Friday, March 06, 2009

Theresa Garza Ruiz Gets It - Day 88 of the Jackson County Ethics Blackout

Yesterday, I received an e-Newsletter from Theresa Garza Ruiz, the Jackson County legislator in the first district at-large seat. Her newsletter included the text of a column she wrote for The Examiner, expressing her feelings about her vote on abandoning Ethical Home Rule for Jackson County.

Theresa Garza Ruiz agrees that the Ethics Blackout is wrong, and she call on the "old dogs" to fix it. It's a wonderful piece of writing, and signals hope that significant change will be coming to the dark underworld of the Jackson County legislature.

Ms. Garza Ruiz writes:
For far too long, Jackson County government and "ethics" have been somewhat of a running joke throughout the metro area. Honestly, when were these two items used in a good light in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence?

In spite of the progress the county has achieved in the past few years, I can understand why critics are skeptical on whether our hearts are truly into overhauling the rules that govern us. In my book, the fact that a Jackson County ethics code was even passed speaks volumes, but then I'm optimistic.

When decent people are faced with having to compromise due to situational choices, then an ethical dilemma has been presented. Ethical dilemmas can involve right-versus-wrong situations or right-versus-right situations - also known as no-win situations.

So, there it is. The ethics code is not perfect.
In an of itself, the admission that the code is imperfect is what I would call "Praising with faint damn". By excluding the legislature from Ethical Home Rule, the County Legislature has undercut the Jackson County Charter and established a arrogant, almost monarchic attitude toward ethics in Jackson County. "The ethics code is not perfect" is kind of like writing "The economy is not perfect" or "The intelligence on Iraq was not perfect."

But, thank goodness, Ms. Garza Ruiz was just getting warmed up. She next turns her focus on the wretched good-old-boys who have long viewed Jackson County Government as their fiefdom and family employment agency: "With no disrespect intended, as that old saying goes, 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks.' Not that it's impossible, it just takes time." So far, its been 88 days of time trying to get the old dogs on the Jackson County Legislature to learn the new trick of being ethical. Seems like Ms. Garza Ruiz is getting impatient in her role as the "dog whisperer" of ethics.

Finally, Ms. Garza Ruiz ends on two high notes:
The ability for any Ethics Commission to deal credibly and forthrightly with the issues that come before it depends on a governing body's willingness to reform its own ethical rules and behavior. As I said before, greater scrutiny and public awareness can help set a higher standard and force change from our leaders and our governmental institutions. In the end, no matter what's on the books, it still boils down to personal integrity.

As for the ethics commissioners who resigned, I was disappointed upon hearing the news. It was a good group of solid, decent, hardworking individuals dedicated to upholding the public interest.
In those two paragraphs, Ms. Garza Ruiz draws a line in the sand and dares her fellow county legislators to remain on the wrong side of it. Where Dan Tarwater attacked the citizens who served, and Dennis Waits accused them of playing politics, but Ms. Garza praises them. Old dogs snarl and bite when people want to look inside their doghouse, but friendly dogs welcome them.

More significantly, Ms. Garza Ruiz sets out the terms of the changes she seeks. By speaking of "a governing body's willingness to reform its own ethical rules and behavior", she is saying that the bogus reforms being bandied about by corrupt insiders that do not result in Ethical Home Rule will be insufficient.

It is wonderful to see an elected official embrace - even encourage - scrutiny of the Jackson County legislature designed to "force change from our leaders and our governmental institutions." It's going to happen, and Theresa Garza Ruiz is going to wind up on the right side of Jackson County history over this issue. Ethical Home Rule will return to the Jackson County Courthouse, and the smart legislators are getting on board.

Thank you, Theresa, for the leadership and encouragement. We're glad you're not joining of the pack of old dogs.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gee, I wonder why she never gets a serious committee appointment?

She simply will not accept that framing the message is all important.

3/06/2009 8:34 AM  
Anonymous Sophia said...

I read the ethics ordinance a few weeks ago. It has a provision in it that states if any part of the ordinance conflicts with the Charter, the Charter controls. So I don't think this even needs a legislative fix -- by its own terms the exemption has no force. All we need is a staffed Ethics Commission that makes a statement that they consider the legislators under their jurisdiction.

No need for a fix. No need for a dec action, or other suit to work this out in the courts. The Ethics Commission has jurisdiction. If they take a complaint against one of the legislators, then that individual could try to get an injunction against the Commission, but the law is so clear, I don't think they'd even qualify for a temporary. This all seems so clear and obvious to me that I think I must be missing something. Is it possible that no one has read the Ordinance all the way through?

