Does Denton Need Ethics Reform?

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Recent newspaper stories and guest columns have raised the issue of ethics laws governing the behavior of local public officials and have some in our community demanding “ethics reform” in the form of a new robust Denton Ethics Ordinance.

Much of the concern centers on the fact that Denton doesn’t have its own ethics “ordinance.” We have an Ethics Resolution that lists out certain values by which fellow council members agree to abide. Things like:

- I will be ethical
- I will be service-oriented
- I will be fiscally responsible
- I will be communicative
- I will be cooperative
- I will be progressive and receptive to new ideas
- I will not be delinquent in paying monies owed the City

To be sure, it reads a bit more like the Boy Scout Oath than it does a substantial set of laws governing the behavior of public officials charged with overseeing a city of 120,000 with a budget nearing $1 billion. If all we had was this resolution and these statements of values keeping potential corruption in check, I would be in complete agreement that we need strong ethics reform and we need it now.

But the resolution goes further and points to a long list of Civil Statutes, State Penal Laws, and City Documents that apply to Denton elected officials and city employees and carry with them a clear path toward prosecution and hefty penalties.

Consider the following list of state laws on the books that govern our actions as public officials. Consider, as well, that any citizen with evidence that a public official is violating one or more of these laws can go to our police chief, the district attorney, the grand jury, even the Texas Attorney General to raise the issue.

ETHICS MATTER LEGAL REFERENCE PENALTY
Financial Statements Gov’t Code 145-003 and 572 Class B Misdemeanor
Open Meetings Act  Chapter 551 Class B Misdemeanor
Public Information Act  Chapter 552 Class B Misdemeanor
Conflicts of Interest Gov’t Code 171 Class A Misdemeanor
Disclosure of Certain Relationships Gov’t Code 176 Class C/B/A Misdeanor depending on amount of money involved
Official Misconduct C.C.P Art 3.04
Nepotism Gov’t Code 573.041 Class C Misdemeanor
Retaliation Prohibited for Reporting Violations of Law Gov’t Code 554.002
Confidentiality of Information in Bids or Proposals Gov’t Code 252.049 Class C or B Misdemeanor/Forfeiture and Bar
Bribery Penal Code 36.02 2nd Degree Felony
Improper Influence Penal Code 36.04 Class A Misdemeanor
Tampering with Witness Penal Code 36.05 3rd Degree Felony
Obstruction or Realiation Penal Code 36.06 3rd or 2nd Degree Felony
Offering Gift to Public Servant Penal Code 36.09 Class A Misdemeanor
Gift to Public Servant by Person Subject to His Jurisdiction Penal Code 36.08
Abuse of Official Capacity Penal Code 36.02 Class C Misdemeanor to 1st Degree Felony
Official Oppression Penal Code 39.03 Class A Misdemeanor
Misuse of Official Information Penal Code 39.06 3rd Degree Felony
Council Travel Ordinance No. 2006-273  
Denton Ethics Resolution R2006-003
Ethics Portion of Resolution R2009-015

We held a council discussion on Monday to discuss this issue, examine the current statutes, and provide an opportunity for those who feel something stronger is needed to demonstrate that need. The very relevant question was asked of our fellow council members: what is missing from this list? What ethical issue is not already being addressed by this long list of state laws? What problem is there that needs to be solved?

So far, there has been no specific answer or answers to these questions. I remain unconvinced that there is a problem with the current laws, but look forward to hearing from others on this topic.

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