Hortencia Laguna spent more than a decade serving as chair of Fort Worth’s ethics review commission. Her job included attending meetings, listening to resident testimony and ruling on ethics complaints that came before the body.
The city removed Laguna from the commission in 2010. Twelve years later, there isn’t a single member left.
It stands in stark contrast to other major Texas cities, which have standing commissions ranging from seven to 15 members in size. Austin and San Antonio’s ethics review commissions each have 11 council-appointed members; Dallas’ has 15; Houston seven.
Before 2019, Fort Worth had five slots for standing ethics review members. That year, council members voted to change the rules, citing what they said was a waning interest in participation from residents.
Today in Fort Worth, ethics commission members are chosen only after a complaint is submitted to the city attorney’s office or if the City Council or city manager makes a specific request. Then, four members are selected randomly from the planning, zoning and adjustment boards, along with an attorney chosen by City Council. Once a complaint is closed, the commission is disbanded.
Since the change in 2019, the ethics review commission has not heard a complaint, and it has not met once.
Laguna, 90, said the change is troubling.
“How do the citizens know they have recourse?” she asked.
After reporting on City Manager David Cooke flying on a private jet with billionaire couple Ed and Sasha Bass, the Report reached out to other major Texas cities for insight into how they handle their respective ethics commissions. Their responses show other cities often take a more expansive view of the responsibilities of the commissions and grant them more powers than Fort Worth.
Ann Zadeh, former District 9 council member, was the lone no vote on the 2019 changes. Zadeh offered her statement from the council meeting when contacted for an interview by the Report.
“What message does that send to the citizens of Fort Worth about our commitment to ethics in government?” Zadeh asked at a December 2019 council meeting. “We care so little about ethics in government that we are going to disband the city’s standing commission on ethics. Not a good one. And it’s a message I don’t want to participate in sending.”
Ease of submitting complaints varies from city to city
If residents are interested in filing an ethics complaint in Fort Worth, they’re likely to face a murky path. The city does not post its complaint form online, nor does it offer any guidance as to how a resident would file a complaint online.
Austin, Dallas and San Antonio all post complaint forms online for anyone to fill out. In Fort Worth, resident complaints must be lodged directly with the city attorney’s office in order for the ethics commission to review it.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Laguna said.
During her time on the commission, she recalled multiple instances where she and other members were able to resolve resident concerns without a formal complaint.
“Sometimes they had good reason to question something,” she said. “Sometimes there was information they didn’t know that solved their concern.”
Fort Worth’s process differs from Austin’s, where residents can fill out an online form and email it to the city clerk’s office or send a paper copy through the mail. San Antonio residents can also send a paper copy of a complaint through the mail to the city clerk’s office.
Dallas has residents send complaints to the Inspector General’s Office, which was created specifically to reform how the city was handling violations of its ethics code. The process began in 2019 when Mayor Eric Johnson ordered a review of the city’s ethics code.
The Inspector General’s Office was recommended to Johnson and City Council by Dallas’ Ethics Reform Task Force in 2021, and approved that year. Now, a licensed attorney is in the office to review cases of fraud, ethics violations and the like.
Even before the 2019 change, formal complaints to Fort Worth’s ethics review commission were few and far between. After hearing and ruling on four complaints in 1991, the commission heard only one complaint each in 1992, 1993, 1998, 2004 and 2005.
Another complaint was heard in 2010, which ultimately resulted in then-Mayor Mike Moncrief and council dismissing the commission members and replacing them. The commission had ruled council erred when they appointed three people working in gas drilling onto an air quality committee. That ruling was then reversed by the council.
“They shouldn’t have just let a committee go because there was a bump in the road,” Laguna said.
In other Texas cities, ethics review boards do more than handle complaints
When Zadeh spoke against dismantling the ethics review commission in 2019, she said she’d heard people didn’t want to serve on the commission because it meets only when there is a complaint.
“To that, I say the answer isn’t to unwind the commission,” she continued. “The answer is to have the commission meet quarterly. Why does an ethics commission have to wait until there is a potential violation to meet?”
