a cumulative value of more than $25. Why not simply prohibit gifts altogether? And why not restrict gifts not just from lobbyists but also their clients? If someone has an issue before the city, they don’t need to be giving gifts to councilmembers, city board members, or city staff.

Lastly, we need to prohibit people who work for the mayor or city council on campaign matters from also serving as lobbyists on issues that will be decided by the city council or a board appointed by the city council. There is too much opportunity for that campaign consultant to implicitly wield too much influence by virtue of their relationship with the mayor or councilmember. Jim Schutze explained it best in his article “Lesson learned from federal corruption trial: How to gain access to the portals of power at City Hall.”

We can create strong ethics rules that will reduce the likelihood of corruption and the appearance of impropriety at City Hall, but we’re going to have to go further than what was proposed today if it’s going to be more than window dressing.