“Discuss Ethics Ordinance”
It was just a three-word agenda item, but it sure stirred up some emotions on the Killeen City Council last week.
As was the case a couple of weeks prior, the discussion item was proposed by Councilmember Mellisa Brown, who has called for an ordinance that would not only spell out ethical constraints on council members but also authorize disciplinary actions for violations.
But at Tuesday’s meeting, Brown went further. She said she wanted to see the ordinance cover all staff, elected, board and committee members, election workers and anyone else who is appointed or hired by the city who would represent the city in an official capacity in any official matter.
That’s where some council members drew the line, questioning whether such oversight would interfere with the city manager’s ability to do his job.
But as the conversation wore on, it became apparent that the council members would be unable to reach a consensus on any point regarding an ethics ordinance — including whether the city should have one in the first place.
As Mayor Jose Segarra pointed out, the council members are already governed by a City Council Standards of Conduct, council protocols and the city charter.
However, none of those governing documents contain any enforcement measures or punitive actions.
Brown sees that as a problem, and perhaps rightfully so. Without consequences, there is a greater potential for ethical violations to be shrugged off or downplayed — and that does not instill trust in government.
Segarra, on the other hand, said voters have the final say, through a recall petition or an election, if they believe a member has committed a serious ethics violation.
After nearly an hour of often contentious discussion, the council agreed to hold a special workshop to hammer things out on the ethics front in an attempt to move toward a workable ordinance.
However, before the council reached that point, several troubling issues came to light.
First, council members were extremely fragmented — not just on one or two major points, but on just about everything from continuing discussion on the subject to whether to take part in a survey that would help the city attorney shape a potential ordinance for council members to examine.
Second, it was obvious during discussion that personal feuds among three of the current members seemed to be a driving force behind the push for an ordinance. Without naming names, one councilman brought up a previous incident in which a council member was sanctioned by a judge in response to a lawsuit, but faced no consequences from the council afterward. The council member likened it to a student getting in trouble at school but facing no punishment at home. Perhaps it was a valid point, but focusing on old wounds is not a productive way of approaching the need for an ethics ordinance going forward.
Third, it was more than a little disconcerting to observe that several council members were unable to keep track of what motion was on the floor or whether a vote was in order. The whole exercise put the mayor and city attorney to the test and tried their patience.
Ultimately, the 56-minute discussion accomplished little more than expose frayed nerves and harsh feelings. If the intent was to move the city toward a greater level of public trust, this episode did just the opposite. In fact, several council members acknowledged feeling embarrassed about the council’s bickering, and the frustrated mayor finally said, “Us hashing out how we are going to control each other, to me, that’s ridiculous.”
The extended discussion also served to discourage residents in the audience who were waiting to speak. By the time the council was ready to move on to another agenda item, most people in the attendance had left.
Granted, the concept of ethics is a complicated one, and asking seven individuals to get on the same page regarding how to enforce ethical standards may have been too tall an order — especially starting from scratch.
In hindsight, it might have been more appropriate for Brown to research other cities’ ordinances and use some of them as potential starting points in a council discussion. Providing some quick-take bullet points for preliminary discussion might have been another approach.
But no matter how the conversation started, it is obvious that nothing substantial was going to be accomplished on such a complex issue in a single evening.
Whether the council gets anything done at its upcoming single-item workshop on the subject remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the mayor and city manager must do a better job managing the weekly council agenda.
Tuesday’s ethics discussion was scheduled as No. 8 on a 13-item workshop agenda.
That in itself wouldn’t be so bad, but the meeting followed a special meeting and an hourlong executive session to discuss pending litigation. As a result, the ethics issue wasn’t taken up until nearly 9 p.m.
Another important item —a review of the municipal election process — was relegated to item No. 18. By the time the council started discussion on that item, it was close to 10:30 p.m.
That is far too late for tired council members to be discussing such a significant topic, and also much too late to expect any feedback from audience members.
If and when this topic makes its way back to a regular council meeting, it should be scheduled early in a somewhat abbreviated agenda. This would give council members a chance to address the issue when their minds are fresh, and also give the public a better opportunity to weigh in with their views.
Certainly, existing city procedures and protocols provide a good basis for measuring the actions of council members, but many areas are not addressed.
For example, two council members made monetary donations to a Killeen City Council candidate’s campaign in the May 1 election. Is this an ethical issue, a judgment issue, or just a normal part of our political system?
Those same two council members are part of the city’s canvassing board — which oversaw the certification of votes in the race involving the candidate to whom they contributed.
Again, ethical problem, judgment issue, or no big deal?
Finally, the incumbent candidate in that council race — which ended up tied — took part in last week’s council vote to set the date for a second election. His own election.
Is the fact that he didn’t abstain from the vote an ethical issue, judgment issue, or not worth mentioning?
These may all seem like minor points, but the city has nothing in place to address any of them.
Does the city need an ethics ordinance to clear this up, or should residents just trust council members to make the right decision in these gray areas?
Whatever the council decides, it likely won’t be a quick process — nor should it be. Full discussion and careful deliberation are called for in crafting such a consequential document.
But in the meantime, the city is facing major challenges that are calling for their attention — including deteriorating roads, citywide crime and the impending start of the annual budget process.
Council members should focus on these pressing problems first. That’s what the voters elected them to do, as one member correctly pointed out Tuesday.
No doubt, ethics matter. But so do the issues that directly affect the city’s taxpayers.
For now, at least, let’s get back to the business at hand.