In Austin, ethics review members meet monthly. Members also discuss staff briefings on various topics, including accessibility of city resources and online publication of disclosure forms. They have the power to recommend further action by the city.
Dallas ethics review members may meet for preliminary panel discussions, evidentiary hearings and general discussion around the city’s code of ethics and any proposed changes. In 2021, the commission met 17 times.
San Antonio’s ethics review board meets more infrequently, generally one to two times a year. Unlike Fort Worth, members of other city boards and commissions are explicitly barred from sitting on the review board in San Antonio.
The San Antonio ethics review board has the power to render decisions on complaints, compel sworn testimony, witnesses and evidence, recommend cases for prosecution by authorities, and assess civil fines and other sanctions, said Maria Elena Perez, compliance auditor with the city.
“Since the ethics review board is more than advisory in nature, members are considered both city officials and city officers,” Perez said.
Members of the San Antonio ethics review board can also issue advisory opinions of the interpretation of the ethics rules, conduct periodic reviews and recommend updates of the ethics and finance code to City Council, and provide training on ethical guidelines and responsibilities.
Besides Fort Worth, Houston’s ethics review board meets the least, about once a year. Houston city staff did not respond to a request for comment.
Under city code, Fort Worth’s commission technically has additional powers besides reviewing complaints, including providing ethics orientations to city staff, and prescribing forms for reports and notices. The commission used those powers in October 1991, when it urged limiting campaign contributions to $1,000.
The powers can’t be activated now, however, until the commission is assembled to review a complaint.
“They should change it, because otherwise what good is the ethics committee?” Laguna asked.
Participation eligibility differs from city to city
Fort Worth and Austin have opposite philosophies when it comes to public participation in ethics proceedings.
In Austin, the ethics review commission designates time for residents to speak during meetings. In Fort Worth, no public comment portion exists.
When Cooke’s flight with the Bass couple became public knowledge, several residents came to a public comment session in front of the City Council to voice their concerns about the situation. Council members and staff did not address their concerns during that meeting.
Ultimately, the city opted to consult with the city attorney instead of convening the ethics commission. After a session closed to the public, City Council members ruled Cooke’s flight did not violate the city’s code of ethics but reprimanded him nonetheless.
Cooke’s flight marked the second time a private flight taken by city officials came under scrutiny in Fort Worth. Then-Mayor Mike Moncrief and council members Jim Lane and Wendy Davis accepted a flight on a developer’s private jet to tour a Cabela’s store in Kansas City, Kansas, shortly before Cabela’s came to council to ask for a special tax district in Fort Worth. Ethics review commission members dismissed a complaint about the flight on a 4-0 vote.
In 2019, Zadeh’s final comments before the council voted to disband the commission echo the reaction some residents have had over Cooke’s travel and council’s reaction.
“All you have to do is turn on the news to know that we need more focus and more concentration on ethics in government in this world … Not less,” Zadeh said in the 2019 meeting.
Who Fort Worth permits to sit on its ethics review commission differs from other cities, as well. While only members of the planning, zoning and adjustment boards are allowed on the commission in Fort Worth, members of other city boards and commissions are explicitly barred from sitting on the review board in San Antonio.
Part of the reasoning behind altering the commission’s structure in 2019, according to former city attorney Sarah Fullenwider, was to avoid having consistently vacant seats. But Zadeh said she’d had several residents interested in applying, and Laguna said it was hard to believe public willingness to participate had changed so drastically in the past decade.
“There were several of us willing to do the work,” Laguna said. “What makes them think they can’t find people like that now?”
Since the 2019 vote, the make-up of Fort Worth’s City Council has changed almost completely. One of the newest elected to the dias, District 6’s Jared Williams, said he needed to do more research on ethics review commission policies before commenting on whether a change was warranted.
“I’m open to the conversation, but, to be honest, I need to do some more learning on my own,” he said.
Only two council members — Mayor pro tem and District 5 council member Gyna Bivens, and District 2 council member Carlos Flores — were on the council when the vote was taken. Now, Bivens said she isn’t opposed to taking a second look.
“I think a review of all policies related to ethics would be beneficial to all,” Bivens said.
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Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.