I also read the Charter provisions creating the Commission. Dude... they've got subpoena power! (Which was almost enough to get me to apply for the position). As currently structured, the Commission appears to be in a strong position to deal with ethical concerns. Given that, why do we have such a reputation for lazy corruption? What's going on here?

As an aside, I object to the inclusion of the drug and alcohol policy in the ethics ordinance. It's not that they're unreasonable terms of employment. It's that they're not ethical matters. Do we have a widespread public drunkenness problem that escapes all other regulatory review? Again, what's going on here?

3/06/2009 8:41 AM  
Anonymous Jack Jackson said...

Excellent observations, Sophia.

I think all of your points need to be recognized, because if they are true (and I think they are) we have a totally different problem to solve here.

I'm guilty of this too, but it's amazing, it does appear no one bothers to read the law.

Thank you for this moment of clarity.

3/06/2009 9:03 AM  
Blogger Amy P said...

Anonymous - framing the message?

What message is there to frame? Right is right. Wrong is wrong.

The fact that she has the courage to voice her opinion when it comes to these good 'ole boys, shows she has bigger balls then all of them put together!

You go grrrrl!

3/06/2009 3:34 PM  
Anonymous Something Bad Must Have Happened said...

"I also read the Charter provisions creating the Commission. Dude... they've got subpoena power!"

Sophia, ask Danny boy whether his wife ever used that power when she was on the commission? Also, ask him why he deletes any comment which mentions that his wife was on the Ethics Commission?

3/06/2009 7:11 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

I don't delete all comments that refer to my wife, though I don't choose to host any trash-talking on her. But, really, when they are as ill-informed and simply stupid as yours, it's tempting.

Yes, the Commission when she was on it used its subpoena power, and that is the reason that the County legislature resents Ethical Home Rule to this day. And, yes, despite the deleted comments insinuations, they enforced the code.

3/06/2009 9:34 PM  
Blogger craig said...

I have been with you 100% on this crusade, but you could have at least used a Dale Jr. car instead of Rusty Wallace.
Get out of the 80's.
Just kidding, keep up the good work, and didn't know that your wife was a former member of the ethics commission, good for her.

3/06/2009 11:44 PM  
Anonymous Jack Jackson said...

Why haven't the issues raised by Sophia been directly addressed?

If the ethics commission has always had the power, why aren't we operating within that framework?

An answer would be nice. And expected, considering the county folk we have reading and comenting here.

3/07/2009 12:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Craig, no one with any sense or an uncle who is a different person than his or her father gives a damn about NASCAR.

Dan, who did the commission subpeona when your wife was on the commission?

Amy P right and wrong is trumped in some people's eyes by "message framing." Why I remember one Diana Kander saying that it was ok to lie to voters about your stance on Choice, at a recent meeting of the Women's Political Caucus. I agree with you Amy P but you have to keep in mind that some people who have been known to read this blog do not share our belief in the truth.

3/07/2009 7:45 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Sophia - Yes, I've read the entire ordinance before, and I think your argument probably would succeed. Unfortunately, you can read the Charter's language loosely, and argue that they are not required to investigate, and then the fact that an alternative exists (MEC) means that they should not. I know, I know, it's a dumb argument, but dumb people make it, and there is at least a chance that a dumb court would buy it. Also, as a matter of policy, the Legislature ought not to pass bad legislation, forcing citizens of good will to court to correct their mistakes. The language saying that the charter controls over the ordinance is meaningless - that's always true. It's like saying that the constitution prevails, too, but then passing an ordinance saying that cops can search our homes without search warrants.

There's also no guarantee that we will be blessed with a courageous Ethics Commission.

As for the anonymous person fabricating quotations from Diana Kander, please grow up. We both know she said no such thing, and the fact that you lie while claiming a devotion to the truth and hiding in the shadows of anonymity makes you contemptible. You are certainly part of the problem that plagues our local political culture, not part of the solution.

3/07/2009 8:25 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Oh, and Craig, I thought the retro car was cooler!

3/07/2009 8:26 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

And, while I'm busy doing PSs to my own comments, I should make clear that I don't disagree with Sophia on her point - it is possible that a new volunteer Ethics Commission will stand up to the Legislature and endure their personal attacks, but they should not have to, and we, as citizens, should not have to rely on heroes to correct our legislature's attempts to hold themselves above the law.

As almost always, Sophia's comments are well-thought-out and wise.

3/07/2009 8:31 AM  
Blogger craig said...

anon @7:45;
If it wasn't for the tax revenue from us Eastern Jack, NASCAR, rednecks, Jackson County would be even more in the crapper than it already is. Not to mention that the only 2 decent legislatures (Garza-Ruiz and Grounds) are from out here. So shut your mouth, and know your role, before we secede from Jackson County everything East of Noland Road.

