Irving, TX Councilman in major conflict-of-interest with city contract

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Jun 26, 2014 No Comments ›› admin

By Lynn Woolley

In the world of politics, whatever can happen probably will happen.

In Temple, Texas where city councilwoman Judy Morales was found to be serving illegally, and later pleaded out in a case involving purposeful destruction of evidence – and where a sitting city councilman routinely gets large contracts from the city, a subcommittee was formed to assess the need for ethics safeguards.

In Irving, Texas, the City Council is further down the road to finding out precisely what can happen when a city council member does business with his own city. It’s not pretty.

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I attended the subcommittee session in Temple last Tuesday night to see what the members would do. After much discussion and some comments from several Tea Partyers, the subcommittee voted on what to send to the people for a vote. If I understand it all correctly, here is what came down:

There is no problem in Temple, Texas and if it isn’t broken there is no need to fix it, and City Council members need more time to serve, and there is no need for an ethics commission because we have fabulous people serving on the Council and in all other positions at City Hall, and the need to BUY LOCALLY far outweighs the need to avoid sending big contacts to sitting elected officials and, by the way, an ethics commission would be like having Hitler’s SS watching over the Council and we don’t want that, and the current examples of conflict-of-interest on the Council are nothing more than “red herrings,” and we want to do what other cities our size do when it serves our purposes but totally ignore other cities when they are doing something we don’t want to do, and we don’t want any additional bureaucracy, and things are fine just the way they are.

If I got anything wrong there, please let me know. I’m pretty good with all this since it means my own company can expect some nice contracts on city marketing projects that might be using out-of-town marketing firms – and if I want to have a speed hump removed from my street, I know that we haven’t added another level of bureaucracy. Heck, maybe I can start sending my Scott & White medical payments to a local address instead of to Dallas.

And that takes me back to Irving, which is near Dallas and is famous for getting the Cowboys, losing the Cowboys, demolishing God’s football stadium, and have a pretty conservative school board. Over at Irving City Hall, things are hopping.

The case of City Councilman Oscar Ward is worth considering if you happen to be thinking about conflict-of-interest with city contracts, or if you are charged with trying to decide whether to raise or lower ethical standards for a city. Irving, being in the shadow of Dallas, and being a large city itself, is coming under more scrutiny from the media and from watchdog groups for what is going on there. As we said, it’s not pretty.

Irving City Councilman Oscar Ward

Irving City Councilman Oscar Ward

Oscar Ward was not yet a council member when he and his business associates began negotiations with the city of Irving to run a city-built market downtown. But he is a councilmember now. City officials say, not only is the deal legal, but the city may find it necessary to do business with Ward. If they don’t he will likely sue them over a previous round of negotiations that fell apart before he was elected – and that may have led to his desire to run in the first place.

The Dallas Morning News story, written by Avi Selk, gets right to the point:

“ Officials could not recall another project of this size that was tied so closely to a council member’s wallet.”

A government watchdog – Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen in Austin said this of the deal:

“It will always be tainted with the question of whether there was favoritism in granting the contract.”

Before he ran for council, Ward and his partners worked on this project intensely, developing plans with Irving city staff for what is to be the “Whistle Stop Market.” It’s supposed to include a dog park, pavilion, infrastructure for food trucks and vendor stalls – about a $1.5 million deal. But when city staff took all the plans to the City Council, some members objected and allowed competitive bids.

Oscar Ward did not want competitive bids. The Whistle Stop group threatened to sue, and demanded either a contract to proceed — or a written promise that nothing of this type would be built at all. Ward ran for City Council – and won. Can you say “conflict of interest?”

Charles Anderson is Irving’s city attorney. The Dallas Morning News quoted him:

“It’s a little unusual, I guess, to have a council member who comes into office with a legal dispute with the city. On the other hand, sometimes that does drive people into politics.”

But just as Councilman Russell Schneider recuses himself from votes in Temple, TX when they relate to his being awarded a contract – so has Ward signed a document in Irving preventing him from discussion and votes regarding Whistle Stop. So does Irving have an ethical problem here or a conflict of interest?

City Attorney Anderson says “no.” What about Smitty Smith the watchdog? He has, perhaps, a bit more of a concern:

“The greater ethical question is whether it’s appropriate for the city to enter into any kind of negotiations with a company that is significantly controlled by a sitting council member. Even though he may recuse himself, the staff will always know that a city councilman’s interest are at stake and will bend over backwards to show favoritism.”

Maybe in Irving. But Temple is a much more ethical place where this type of thing never happens. Or so we are told. Irving’s council, meanwhile, responds to the lawsuit threat and will give Ward’s group a shot at completing the project and then take a final vote. In return, Ward will not sue the city he serves. City staff insists they will recommend Ward’s proposal only if it makes sense for the city.

And if you can’t trust city staff, whom can you trust? In Temple, you can trust just about everybody because everything’s on the up-and-up, all the children are above average, there isn’t a problem so there’s no need fix it, and everybody buys locally.

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