Politics & Government

City Council Report: Ethics? What Ethics?

Some serious bidness went down Wednesday. Let's catch you up.


Mayor Rawlings’ campaign to hand over de facto control of Fair Park to Walt Humann scored another big success on Wednesday morning as the Dallas City Council voted in favor of Rawlings pick Robert Abtahi, a Humann associate, as president of the Parks Board. Humann himself originally tried to get the city to pay him a $25 million- to $35 million-a-year “management fee” to oversee his own vague plan for redevelopment of the area using some half a billion dollars of city money under an arrangement of exquisite irregularity. Now he’s positioned to pursue his plans without interference; Abtahi’s placement comes just a few weeks after the Park Board co-chairman who’d tried to force the Fair Park committee to answer questions about misuse of city funds was replaced by Sean Johnson, the Humann-linked board member who shouted him down — again with the help of Rawlings, whose spokesman claimed to me afterward that the mayor had been unaware of the highly publicized incident and had supported the black candidate over the Hispanic one in the interest of “diversity.”

As with the Sean Johnson affair, Wednesday saw a doomed effort to keep the latest Humann ally from getting into a position from which to cut off any further oversight of the lucrative Fair Park project. Councilman Philip Kingston, who insisted that the morning’s board nominee votes be conducted separately to allow discussion, spake thusly: “Mr. Abtahi’s performance on the city planning commission caused commission members to almost celebrate when he was absent. He was an unfailing enemy of neighborhoods, and the guy does not belong on an appointed board of this City Council. Honestly, Mr. Mayor, I don’t know what you’re thinking.”

Councilman Kingston ain't happy.
Councilman Kingston ain’t happy.

Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold, who demurred that she wasn’t familiar with that background, said that Abtahi had been “instrumental” on the Glenn Oaks Crossing project on which she’d had some contact with him. Arnold concluded, with her rare ability to pick the exact correct phrasing for a situation without being conscious of having done so, that he’d been “a very powerful tool for us.” Councilwoman Tiffinni Young, who’d been the one to nominate Johnson to the Park Board vice-chairmanship last month, thanked Abtahi for his “service,” thereby presenting a better argument against him than Kingston could ever hope to make.

Councilman Ricky Callahan—who, like the six other district council members who voted for Johnson over the guy who wanted to open the books at Fair Park, never responded to my inquiries about why they had done so—asserted that Kingston’s opposition to the present nominee was attributable to “sour grapes.”

“Sour grapes, Mr. Callahan?” Kingston interrupted, audibly amused. “Is that a personal attack?” By way of explanation, City Council members aren’t supposed to make “personal attacks,” although the only sanction they seem to receive for doing so is being interrupted by the offended council member. By way of further explanation, Abtahi challenged Kingston for his council seat a while back. It’s not clear why this would be the only reasonable explanation for Kingston’s opposition, though, since Kingston opposes people all the time and tends to have specific reasons for doing so, which he freely shares with the public and press and probably his household pets, which is a nice contrast from the more common practice, which you may recall from above, of supporting people for crucial positions for secret reasons one refuses to explain, as Callahan does.

Abtahi, naturally, was voted in.

Item No. 3 concerned the question of whether elections should be canceled in those districts in which council members aren’t facing an opponent, a move that would save some $200,000 that could presumably go to city services or Walt Humann. The actual resolution was simply the authorization of an agreement to share election costs with the county and other entities; the question of canceling specific district elections was put off pending a meeting to be held next week.

The great event of the day was Briefing A, “Requested Revisions to the Proposed Ethics Ordinance.” An ethics committee made up of city staff had presented its original proposals back in early January, but several of these had incurred outright opposition from the council as a whole. Individual council members had also asked for specific changes to a host of other items. The committee now returned with those requested changes, having agreed to 15 of 18 of them. Those remaining in dispute, then, were the ethics committee’s original recommendation to prevent council members from using the designation “honorable” when endorsing other council candidates, which several council members had opposed at the last briefing; the addition of a rule by which any council member who recuses herself from five or more votes is referred to the ethics committee for sanctions, which the committee opposed; and a prohibition on the acceptance of tickets, meals, travel, lodging, entertainment, drinks, and a bunch of other things and which would apply to city staff as well. The last proposal was also rejected by the committee, itself comprised of city staff, which tells you most of what you need to know about this process.