3/07/2009 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Viewing the Ethics Commissions resignations should give the citizens pause to consider the departures.
Enforcement should be connected to funding provided by a body subject to the ordinance. As long as the boards receives funding from the county they will appoint volunteers who do not jeopardize that income.
The old squeeze play was the mitigating factor, not any high sense of indignation over what the Legislature had done.
I am going to let you watch the passage of the ordinance in this video. The legislature justifies passing a bad ordinance by lying about the provisions.

3/07/2009 10:15 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

I cannot imagine how bad the Jackson County legislature would be without Garza Ruiz or Grounds, so I'm with Craig.

Anonymous with the video - I have no idea what you are trying to say? Do you think the volunteers are paid? They're not. Do you believe that the Selection Committee chooses candidates to keep the legislators happy? That's just silly, and completely disproved by the fact that the prior Ethics Commission angered the legislators so much they attacked them in print, and in malicious gossip.

3/07/2009 10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have been without an Ethics Commission to decide how to proceed. The last one failed to enforce the subpoenas duce tecum that had been issued against the Legislature.

The county attorneys who perverted the ordinance also refused to help the commission in their "hour of need". That could be because they were too busy advising the legislature not to cooperate in the investigation.

Fifth amendment rights the attorneys argued, but the subpoenas requested proof that would have exonerated, not incriminated them.

3/07/2009 10:33 AM  
Anonymous The Kander Quote was not made up said...

Dan I was at that meeting of the Women's Political Caucus and you were not. Don't try to lie in order to cover up what Diana said. I know you are good at that but it is offensive and unethical.

Call Crystal Williams and ask her what Diana said, because Crystal rhetorically smacked down Diana for saying it.

It might help if you knew what you were talking about just once when it comes to the Kanders, Dan.

Do you have the guts to make one phone call or make one email to find out Dan? I doubt it even though I know you know Crystal.

3/07/2009 2:41 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

I know Ms. Williams? Really? I don't believe I've ever met her, though I've emailed her and asked to meet her.

I do know Diana, though, and I am 100% confident that she said no such thing. She simply wouldn't. I suspect that she said something quite different that someone with a political axe to grind twisted to suit her purposes.

Is your source, by chance, one of the same people who told us that Jason Kander had lost the UAW endorsement?

Are you about ready to give up on a race that the voters decided by a huge margin?

Why are you ashamed to attach your name to your comments, if they are truthful?

3/07/2009 5:17 PM  
Anonymous Sophia said...

Part of the joy of reading (and commenting) here is the strange sensation that most other people in the conversation are far more connected and knowledgeable than me. Half the comments are talking in code and most of the other half are nonsense. Am I the only not-insane nobody who reads this blog?

The language saying that the charter controls over the ordinance is meaningless - that's always true.

Admittedly, I'm not an expert on governmental law. But from a general contract perspective, clauses like that just shut those arguments down. And, if my memory of con law is correct, the supremacy clause isn't casually disregarded. I've been kicking around long enough to see judicial "activism" (or,as I prefer to think of it, avoidance) in action in the 16th circuit. But I really don't see the "out" to that clause.

3/07/2009 7:29 PM  
Blogger craig said...

I don't understand the code either.
I guess you and I are only 50% political geeks.
Dan and the others are full fledged political geeks.
No offense Dan. The rest of you, offense is meant.

3/07/2009 10:28 PM  
Anonymous Another Nobody said...


Putting two and two together with the comments here, I have to conclude that Dan's wife, having served on the ethics commission, didn't aggressively pursue or use the powers and authority available to the ethics commission.

We probably have a case here where Dan is trying to protect and justify the inaction of the ethics commission in the past -- given his wife's participation in that commission in the past.

3/07/2009 10:46 PM  
Blogger craig said...

Another Nobody,
Assuming what you say is true (don't know if it is or not, and don't care).
Dan is doing the right thing. His motives behind it are immaterial.

3/07/2009 11:13 PM  
Anonymous Another Nobody said...

I don't know if Dan is doing the right thing. If the ethics commission already has the authority to get the job done, why is Dan in Day 88 or whatever protesting the lack of ethics oversight?

If Sophia and others are correct, we could have had in all along with a commission that knew and could enforce the existing law.

There is some indication that certain people have been asleep at the wheel.

3/07/2009 11:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jason Kander lied to get the UAW endorsement Dan so you really should not bring that up.

3/08/2009 9:11 AM  
Anonymous Sophia said...

