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City leaders discuss new ethics ordinance, consider transparency rules

City leaders discuss new ethics ordinance, consider transparency rules

From left to right, Gerard Hudspeth, Keely Briggs and John Ryan, get sworn into office at City Hall, Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Denton, Texas, Jeff Woo/DRC

City leaders discuss new ethics ordinance, consider transparency rules
March 21
14:58 2018

The Denton City Council discussed the first draft of their ethics ordinance, the first of its kind, on March 6. The ordinance aims to establish rules on ethical behavior for elected and appointed officials.  

The draft says its purpose is to “foster an environment of integrity for those that serve the city of Denton and our citizenry” and “to increase public confidence in our municipal government.”

The draft is subject to change based on council input and public hearings.

Denton resident and veterinarian David Zoltner pushed for reforms in 2012 when he ran for city council. He claimed that city leaders did not report unethical practices.

In 2015, former city council member Kathleen Wazny tried to discuss ethics reform with the council but the conversation did not result in action.

Wazny and Zoltner started to draft their own ordinance and petition. Last November, Denton voters supported ethics reforms, which resulted in the ordinance.

The council participated in two hours of ethics law training and discussed the subject in four work sessions, which adds up to over 10 hours. The ordinance will apply to the mayor, city council, board appointees, the city auditor, city manager, city attorney and municipal judge.

The lawyer hired to draft the ordinance, Alan Bojorquez, said the draft is an “attempt to take all the feedback [the council] has given me over the previous four meetings and put them in some sort of order to show how they’re interrelated to each other.”

On March 6, the council reviewed and discussed the draft for almost three hours. Among the subjects discussed was conflicts of interest.

The council asked for clear language to understand what triggers a conflict of interest enforcement.

“We need to be tight,” Mayor Chris Watts said. “We need to give a real clear picture of predictability and guidelines. I think [conflicts of interest] throw in a subject of subjectivity that makes it difficult. What I perceive to be a conflict, somebody might not and vice versa.”

They also conferred gifts and accepting meals from their vendors. The council talked about how it applies to banquets and where to draw the line.

Mayor Pro Tem Sara Bagheri believes meals do influence decision making. She gave an example of a lobbyist taking them out to eat.

“When it comes time to vote on his contract, I’m thinking about the meal,” Bagheri said.

Another point of contention was the Board of Ethics, which administers the ordinance, and the panel, an ad-hoc subcommittee to the board. The conversation was based on who would serve the three-person panel and whether or not it should be subject to the open meetings act.

Council member Dalton Gregory said he thinks the open meetings act should apply.

“That’s part of transparency,” Gregory said. “That’s a part of what this whole ordinance is about and if the whole ordinance is about that then to carve out this exception seems to be working at odds with the goal.”

Bojorquez said he will take all these into consideration when making the next ordinance draft.

Watts concluded the discussion by saying officials are in “the final stretch.”

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, professor and chair of the political science department at UNT, says the ordinance will take time so people should be patient. He says it needs to be clear, publicly accessible and have a watchdog to make sure people are following it.

“We want people to have faith and trust in their government and if there is a lot of grey area that just leads things to interpretation,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “So we want to take that off the table. We want something that is clear and understandable.”

Eshbaugh-Soha says the ordinance will enhance trust in the local government.

“We don’t want the perception of corruption,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “We don’t want actual corruption. If there are clear bright lines for members of the city council then they know what’s expected of them. They know what they can and cannot do. If all of this is publicly out there and people are happy with the rigorous and clear ethics ordinance then people will have more faith in their government. They will know that the government is working to benefit all citizens of Denton. Not just a few.”

The public expressed their opinions on the ordinance during a hearing on March 20.

Featured Image: From left to right, Gerard Hudspeth, Keely Briggs and John Ryan get sworn into office at City Hall on May 16, 2017. Jeff Woo/DRC

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Devin Rardin

Devin Rardin

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