FORT WORTH -- A two-year review of the city's ethics ordinance for officers, employees and advisory board members -- prompted by a dispute over whether natural gas company employees violated the code by serving on an air pollution committee -- is finally coming to a head.Critics maintain that proposed changes in the ordinance give the city attorney too much power to decide whether board members have conflicts of interest. The proposed changes introduce more conflict by allowing industry people to serve on advisory-only "task forces" that deliberate on issues affecting their business, the critics say.And they say the ordinance should include language requiring advisory-only committees -- ones that don't have policymaking authority, such as the zoning commission -- to have open meetings and follow the state's open meetings statute, which exempts advisory committees from its rules."The ethics code is not a simple matter, and it needs to be right," said Jim Ashford, a retired east-side businessman whose complaint in 2010 against the gas industry employees prompted the ordinance review.Last week, City Council members put off a vote on the proposed ordinance until Dec. 18 after critics showed up to argue that it was flawed and residents hadn't had enough opportunity to weigh in at seven low-profile meetings of the ethics review committee. Council members had a public hearing Tuesday night."The ethics [review] committee has been meeting since 2010, and it still isn't right," Ashford told the council.Councilmen Dennis Shingleton and Jungus Jordan asked City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider whether it's possible to include language in the ordinance that would require advisory-only committees to have open meetings.Fullenwider said that would be a "simple solution" to the criticism."I think we're better off to err on the side of conservatism and make [meetings] public," Jordan said, noting that the recently created Passenger Rail Working Group he chairs decided to have open meetings, post them and record minutes.Mayor Betsy Price said she supports the proposed ordinance."It has been studied," she said. "Ethics are never easy to deal with. We'll never please everyone. This ordinance, I believe, is equitable and balanced."'All about trust'The proposed changes streamline the complaint hearing process.The city attorney would no longer testify before the ethics review commission unless summoned and would no longer render opinions on ethics complaints.Changes allow the city to create "task forces" -- temporary advisory-only committees created to study specific issues for a short period.Committee members could participate and vote on any issue before them, free of the possibility of an ethics complaint based only on the fact of their presence on the panel.The ordinance also provides that a written opinion by the city attorney, if requested by a city officer, employee or board member, is an "absolute defense" to an ethics complaint if the opinion was requested by the person affected and provided within 15 business days of the request.Under the ordinance changes, the ethics committee would be required to dismiss a complaint if it found that a city attorney's written opinion was the basis for the conduct in question. An appeal of such a ruling could be filed with the city secretary, who would determine its validity and designate an officer to convene a public hearing.Robert Wechsler, director of research for the Connecticut-based nonprofit City Research, said in an interview that it's better for advisory committees to seek testimony from people who have potential conflicts of interest than to appoint them to the committee."It's all about trust," he said.Wechsler also took issue with the role of the city attorney, saying a more effective ethics commission would have its own independently hired staff person."It's better to have an independent program that will take you off the hook," he said.Ashford said: "Sometimes you do need people who maybe have a financial stake to be involved. I understand that. But they certainly should not have voting privileges."Price disagreed with the idea of having an independent ethics staff, noting that the city is also subject to the state's ethics law. The city charter sets up the city attorney as the chief legal officer."I think the city attorney is independent enough," she said in an interview. "I don't think we need the extra layer. I don't think we need the expense of that."Even though the ordinance allows a valid city attorney's opinion as an "absolute defense" against an ethics complaint, the ethics commission can still take issue with it, Price said.Detaching experts from task forces also makes no sense, Price said."It's just not realistic to think we can't go out and talk to people who are involved with the process," she said."That's what task forces are for. They're there for advice purposes. They don't have the ultimate vote. The ultimate vote lies with the council."The 2010 disputeNext week, the council is scheduled to create a task force that will look into alternative funding sources for arts programs and Fort Worth Sister Cities, whose funds were cut in the 2013 budget.The task force will include people from the arts community.In 2010, the council ordered the ethics review after the committee agreed with Ashford's complaint that energy company employees violated the ordinance simply by serving on the committee.The council then dismissed the ethics committee and appointed new members, who threw out Ashford's complaint after the energy company employees appealed."They'd been asked by the council to serve on this committee, they'd agreed to volunteer their time, and now they were going to have an ethics complaint ... just by means of serving on this committee," Fullenwider said in an interview this week.Committee members should be able to rely on a city attorney's opinion, she said."If you go and seek advice before you take on that conduct, what else are you supposed to do?" she said. "You ought to be able to rely on that, otherwise there's no point in asking."Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808Twitter: @JScottNishimura
Council accepts grant for pool repairs
The City Council unanimously accepted a $500,000 grant from The Radler Foundation to repair the aging Forest Park swimming pool. The city will contribute the rest of the cost of repairs, an estimated $330,000. "One of our core values is to support initiatives meaningful to the Fort Worth community," Rienke Radler, a foundation board member, told the council. The city staff has estimated that the pool, closed since 2010, can reopen by late spring.