Councilman Philip Kingston faces an ethics complaint that he pushed for a zoning change in his East Dallas neighborhood that would allow him to rent out a garage apartment that he’s building on his property. Kingston was one of the loudest advocates for these so-called accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, which the City Council approved last June. The city created a way for neighborhoods to opt into an overlay to allow their homeowners to rent these out without having to get individual approval through the Board of Adjustments.
The ethics complaint, which was filed anonymously, alleges Kingston skirted this process by advocating for an amendment of his neighborhood’s conservation code for his own personal gain.
A couple weeks ago, at my editor’s urging, I checked in on whether homeowners had taken advantage of the city’s granny flat ordinance in the 10 or so months since it was approved. The city for decades did not legally allow homeowners to rent out apartments built in backyards or atop garages. As of last summer, people can. But nobody has (legally) taken advantage. The closest thing is a conservation district in Lower Greenville called the Belmont Addition, or CD-12. That district realized it would be easier to amend the language in its conservation code to allow for ADUs than deal with the city’s process. Chief Planner Donna Moorman says this is exactly what they did, thereby bypassing the city’s approval mechanism.
Moorman said she knew of one resident of the neighborhood pushing forward with construction of an ADU. I wrote that story and included a quote from Kingston. He argued that the ordinance’s red tape was holding people back from applying. He didn’t mention that he and his wife, Melissa, are the ones building the granny flat in the Belmont Addition.
While the two were pushing to get their neighborhood on board with the zoning change, they were also behind the scenes laying the groundwork for their own construction.
The Ethics Advisory Commission held a preliminary hearing on the matter Tuesday morning. It made the case that seedy motivations drove the Councilman’s years-long advocacy for garage apartments, and that he violated the city’s ethics code when he “initiated, engaged, promoted and finally voted in favor of” the CD-12 zoning case knowing that it would impact his own economic interests. A pertinent piece of that code:
(A) Economic interests affected. To avoid the appearance and risk of impropriety, a city official or employee shall not take any official action that the city official or employee knows is likely to affect particularly the economic interests of:
(1) the city official or employee;
The panel voted to move the complaint to the next stage, despite objections raised by Commissioner Roberto Canas (who, it’s worth noting, lists Kingston as a reference on his resume). It will be scheduled for an evidentiary hearing in front of the full Ethics Advisory Commission. That hearing will include testimony; this one only determined whether there was evidence of the complaint’s validity. If the Commission finds a violation, it could recommend a range of sanctions including a letter of admonition, voiding of prior actions, or suspension or removal from office. City Council makes the final determination.
The complaint, submitted anonymously, lays out the timeline of public and not-so-public events. Melissa Kingston, for instance, used Facebook to invite the Belmont Addition to a community meeting about ADUs, hosted by her husband, on September 10. Four days later, Melissa Kingston submitted a work review form to expand the space above the detached garage, seen above this story, at the couple’s Palo Pinto residence.
On a phone call late Monday afternoon, Kingston didn’t deny his advocacy for ADUs, but he said his intentions were pure. He maintains that he sees the apartments as one piece of the city’s effort to provide more affordable housing. He says the effort to paint a different picture is part of “silly season”—the run-up to his bid for re-election.
He also submitted to the panel a three-pronged written defense. The first part deals with the accuser, the anonymous person who is referred to only as a “member of the public.” Kingston says complainants can be anonymous, but they must be a city resident or be doing business with the city to bring a complaint. Staff quickly batted that away on Tuesday.
His second point: that the local ethics code is modeled off local government code, which draws a line between voting on something that you could benefit from economically and voting on something that brings you a “special” economic effect. He says that’s how it’s traditionally interpreted, pointing to a vote two years ago in which Councilwoman Sandy Greyson voted for a higher tax exemption for which she and every other 65-plus-year-old homestead owner would benefit. He says the vote on his 700-parcel conservation district represents a broad zoning matter, nothing special about it.
But, as Commissioner Scott Shirley pointed out Tuesday, the complaint addresses more than simply the vote. Greyson didn’t initiate the exemption discussion, or rally for it. She had her hang-ups about its impact. And Shirley wants to know how the issue came before the Plan Commission in the first place.
“If that hearing was had because of the particular interest of a Council member, that concerns me,” he says.
Kingston’s third point argues that there’s no economic advantage to see here, because on a price-per-square-foot basis, properties with detached apartments are not appraised higher than those without.
What about the economic boost tied to rental revenue? That’s the whole point of the ordinance, anyway. You’ve always been able to have a detached apartment, but only since last summer, with Kingston’s advocacy, have you been able rent one.
Kingston contends that’s a matter of choice.
“Are you planning on renting it out?” I asked.
“I’m not,” he said.
“What are you going to use it for?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Much later in the conversation, I asked him to help me understand why he’d suddenly want to build an apartment atop his garage, with no plans to rent it, when all these years he’s been allowed to do that already.
“We may,” he conceded, meaning he and his wife may eventually choose to rent it. “I mean, I don’t have a plan for the thing yet. If you come over here, you can take a look at it and you can see how far away I am from having to make that decision. Construction has not been speedy.”
The city will set a date for the full Ethics Commission hearing within the next week.