By A.C. Hall
Picking up an issue that has been discussed a few different times over the past several years, the White Settlement City Council met an hour early on Tuesday to discuss putting a code of ethics into place.
City Manager Linda Ryan and City Secretary Amy Arnold presented the council members with information on a possible code of ethics that was modeled after the one in use in the city of River Oaks. It would govern both elected officials as well as those appointed to city boards.
As discussions were underway, Mayor Jerry Burns laid out why he asked for this item to be brought up, saying he wanted people to leave White Settlement meetings having seen professional standards being followed.
“We ought to hold ourselves to professional standards and if we don’t, then this
should tell us you didn’t, this is what you need to do to fix it,” Mayor Burns said.
Arnold said there were a few issues they needed to figure out.
“The big question is who enforces it,” Arnold said.
Another issue raised was the fact that some behaviors were already covered in the City Charter and carried with them removal from office if they are violated. These included things such as council members having a financial interest in contracts or other similar awards handed out by the city.
City Attorney Warren Spencer expanded on this issue, saying it had more to do with failure to disclose financial or contractual relationships. Spencer spoke about a council member needing to disclose those relationships and then remove themselves from discussions regarding them in order to avoid the charter violations.
Council member Elzie Clements raised a concern with how the removal of office would be handled under a code of ethics, as he mentioned the code called for a council vote with a 2/3 majority deciding on punishments.
“The city actually put us all up on here by majority of the vote. I don’t see why it should be left up to the city council to remove you as a council member,” Clements said. “I think that decision ought to be made by the citizens of White Settlement.”
Spencer stated that citizens do have removal power by way of recall elections, and that it’s not uncommon for legislative bodies to have the power to remove their own members.
“Generally, removal from office is only for the most serious of offenses,” Spencer said.
Mayor Jerry Burns touched upon this issue later in the discussions as he spoke of protections needing to be added when it came to the removal process. He said this is especially true of whoever the minority is on council, so they can be protected from simply being removed by the majority.
A general breakdown of the elements of a code of ethics was given by Spencer. He said it is about laying out clearly defined rules and making sure those governed by them know they are expected to follow those rules, setting up who investigates if rules were violated, and who sits in judgment over the matter and what punishments they can assess.
One issue Spencer pointed out was his belief that the people who do the investigating shouldn’t be the same people who do the judging.
“That would be like asking the police department to investigate the case and sit in judgment and be the judge,” Spencer said.
Appointing other people to do the investigations while leaving the council to be the final judging body on these matters was discussed, with individuals such as city staff or even the city attorney being mentioned as possible investigators.
“Anytime anybody that works for the council… and they’re asked to investigate the council, that is a conflict of interest in my opinion,” Mayor Burns said.
Spencer said that a detailed system to remove the possibility of retaliation would need to be put into place to avoid that. One such idea was a rule that city staff responsible for investigating couldn’t be terminated for a certain period of time following an investigation.
Mayor Burns mentioned using an ethics commission made up of people appointed by the council. This commission would be responsible for investigating ethics claims.
“The primary concern is that the process is fair both to the person that is accused of misconduct and to the citizens,” Spencer said. “Society has a right to expect a fair proceeding same as the accused.”
He went on to add that outside concerns should be left out of the proceedings.
“The goal would be to as much as possible remove politics from the process,” Spencer said.
What types of behavior would be governed by the code was also brought up, as Burns stated that you didn’t want council members wasting time accusing other council members of minor behaviors all the time.
“Your ethics ordinance can be as comprehensive as you want,” Spencer told him.
A code of ethics that was in place in 1993 was brought up, which several members of council seemed to believe could provide a great basis for a new one. The task of matching up some of the newer code of ethics with the old one will fall to city staff, as it was said the old code needed some fine tuning.
One item that it appears council will move forward on is instituting an Ethics Commission that will investigate ethics claims. Burns spoke of having this commission pass judgment on lesser ethics infractions while leaving the council to rule on more major issues.
Possible punishments for breaking the code of ethics could range from a public reprimand to suspension or even removal from office.
Once the work session ended and council moved to their action items, a motion was made to postpone taking action on this item until the next meeting. That was done to give city staff time to use the council’s input and put together a code of ethics for the council to consider.
Project Manager Jack Bell gave a comprehensive update of several major projects going on in the city. He spoke about the partial Farmer’s Branch Flood Control project moving forward, saying that movement should begin on it in two to three weeks.
As for the Central Park renovations, Bell said they were thirty days behind on the project. This was due to weather and a discrepancy with Oncor, which he said has been taken care of.
“All that stuff has been signed off, easements have been given, payments have been made, and the project is starting to fire back up like it should’ve been a month ago,” Bell said.
He went on to add that he believes it would still be three or four weeks before the Central Park project is done.
The Memorial Wall at Veteran’s Park has received final bids and is expected to start in about sixty days, with around sixty days of work required to get it done.
This project will be done by Heartland, the same company doing the Central Park renovations, and Bell said he isn’t handing it off to them just yet so they can focus their attention on finishing Central Park.
Council member Mike Arnold asked how the process was going getting names of veterans to go on the wall. Bell said they are working with the base to get names and that the government has certain standards in place for name selection, but that the City will be a little more lenient in how they choose names.
“We do want to honor anybody who has given the ultimate sacrifice and resided here,” Bell said. “We’re treading cautiously on the names because like I say, we don’t want to disrespect anyone or anyone’s family.”
The Community Development Block Grant yearly projects were mentioned, with the 37-year project doing a storm water upgrade at Comal and Quebec recently completed. The 38-year project will be 2000 feet of a six inch water main going in from Meadow Park to Pemberton down Del Mar.
These projects are done with the help of HUD funding and in conjunction with Tarrant County, giving the City a discounted price on the work. Bell said that rumors of the funding getting reduced have turned out not to be true as HUD has found more funding for the projects.
The upkeep that was done on the water features outside of City Hall was also mentioned, as Bell said they are looking to do more work on the creek soon and beautify it as much as possible.
New buildings for the maintenance crew as well as the public works were discussed, as was the Lariat Lift Station overhaul that will be happening in the Spring of 2013.
“Every project that I’ve talked to you guys about tonight, every project is under budget,” Bell said.
Bell thanked the council and City Manager Linda Ryan for the support they were giving to get projects done. Council members returned the thanks to Bell and his crews for the good work they are doing.
Oil and Gas Lease with Chesapeake approved
The council unanimously approved the oil and gas lease of 18 acres of land at a rate of $1500 per acre for a two-year term for a total of $27,000. That is up from an initial offer of $500 per acre.
“I think this is the very best we’re gonna get,” Ryan said. “I felt fortunate that we got it from five hundred to fifteen hundred.”
Mayor Burns stated that the short two-year term could work in their advantage if gas prices have gone up when the time comes to negotiate a new lease on the land.