Monday, April 29, 2019

Building Trust

This article was originally published in "Richardson Living" magazine. Read it on that website or read it here. Or read it in print. In mail boxes now.

When it was unveiled in 2013, an artist's rendering for the massive mixed-use Palisades development included a feature that was never built: a pedestrian bridge over US 75 to the Galatyn Park DART station. I personally loved that feature. But people did not love another feature, one that did get built: hundreds of new apartments. This happened despite the campaign statement by then mayoral candidate Laura Maczka (now Laura Jordan) that we don't need apartments near neighborhoods, and despite overwhelming neighborhood opposition during public hearings.

How did we end up in this situation anyway? Suspicion fell on Mayor Maczka and her personal relationship with the developer Mark Jordan. Eventually, evidence uncovered during an FBI investigation resulted in bribery convictions. Development of Palisades now appears to be stalled, with those apartments built but retail and offices lagging. The City is left with a big black eye.

Where do we go from here? Let's start with the Code of Ethics. A Code of Ethics lays out what is considered proper conduct by public officials. It defines a standard by which the public will judge that behavior. Our Code of Ethics demands that officials "at all times strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety." There can be no higher bar. Still, there can be no dispute that our Code of Ethics failed to prevent scandal. We need to help ensure that it is adhered to in future.

Unlike the FBI investigation, the City's own investigation into the Mayor's conduct failed in part due to the City's lack of subpoena power. The City shouldn't throw up its hands over that lack of power. Transparency measures can be added to the Code of Ethics to make violations less likely and make concealment more difficult.

We could require periodic financial disclosure statements by officials. We could require officials to report all gifts received and considerations given, even ones allowed by the Code of Ethics. These steps would provide the transparency needed for public review before borderline behavior crosses the line into illegality. Knowing that the public will be looking will discourage unethical behavior in the first place.

The former mayor's bribery case included an allegation of an extramarital affair. The Code of Ethics' prohibits conflicts of interest involving relatives. It needs to be expanded to prohibit conflicts of interest involving close or good friends as well.

How the Code of Ethics deals with complaints is weak. The current code rejects consideration of anonymous complaints. But the code doesn't protect whistleblowers who identify themselves. The code orders council members to keep secrets, rather than requiring them to report suspicion of unethical behavior. There are no conditions that obligate the City to enlist independent, outside legal counsel or authorities to investigate complaints.

Some of these omissions may be covered in relevant State law, but we shouldn't mind if the City's Code of Ethics is redundant with State law in places. That emphasizes the importance of ethics and serves as a handy reminder. In the end, no amount of tightening or repetition can guarantee that unethical behavior will never happen again. But it can make it less likely and make concealing it harder. That's worth doing.

Space here does not allow for an exhaustive list of suggestions to strengthen the Code of Ethics. No individual could come up with an exhaustive list anyway. The City Council is required to review the code every two years. The 2016 review took less than 7 minutes. No citizen input was asked for. The council had no questions and no discussion. The 2018 review was similar. These are not reviews that build trust. When the City Council itself lacks the imagination even to explore ways to improve the law, public input is needed.

As for Palisades specifically, the City's position seems to be that the zoning changes and the economic development agreement are just fine and all that's needed is to ensure that the terms are executed as agreed. Either the City believes that the tainted process could not possibly have tainted the result, or the City is afraid of what we might find and do if the result is opened for review. Because of the bribery convictions, the City should conduct a transparent review of the planned development zoning and the $47 million reimbursement contract. If corruption resulted in terms disadvantageous to the public, the City should pursue legal means to protect public money already committed and to give the City leverage to renegotiate fair terms.

In future, the practice of giving big financial incentives to big projects should be rethought. The opportunity cost of alternatives needs to be transparently discussed. Contracts should hold developers more accountable for what they promise. In the case of Palisades, a development that starts with apartments and leaves retail to be built later is not the "mixed-use" residents expected.

The vocal opposition of the neighborhood to the Palisades rezoning is a warning that something was not right with the planning process. Membership on the City Plan Commission should include both neighborhood champions and people with education and experience in urban planning. We should adopt a bottoms-up approach that empowers our neighborhoods to have influence on how the City grows. Cost-benefit analyses of developments need to measure the impact on existing neighborhoods.

What is also needed is for us, the voters, to support candidates for City Council who have the character and the ideas needed for better government. To hear from the candidates themselves on this subject, I asked all candidates two questions:

1. What can the City do to protect public money already committed to the Palisades development and to ensure that the development is completed in a form that is in the best interest of the City, undoing any corrupt influence in the past?

2. More generally, what changes are required to the City's Code of Ethics, planning process, and business practices to restore public trust in City government?

The candidates' answers require more space than I have left in this article (I know, I'm verbose). You can read their responses on the "Richardson Living" website.

Decades from now, long after Laura Maczka is a forgotten chapter in Richardson's history, the City will still be living with what is built on Palisades' 79 acres. Did the City make a mistake? Did it approve a development that did more to enrich a corrupt developer and the mayor than it did to serve the City's own best interests? I admit that I fell for talk of a pedestrian bridge. Did the City fall for other things? How can we prevent it from happening again? We won't get answers if we don't ask the questions. A public commission with broad membership and public hearings is needed, not to re-litigate the bribery case, but to identify reforms that will increase public confidence in government. I've offered some ideas. I don't claim that I have a monopoly on good ideas. Or that all of my ideas can withstand scrutiny. But I refuse to accept that nothing can be done. As one resident put it, "There must be a lasting lesson here other than don't be a crook."

Update May 2, 2019: Mark and Laura Jordan have been granted a new trial.

Update July 24, 2021: Mark and Laura Jordan have been convicted of bribery and tax fraud.

Update August 4, 2022: Mark and Laura Jordan have been sentended to six years. The City of Richardson was never held accountable for its own weak-ass "investigation" and its lack of followup to tighten Richardson's so-called Code of Ethics.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Richardson Living.

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