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Here’s what you need to know about Denton’s battle for ethics reform

Here’s what you need to know about Denton’s battle for ethics reform

Here’s what you need to know about Denton’s battle for ethics reform
October 12
18:15 2016

In Texas, local government is not required to provide a code of ethics beyond what is drawn out by the state. Despite this, cities such as Fort Worth and San Antonio have enacted ethics ordinances, further expanding on the moral standard of not only government officials and members of the council, but all employees of the city.

Denton is one of many cities that has not adopted an ethics ordinance. But with a growing population and a near billion-dollar budget, citizens have discussed tightening the ethical standard of their local government. Community and council members have advocated for a review of the current ethics policy and the adoption of an ethics ordinance for the past 10 months, but the idea has met resistance.

Opponents of reform argue state law is sufficient enough to maintain a high standard of ethic on the local level.

“State standards go all the way to felony status,” council member Kevin Roden said. “So if we’re talking about having strong teeth when dealing with issues that the city would have, the state guidelines are stronger than anything we can do as a city.”

When he was the state attorney general, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott published a document, titled, “2012 Texas Conflict of Interest Laws: Made Easy,” in which he asked and answered 28 questions with the intention of breaking down the conflict of interest policies provided for local government by the state.

As Abbott pointed out, the local government code does not apply to personal matters of a member of a governing body.  It also notes that the code does not outline the moral standard of the city staff.

The latter has been driving a push for an ethics ordinance amid a recent investigation into the alleged misconduct of two city staff members.

According to the Dallas Observer, assistant building official Chris Lanzi was required to go to sexual harassment training after a city employee filed a harassment complaint. Further investigation revealed that Lanzi was additionally involved in a relationship with his boss, Denton’s director of development services, Aimee Bissett. Bissett was also accused of making a business deal with a friend when she did not have the power or authorization to do so. The Observer said she willingly resigned with a severance package worth more than $91,000.

Denton’s current ethics policy is not specific about situations like that of Lanzi and Bissett because it does not apply to city employees.

“When you compare what we have with what we need, it’s day and night,” Wazny said.

Councilwoman Kathleen Wazny is one of the leading campaigners for the implementation of an ethics ordinance. Since her election in January, she has pushed for its consideration at city council meetings, but the idea was shelved numerous times.

While Denton does currently have an ethics policy in place, the guidelines lack intricacy. The policy, council member Roden admits on “reads a bit more like the Boy Scout Oath than it does a substantial set of laws governing the behavior of public officials charged with overseeing a city of 120,000 with a budget nearing $1 billion.”

The City of Denton Ethic’s Policy, which can be found on the city council’s webpage, names the required attributes of an ethical government employee in a list.

The list calls for members to be service-oriented, fiscally responsible, communicative and cooperative. But the simplicity of the policy is one of the reasons Wazny believes an ethics ordinance is necessary.

“We have a very watered-down ethics policy,” Wazny said.

The councilwoman admires tougher codes like San Antonio’s. San Antonio’s 38-page ordinance is intricate in defining the duties and ethical responsibilities of all employees of the city, from getting gifts to the timeliness of filing reports.

The City of San Antonio’s ethics code says that “by prohibiting conduct incompatible with the City’s best interests and minimizing the risk of any appearance of impropriety, this Code of Ethics furthers the legitimate interests of democracy.”

To adopt an ethics ordinance, council members must have the majority vote. In spite of Wazny’s advocacy, the votes still lean the other way. There has been some progression, however. On Tuesday, a resolution was released stating that the council is calling for a review of the City Charter. After this review, the ordinance will be considered.

“I do have the confidence in our citizens to come forward with something stronger than what we have currently,” Wazny said.

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Madison Wilie

Madison Wilie

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