Councilman Callahan expressed irritation that this ethics reform stuff had been brought in right before an election. “It has the appearance, of just before an election, of trying to modify, change, make certain people who have already filed for an election uncomfortable. They knew what the rules were going in when they filed.” “Some of this,” Callahan said, “such as the rule preventing political consultants from lobbying if their candidate wins an election, is clearly designed against my political consultant.”

He may be wrong on this point, based on conversations I’ve had, but it’s generally acknowledged among those involved that many of the ethics proposals offered by both the committee and individual council members were aimed specifically at other council members. There was, in fact, something of a nuclear exchange between two loose council factions, with the ethics proposal equivalent of a surprise first strike followed by massive retaliation. (Full disclosure: this is all intentionally vague because I’m not very good at negotiating with sources for on-the-record specifics since I’m not used to having sources. Also I openly back one of these two factions and am not really a journalist anymore.)

Councilman Mark Clayton expressed skepticism regarding the alleged need for council members to undergo regular ethics training. “If you don’t have ethics coming into this job, you’re not going to get it taking a two-hour webinar,” he said. “The only people benefitting from that are the people making the videos.” He also did a pretty good routine on ethics training in general: “’Dick and Jane went to the store. They offer you a hundred dollars if you buy them beer. Do you think it’s ethical to buy them beer?’” And he agreed with Callahan on the “unintended consequences” of the lobbying ban.

Councilman Scott Griggs proposed that the lobbying ban be reversed — “anyone who’s a lobbyist cannot accept money from a campaign for a period of a year” — based on an analysis he proceeded to give of how things actually worked in terms of access, contributions, and public perception. He brought up the heretofore undiscussed issue of super PACs, which make some campaign regulations difficult to enforce by allowing money to come in via unknown sources, and asked that this new reality be taken into account when considering measures that might have the effect of increasing their relative influence.

Like several other council members, Griggs continued to cite problems with the prohibition on council members using the titles “Councilperson” or “Honorable” while endorsing candidates, giving a rundown on how this might end up getting the city successfully sued in the courts on First Amendment grounds — and rightfully so, he said, as there didn’t seem to be any solid reason for the rule, which the ethics committee claimed was necessary because the use of those titles “creates the impression that the city is endorsing candidates.” Actually, the committee’s PowerPoint slide was written in a clumsy way that seemed to recommend wholesale implementation of an older rule that prevented council members from endorsing candidates at all, which caused a great deal of confusion over the hour-and-a-half discussion — especially since there were also reasonable suspicions among certain council members that the staff, in league with certain other council members, did indeed want to establish a blanket ban on endorsements so as to weaken certain council members and strengthen others.

That, indeed, is a hard conclusion to avoid given that the stated reason for prohibiting use of titles made little sense. Griggs asked how many formal complaints had been filed by the public; the staffer responded that there had been one.

Councilwoman Arnold was up next. She muttered something about this endorsements issue, hesitated, and then said, “Well, I’m not going to belabor that point.” I almost fell out of my chair. “I appreciate the connectivity in terms of clarity,” she said later, getting back into form, and then asked about what the sanctions would be on those who violate the proposed ban on using smartphones during closed-door executive sessions. “Anything from ethics training to a letter of reprimand,” responded the staffer. Arnold rambled a bit and then thanked everyone again. But she would be back.

Mayor Pro Tem Monica Alonzo explained that there’s an old Spanish saying that translates to “If you don’t fear anything then obviously you don’t have to worry about it.” There also a considerable history of Spanish-speaking countries falling under dictatorships based in part on that exact reasoning, and to an extent unknown elsewhere in the West. Not that I’d oppose a dictatorship at this point, but still.

There were some other rather interesting exchanges over the course of the briefing, including an extraordinary confrontation between Kingston and the committee, as well as some important larger context vis a vis our new high-end city manager, T.C. Broadnax, and his increasingly clear intent to wreak furious havoc on the city staffers in general, much as the great Julian the Apostate ran the eunuchs out of Constantinople upon taking the purple. Plus Arnold claimed that she doesn’t normally read the newspapers to see what’s being said about her but that sometimes other people will tell her and that’s the only reason she happens to be aware of those things. We’ll look at all these things next time. For on Wednesday, the Council will be voting separately on each of these ethics provisions, and we shall need all the context we can muster if we are to understand the true nature of the struggle that is now afoot at City Hall, where all is knives and shadows.


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