We should have a League of Extraordinary Nobodies! I find this interesting:

The county attorneys who perverted the ordinance also refused to help the commission in their "hour of need". That could be because they were too busy advising the legislature not to cooperate in the investigation.

I refrained from stating in my original comment that my investigation left me with the distinct impression that the county attorney is a bit of a boob. The Ethics Commission isn't required to use him, they can have outside representation if they feel there is a conflict. And instead of attempting to get funding from the legislature to pay Jim Wirken 200k to shuffle papers around his office, surely we can find someone to do it pro bono through this crisis.

The funding of outside counsel seems like an obvious veto point for the bad guys. Perhaps we should be pushing for the ethics ordinance to be amended to provide for the hiring of a full time attorney to work exclusively for the ethics commission. I understand they currently have some staff, but I have no clue what that staff is.

Let's take this Ethical Home Rule campaign up a notch. I understand Dan's point about holding these turkeys responsible, politically, for passing bad law. But in terms of on the ground ethics enforcement, taking out that language isn't going to make a difference. As long as they're being threatened with challengers, why not try to get something meaningful out of them?

p.s. I didn't get the impression that Dan's wife was on the commission recently and see no point in pulling her into this unless it's to solicit information about the reality of what the commission faces.

3/08/2009 10:17 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Sophia, Craig, and other "nobodies" -

If I'm talking code, please call me out on it. I hate it when people do that, and I hope that I don't lapse into my own version of the chattering class of insiders. Save me from myself.

The reason that I haven't gone into deep detail about the prior Ethics Commission is that it's irrelevant to the current issue. And, while you may find this hard to believe, I really don't know very much about it. My wife is one of the vast majority of people who don't really enjoy local political intrigue. She did her work on the Commission not out of any sense of insider pleasure - indeed, she sometimes felt the sense of others talking "in code" - but because the Dean of the Bloch School nominated her due to her ethical studies. He told her it was going to be a couple meetings a year.

Two things happened that changed her service to a fairly major burden. One, Mike Sanders got elected and wanted to create an ethics code, and she served on the drafting committee. Lots and lots of meetings, but it was enjoyable work with great people, she said. Second, one guy started filing all kinds of complaints. She rarely spoke of them to me. I gather from what I read that some of them were questionable, but the Ethics Commission treated them all with due respect. And investigated them.

And the proverbial stuff hit the fan when the legislators refused to disclose whether they had paid an attorney to countersue a former legislator. They refused to cooperate, and everyone got mad at the Ethics Commission for DARING to ask them questions. I think it was about that time that the County actually started refusing to pay parking for the Commissioners - I remember that because my wife was surprised at how petty and weak they were behaving.

When people make stuff up and act as though the prior commission didn't do much, I haven't responded in detail because I don't have much detail. Did my wife swear out a subpoena duces tecum? Honestly, I have no idea, but I know that she wound up in a fight with the legislators about producing information about paying their bills. And I'm not going to put my wife in the position of having to respond to the questions of a pack of anonymous interrogators, so I don't ask her about it, either.

As long-time readers know, I take honesty very seriously. I'm not going to lie about what I know or don't know. So, if what I talk about seems kind of terse, it's not code, it's just the limits of my knowledge.

And, again, all of it is a distraction.

Finally, Sophia, I agree with you that under principles of construction, the ordinance's attempt to exclude elected officials from local investigation SHOULD fail. There are other ways the thing could be resolved, too. But the RIGHT way is for the legislature to stop its attempt to exclude itself. Until the thing is resolved by court action, legislation or Commission action, we are in an ethics blackout with a legislature that claims it is above the rule of the Charter.

3/08/2009 10:27 AM  
Blogger craig said...

It isn't you talking in code. Some of the anonymous posters are implying things that only a person who was present would know to be true or not true. And they are talking in code so that they can't be identified.
Keep it up, the rest of us appreciate it.

3/08/2009 11:39 AM  
Anonymous Sophia said...

What craig said. You're not the code-talker. And I didn't mean to suggest that your wife should be subject to interrogation, I'm just interested in her experiences to the extent she is willing to share them. And given the code-snipers lurking about waiting to attack and personalize, I wouldn't blame her one bit for not wanting to share them here.

And I think it's really cute the legislators didn't want to talk about paying for the counter-suit. Of course they didn't pay for it out of their own pockets. They completely overpaid on the defense.

3/08/2009 6:07 PM  
Anonymous Fritz said...

Sophia that is especially true when they hired Scott Burnett's friend Leland Shurin to do the work. Leland charges for all he can and a few more things when he thinks he can get away with it.

He stands to make MILLIONS when Albert Riederer is elected mayor, because Albert, Scott and Leland are best buddies.

3/08/2009 8:58 PM  

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