The Dallas City Council on Wednesday will be briefed on several proposals aimed at beefing up the city’s ethics code. The recommendations, from a task force convened two years ago by Mayor Eric Johnson, include:
- Creating a “Division of the Inspector General,” an office—with subpoena power—that would look into ethics complaints and, if anything shady is discovered, “prosecute alleged or suspected violations; recommend settlement agreements; or dismiss where appropriate,” according to briefing materials. The office would also bring cases to the ethics advisory commission.
- Instituting a “personal benefit recusal” narrowing the amount of wiggle room for city officials weighing possible conflicts of interest. The current code requires officials to recuse themselves only if they have an “improper economic interest.” A new proposal would expand economic benefit to encompass “any benefit knowingly solicited, accepted, or agreed to be accepted” in exchange for some official action or inaction.
- Making the code simpler and easier to understand (setting the, to my eyes, somewhat vague definition of “personal benefit” aside) by consolidating gift policies and other sections.
Those are the big ones. Among the other odds and ends, a new rule would allow sitting City Council members to use their names and offices in political campaigns. The current rule prohibits that, which is how you wound up with language like “endorsed by the honorable Eric Johnson” instead of “Mayor Eric Johnson” in the last City Council campaign cycle.
Is this all enough to prevent the kind of major ethical lapses that have seen, in the last several years, two former City Council members plead guilty to taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes? What about those less egregious cases, the grey areas?
Tim Powers, head of the ethics reform task force that came up with these recommendations, told me over the summer that having a “cop on the beat,” like an inspector general, would help keep city officials on their best behavior.
“You’re always going to have somebody that runs off the reservation,” Powers said then. “We need to be able to find that [unethical activity] before or while it’s occurring as opposed to after it’s occurred.”