When I arrived at this morning’s City Council briefing session at 9:15, the council members were about to bestow upon some students a plaque of some nature, which I managed to refrain from walking up to and seizing for myself. Things having thus gotten off to a fine start, I took a seat, pulled out the high-end leather-bound notebook that my cousins gave me when the halfway house let me go to my mom’s house for five hours on Christmas Day, and proceeded to take notes while Councilman Philip Kingston took a photo of me and then tweeted it out to the Bureau of Prisons with the caption “Barrett Brown is at work. He needs a computer.”
Today’s business began with a presentation by a commission led by a certain John Rogers that had been tasked with providing recommendations on new ethics regulations to apply to the Council itself, which, if adopted, would supplement existing procedures with additional guidelines drawn from other major U.S. cities, to be enforced in large part by a strengthened ethics committee empowered to subpoena witnesses and refer incidents to law enforcement under appropriate statutes, some classified as class C misdemeanors. Those found to have violated existing guidelines or any new ones that the Council chooses to adopt, though without having necessarily broken any laws, will be subject to various sanctions including being barred from lobbying for a year.
If you understood the preceding paragraph, you’re already doing better than Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold, but we’ll get to that. Shortly after Rogers had concluded the presentation, Councilwoman Sandy Greyson thanked the commission, noted that their findings were indeed comprehensive, and asked for clarification on one recommendation that would prohibit council members from using “their position to influence deliberations or decisions of boards and commissions,” as there had just been some confusion as to what constituted influence, and whether merely speaking to board or commission personnel would qualify; as Mayor Rawlings noted, reasonably enough, such an interpretation would be extraordinarily problematic and cumbersome. Rogers now made clear that this just meant that council members shouldn’t explicitly direct anyone to take any decision or come back with some particular finding, and that conferring with personnel would not be considered a violation. On a broader front, Greyson wanted to know “[w]ho makes the determination” regarding whether something that’s brought to the ethics commission actually constitutes an ethics violation. Rogers responded that the ethics commission would make that determination. As to how that could be done, he explained, “Like with all ethics commissions, it will depend on the facts” of the particular case. Plainly Dallas will not be getting any bleeding-edge artificial intelligence modules coupled with hyperspace-soluble quantum-chrono-nano-particles by which all events may be determined with absolute precision and all decisions taken out of the hands of an inherently imperfect mammalian society.
Mayor Pro-Tem Monica Alonzo made some brief remarks thanking Rogers and the rest of the commission for their work and then continued to talk, which frightened me at first as I’d been told that she tends not to speak up much. Notably, she proclaimed that “it’s unfortunate that some here don’t respect [the commission’s work on the ethics proposals] and don’t appreciate them.” I wasn’t sure what to make of this, being entirely new to Dallas politics and having indeed just gotten back after four years in prison and 35 years of not caring about Dallas politics. It would soon become clear.
Presently it was time for Councilwoman Arnold to do her thing, which in this case amounted to berating Rogers and all who would give him aid and comfort. “Is there any teeth in this thing or are we just talking to feel good?” Arnold asked, inquiring about a set of recommendations that, you’ll recall, had just been very explicitly presented as including an enforcement arm with specific provisions for investigations entailing subpoena power and sanctions ranging from bans on certain activities to actual criminal referrals, and broadly comparable in rigor to arrangements adopted by other city councils across the country in recent years, if not in the House of Representatives.
Having thereby established herself in the eyes of whoever is supposed to find all of this convincing that she is clearly in favor of strict new ethics regulations, Arnold thereafter complained about the “idea” that “simply being present” among board and commission members would constitute inappropriate influence. “I’m offended by that,” Arnold continued, referring to a notion that had explicitly been rejected by Rogers himself not 10 minutes prior, when he’d explained that anything short of actually ordering a member to make a particular determination would not in any way violate the proposed standards. Then she identified a supposed “hole” in those guidelines insomuch as that a councilperson could simply remove a board or commission member and that this would be “more intimidating” than merely being in their presence or talking to them. Rogers replied that removing a board member entailed a distinct process that would require cause to be given and which is dealt with elsewhere. Arnold concluded that “there’s still some feel-good language here” and that she is “not in favor” of adopting the proposals as they stand, preferring to hold off a decision until March so that there would be time for the Council to work through the problems she’d just made up.
Councilman Erik Wilson provided Arnold with much-needed support for her Let’s Misconstrue Everything That’s Just Been Said Faction that was now struggling for control over the storyline. “We’ve heard a lot of do’s and don’ts, but where’s the teeth?” he asked, following up with a great deal of what Arnold herself might have characterized as Feel-Good Language had it been uttered by Rogers, calling for more civility in interpersonal relations at City Hall and noting on two separate occasions that all of those concerned are “adults.”
At some point, Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates spoke up with a series of entirely reasonable questions for Rogers that were actually intended as real questions with the ultimate purpose of yielding answers, which Rogers duly provided. But by this point I was already spoiled by Arnold’s exquisitely counterproductive nonsense, and though I did nonetheless manage to pay attention to this exchange, I won’t bore with you the details, which generally concerned specific aspects of inside-baseball operations that would be brought under additional guidelines by the proposed rules. Other council members, notably Councilman Adam McGough, continued the push for actual cogent discussion of what particular recommendations entailed and how possible interpretations might impact Council business for better or worse. Ultimately, this was actually accomplished, with the takeaway being that the Council is likely to adopt the bulk of the recommendations as they stand, with a few tweaks here and there for clarification.
Arnold now got a few more minutes to speak. “Part of my concern is that you have some ambiguity here,” she began, in reference to one recommendation barring the leaking of information from closed sessions. But it wasn’t clear — it was, in fact, rather ambiguous — as to whether or not she was concerned about “how I balance that with my First Amendment rights,” as she mused aloud, or if she was concerned because of those other council members she proceeded to denounce for leaking things, as well as the difficulty in determining who it is that’s doing the leaking, presumably out of balance with their own First Amendment rights. Then she made a valid point about certain ambiguities in both existing and proposed regulations on campaigning, which itself is not sufficiently defined and thus leaves council members adrift regarding what specific activities they can engage in in their capacities as local leaders without finding themselves afoul of the rules. Full of surprises, that Arnold.
After a few more exchanges, I started getting hungry, so I went downstairs to get a ham sandwich and Dr Pepper from the snack bar, then decided to walk back to the office to write my piece while the Council went into recess, as the Bureau of Prisons won’t allow me to use a smartphone by which to just send articles in via email. Then I had Tim Rogers turn on the Council video feed for me on a monitor lest I myself have to touch a computer and thereby commit what may or may not constitute a breach of my own ambiguous guidelines, which the BOP continues to refuse to put into writing. As expected, the Council is currently discussing the much-anticipated bond program, and the mayor is indeed running into opposition from a portion of the Council. I’ll be back later with a brief summary of what, if anything, gets decided; as of 2:20, the Delay The Bond Issue, Don’t Delay It, and I’m Conflicted Faction (itself led by Greyson) seem to be evenly matched. Meanwhile our civilization continues to deteriorate.