North Texas Daily

Vice chairman of ethics board Zoltner taking leave amid controversy

Vice chairman of ethics board Zoltner taking leave amid controversy

Vice chairman of ethics board Zoltner taking leave amid controversy
February 21
01:12 2019

Vice Chairman of the city of Denton’s Board of Ethics David Zoltner announced Monday afternoon he will be taking a leave of absence until May 4, effective immediately. Zoltner’s decision follows Board Chairman Jesse Davis’ refusal to step down while he is a candidate for the Denton City Council District 3 seat.

Davis, an attorney in the Denton County District Attorney’s Office, has served as chairman of the city’s Board of Ethics since his election to the position last July. Earlier this month, Davis filed to run for Denton City Council District 3, following then-District 3 candidate Jason Cole’s withdrawal due to conflicts of interest relating to Cole and Hunter Ranch.

In an email, Zoltner asked whether he intended to remain a member or chair of the Board of Ethics.

“I believe in this work, and I believe I am uniquely positioned to push the kinds of reforms we’ve talked about to the absolute forefront,” Davis said in an email response to Zoltner. “Even if it’s not politically expedient for me personally. So I intend to remain both a member and the chair of the Board of Ethics.”

Zoltner, who has held the position of vice chairman of the city’s Board of Ethics since being elected last July, said Davis should step aside from Board of Ethics responsibilities while he is a candidate.

“Ethics is not always about what’s legal, it’s also how is this going to look to the public,” Zoltner said. “I think [Davis] should honor the higher standard of all these other cities [and] temporarily step aside.”

Under ethic ordinances within the cities of Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio, ethics board members are prevented from being elected officials, employees or candidates for public office.

By comparison, the city of Dallas’ ethics ordinance, Sec. 12A-24. “Terms and qualifications,” prohibits members of the commission from acting as, “a candidate for elected public office.”

Under the city of Denton’s ethic ordinance, board members, such as Davis, are not required to step down from their position while acting within the capacity of a candidate for public office. At minimum, the ordinance includes avoidance of matters that could appear as conflicts of interest, as to assure members of the public that all city officials are “stewards of public trust,” though such measures are purely aspirational.

Davis said he understands concerns regarding the “appearance of impropriety,” with regard to his chairmanship and candidacy, but acknowledged the process was too important to step away.

“Under the current ethic code there is not a prohibition against my service on the ethics board,” Davis said. “It is too important for me on a professional level to step back from that process and not let that work go forward simply because it causes me political controversy.”

Controversy surrounding Davis’ candidacy began earlier this month after an ethics panel discussion, led by Davis, unanimously ruled that councilpersons Deb Armintor and Paul Meltzer could not vote on pending matters pertaining to UNT, such as the possibility of a polling location on campus.

The reasoning, the panel cited, were Meltzer’s and Armintor’s relations to the university, which constituted a conflict of interest under guidelines of the city’s ethic ordinance. Armintor and Meltzer’s wife are UNT employees.

In running for the District 3 seat – which represents most of UNT and is considered a possible polling location for council elections this May – Davis pledged to recuse himself from “any ethics questions that directly implicate my candidacy,” and said the board has not received any complaints regarding this matter.

“So far, we have not received any complaints or ethics opinion requests that directly implicate my candidacy,” Davis said. “If those come up, [I will] recuse.”

Kara Engstrom, an alternate on the city’s Board of Ethics appointed by Armintor and campaign manager for District 3 candidate Diana Leggett, said that in light of Zoltner’s leave of absence, she felt she should “take a leave of absence or be recused of any further Ethics Board business until after the election.”

Engstrom did not call for Davis’ resignation or recusal from the ethics board but noted in an email that she would resign and file for reappointment after the election, “if the Ethics Board and current Council Member feel I should.”

Armintor, who appointed Zoltner for consideration to the ethics board, said although she hopes Zoltner doesn’t resign from Board of Ethics that she, “strongly supports his decision to step down.”

“[Zoltner] stated a really valid ethical issue with Davis remaining on the committee after declaring his candidacy for District 3,” Armintor said. “There are other cities with ethics ordinances that have provisions that if you’re a candidate you cannot serve on the ethics committee, and I think that’s a very good rule we should have.”

Armintor said her concern regarding Davis is not necessarily the interpretation put forth regarding conflicts of interest relating to UNT but rather the “overall appearance of impropriety.”

“Even more important than the rules is the appearance of impropriety,” Armintor said about the ordinance. “It’s not about punishment, it’s about establishing public trust.”

Regarding whether Davis should resign or recuse himself from matters pertaining to the Board of Ethics while he is a candidate for city council, Armintor said, “he absolutely should.”

“I’m not saying he should [step down] because he’s immoral,” Armintor said. “I’m saying he should [step down] because just him being there has the appearance of impropriety even if there is no ill-intent.”

The city of Denton’s Board of Ethics met at City Hall on Wednesday night, where members discussed and considered potential recommendations to the city council about amending the Ethics Ordinance.

The Board approved five of seven recommendations to city council about matters pertaining to ethics code amendments, to include amending the conflicts of interest provisions within the ordinance to, “fall more in line with State law, and more in keeping with the general public’s understanding of conflicts of interest.”

Other recommendations included the addition of whistleblower protections for city officials or employees who report ethics violations, replacing the ordinance term “Accused” with “Respondent” and a more specific definition of ethic training requirements for city officials and whether training should be required for all city employees.

Recommendations not put forth by the Board of Ethics to City Council include an amendment which sought to alter the appointment process of Board members from City Council to outside, “disinterested parties.” The recommendation, Chairman Davis wrote, would “best avoid the appearance of impropriety and would prevent the majority of the member recusals the board currently finds necessary.”

Additionally, the board decided against the recommendation of the addition of a “settlement option,” which would allow the party filing a complaint the option of settling without a hearing.

Featured Image: Board of Ethics Chairman Jesse Davis addresses the board at the meeting Wednesday night. Image by: Trevor Seibert.

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Ryan Higgs

Ryan Higgs

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