Dallas City Council adopts stricter ethics code, hoping to rebuild trust in government
After discussion — and an appeal to official’s sense of legacy and morals — the Dallas city council voted to update the ethics code.
That includes updated disclosures for campaign staff, an amended subpoena process for ethics violations and a new standard of evidence.
That’s what came out of Wednesday’s meeting. But at least one council member questioned the city’s inspector general’s recommendation for a different way of evaluating evidence in ethics complaints.
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson uncharacteristically stepped out of his administrative role to speak on the agenda item. He says this is a unique opportunity to leave a lasting impression on residents.
“This is one of those things where I think you have to make a decision about where you stand on this issue,” Johnson said. “We, I think, should want to lead. And be at the vanguard, really, of any discussion when it comes to behaving ethically and honorably.”
A high standard
Clear and convincing evidence is defined as “highly and substantially more likely to be true than untrue,” according to a 1984 Supreme Court decision. That basically means the level of evidence needed to prove a violation is high.
According to Dallas Inspector General Bart Bevers, the city has relied on the standard for around 22 years. In that time, Bevers says there’s been five Dallas city council members convicted of felonies.
“I’m in pretty good touch with folks in the [Inspector General] community,” Bevers said. “I haven’t heard anyone say anything close to that.”
The city has an Ethics Advisory Commission. Its made up of 15 members. Five commissioners adjudicate a case at a time — if Bevers and his staff think they can prove it.
To do that, they have to show the complainant “intentionally and knowingly” committed the violation.
But more than one Dallas official called to attention how the ethics system is made up.
The commission is appointed by council members. And the Inspector General’s Office reports to the City Attorney. Johnson says that system — and the current standard of proof — almost defeat the purpose of the policy.
“The standard right now is so high…it amounts to a difficult system to actually achieve the stated goal,” Johnson said.
The amended code will change that standard to “preponderance of evidence.” That means the threshold for trying ethics violations by city officials and employees is lower.
Reputations and Careers
Not every council member agreed with the change. District 14 Council Member Paul Ridley initiated two motions over the proposed ethics amendment.
The first was to delete the phase “nor admonish” from a portion of the policy related to how city council members are to address city employees before them.
That section states: “City officials shall treat city employees as professionals and shall not berate nor admonish city employees.”
Ridley says this is something that happens in the normal course of council business.
“It means, according to Merriam-Websters definition, ‘a gentle or friendly reproof’,” Ridley said. “I don’t think those kinds of comments should be a violation of our ethics code because they are part of the normal discourse.”
That motion passed.
But the other was to keep the standard of evidence the same as it has been for over two-decades.
“I believe that the current standard of proof…should be retained,” Ridley said. “That is to ensure that the reputations and careers of people who are the subject of complaints are not unduly threatened or damaged by less than clear and convincing evidence.”
Johnson formed a taskforce in 2021 to investigate how the city might create more trust between Dallas residents and local government. One of the key recommendations was to create an office of the inspector general and establish the advisory council.
He says this is about more than just policy.
“I think the impression we will leave on the public, if we leave that standard where it is…will be bad,” Johnson said. “It will be a black-eye for us.”
Rooting out bad apples
The motion to keep the standard of evidence the same failed 10-5. The city attorney’s office says the ordinance is forward facing and would be applied to cases after the change is made effective.
Bevers says with the new standard, the city can start to set and example that ethics violations will be taken more seriously.
“If you lower the standard…you’re going to see more substantiated cases,” Bevers said at Wednesday’s council meeting. “People are going to see that…and that will affect their behavior.”
Bevers says he researched 38 state inspector general offices to figure out what standard they use. All of them use preponderance of the evidence.
Johnson says he hopes the vote will rebuild trust between local government and Dallas residents.
“This is about representing people,” Johnson said. “And I think they want their government to be one that they feel like is interested in rooting out its own bad apples.”
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