A goofy, months-long ethics reform process concluded last Wednesday as the Dallas City Council voted through a package of revisions to existing ethics guidelines. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, initial proposals were to be thought up by an ethics committee made up of city staff members, each with a personal stake in the success or failure of particular council members; additional ideas would be submitted by the council members themselves, several of whom rightfully despise each other. And all of this was to be done during the run-up to an unusually contentious election — as it happens, the first election in the history of Dallas in which every single member is up for re-election. And so a fair portion of the proposals were aimed squarely at specific council members, sometimes with the backing of city staff, who obliged with a dubious, shifting justification in one instance where the end result would be to lessen the influence of the member who has been most vocally critical of them.
Each item would be subject to an up or down vote, with discussion if necessary. First, though, council members could try to attach amendments.
Councilman Scott Griggs submitted language that would cancel out a proposed rule, backed by staff, that would have prevented council members from using their official honorific, “Honorable,” when making endorsements in other races. The rule in question was one of the more transparent attempts to achieve a particular outcome. Staff claimed, rather improbably, that voters might perceive endorsements by council members using their titles as some sort of official endorsement by the city itself. But as Councilman Philip Kingston noted a few weeks back, the ethics committee had originally outright admitted that they just didn’t think council members should be allowed to endorse and only fell back on the new reasoning later. Kingston and Griggs both also made strong cases that the honorific ban would be struck down by the courts if challenged. Kingston himself is among the chief targets of the proposed rule, having come out for the guy who’s running against Mayor Pro Tem Monica Alonzo. Griggs’ removal of the rule passed easily, getting “no” votes only from Alonzo herself, Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold (another incumbent who’s upset about council support for her opponent), Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates, and Councilman Lee Kleinman.
One amendment that would strengthen conflict of interest rules so as to prevent city officials from profiting off their connections to the city prompted Mayor Mike Rawlings to give an impassioned speech about a case in which a city official couldn’t sit on a committee because his spouse was involved in something or other connected to that committee. It’s interesting what does and doesn’t constitute injustice in the eyes of the mayor, who’s been taking away vice chairmanships from actual civil servants, thereby ensuring that lucrative deals involving city land aren’t subject to any actual taxpayer oversight. Keeping people who might help the city from doing so out of concerns over conflict of interest situations constitutes “cutting off our nose to spite our face.”
This was too much for Kingston, who asked to respond. “Just to clarify,” he said, “it’s to keep people from using positions of influence to obtain benefits from a public entity.”
“So, I agree that we shouldn’t do that,” Rawlings replied, before asking for clarification from the ethics committee chair about whether his example would fall under the new language. Existing rules would have precluded that, the chair said.
“We’ve already got this,” summed up Rawlings. “It’s belt and suspenders.”
“When it comes to the sanctity of public dollars, there’s nothing wrong with belt and suspenders,” Kingston retorted. “The argument that belt and suspenders is too much assumes that the belt is one hundred percent effective and that if your pants fall off there’s nothing worth looking at anyway.”
Among several proposed rules that sparked debate from the very beginning was a ban on using phones or other devices during closed-door executive sessions. This, too, was largely directed at Kingston, who is suspected of having leaked developments from these meetings to the press. It was also widely opposed on a variety of grounds, both practical and principled. An amendment put forth by Councilman Adam McGough neutralizing that provision passed despite “no” votes from Rawlings and Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold, who has repeatedly complained about having one of her dumb remarks quoted in the newspapers.
Another rule that would bar campaign managers from lobbying for a year if his or her candidate wins a race had been criticized on several different grounds. Councilman Rickey Callahan thought it was unfair to the political community, and openly accused those pushing for it of targeting his campaign manager in particular; Griggs had objected that rules meant to constrain campaign people would increase the relative influence of the opaque PACs and super PACs that throw money into races throughout the city. Griggs submitted an amendment that would subject managers of those PACs to the same rule. Gates led the opposition, claiming that the PACs would manage to get around the rule by having someone else do the lobbying. There was also some talk about how “campaign managers” often play second fiddle to other, more influential campaign staff without that title, who would themselves presumably be better position to lobby anyway. Meanwhile, the ethics committee had rather oddly changed Griggs’ wording on his own proposal regarding PACs so as to replace “campaign manager” with “treasurer”; when asked about this, they said that only the treasurer of a PAC is required to register with the city, so it would be difficult to determine who the manager might be.
Griggs asked the staff how they could determine who a city campaign manager is. They provided a definition involving the day-to-day running of a campaign. Griggs asked how they would determine whether someone falls under that definition. They responded that they would use a “fact-based determination.”
Griggs said: “This body, [ethics committee chair] Mr. Rogers, recommended going forward with this with a campaign manager — and I’m applying that same definition to a PAC. And everyone wants to — so, if you guys are going to attack this definition and say, ‘We don’t know who the campaign manager is of a PAC,’ we’ve got the same definition in Mr. Rogers’ ordinance that he’s moving forward that applies to campaign manager. So I want to start hearing some amendments on changes to city campaign manager if that’s in fact what you believe and it’s not a pretext.” Which, of course, it was.
“Let me jump in here for a second,” said Rawlings. His simple idea for the campaign manager lobbying ban, he explained, was merely an effort to keep the city free from undue influence peddling. “If you win, you shouldn’t get access.” Presumably this sort of thing wouldn’t constitute cutting off our nose to spite our face. “Furthermore, what a PAC is is very important,” he added, compellingly. “There’s a police PAC that’s very active, and sometimes they’re going to — they spend a lot of money on different campaigns. I would never want to block them from advocating and lobbying with us.”
“Lastly,” he continued, “I don’t know why this isn’t a freedom of speech issue, okay? We talk about freedom of speech all the time and somehow we’re kind of limiting the freedom of speech.” Before Griggs or Kingston could interject with the obvious question of why barring PAC managers from lobbying violates speech rights but barring campaign managers from doing so doesn’t, Rawlings caught himself. “Now, you could argue that mine was overreaching, that even if somebody should win, they shouldn’t be cut off from freedom of speech. I’m willing to play in that gray area because I think people that support each of us and work with us, they should not be getting a fast track into City Hall. They should wait a year.” Better yet, they should work for a PAC.
That this was the most unconvincing argument that anyone had ever made for anything didn’t really matter; the mayor carried the day, and Griggs’ amendment was defeated. Incidentally, the political consultant who helped Rawlings get elected now runs a major Dallas PAC, For Our Community, which is currently targeting Kingston with a notably bizarre ad charging him with being an uncivil person.