Situational Ethics

You've got to hand it to Lee Brown -- the man has been deft when it comes to wielding a symbol. Or so it's seemed. You'd have to be a card-carrying member of the Texas Aryan National Skinheads not to have been moved by all the not-so-subtle signs of inclusion that were woven into his inaugural ceremony -- from the U.N.-style "nations of the world" tableau presented by the Houston Children's Chorus to the back-to-back invocations by a rabbi and the head of the local Islamic Society.

Then there's the lineup of the City Council, an arrangement that the city's first African-American mayor had nothing to do with, but which in all its variegated, e pluribus unum glory -- we've got blacks, whites, browns, an Asian-American, an openly gay woman, an openly heterosexual dwarf, a couple of members whose I.Q.s may not reach into triple digits, two who are under federal indictment, etc. -- meshes nicely with Brown's promise to be "mayor for all the people."

But on matters of off-stage symbolism -- ones that might signal something more substantive than how nice we look lined up together, despite our superficial differences -- Brown hasn't been as sure-footed.

Take the issue of "ethics," that journalistic/political catchword for honesty, openness and fair dealing in government. Brown has made quite a big deal of the ethics issue. His first major pronouncement as a candidate was a "seven-point ethics plan," and during his inaugural speech he pointedly vowed that "ethical lapses will not be tolerated at any level" of city government in his administration. (Interestingly, Brown's emphasis on ethics would seem to be an acknowledgment that the atmosphere at City Hall under his predecessor was somehow lacking, but that's an old story.)

Yet Brown has already caught a bit of heat for reappointing John Castillo to the Council's Ethics Committee, with the critics -- and their number is confined solely to certain quarters of the local media -- noting that a councilman who's supposed to stand trial in March on federal charges of accepting bribes might not be the best of choices for that assignment. But it's hard to fault Brown too much for that appointment. Castillo, after all, is innocent until proven otherwise in court.

Of course, if Brown really wanted to demonstrate his commitment to "ethics," he should have just abolished the Ethics Committee, the same way he did away with another presumably worthless Council committee, the one on "labor pools and homelessness." The Council's Ethics Committee is the same visually impaired body that, with Castillo concurring, couldn't see its way to say the obvious: that John Peavy Jr. had a conflict of interest by serving on Council while co-owning a company that held a subcontract on a Hobby Airport food concession.

Is that the sort of intestinal fortitude we can look forward to in the Brown administration? Perhaps. Even prior to taking his oath, Brown's actions, or lack thereof, had suggested that his commitment to "ethics" might be more for show than go. In mid-December, the mayor-elect announced the 20 people who would oversee and coordinate the transition to his administration, and you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful on that list who didn't work for or represent some interest that does business with the city, or wants to do business with the city, or is regulated by the city. (Two of the more notable examples are Billy Burge and Kent Friedman, the ubiquitous middlemen who represent CA One, the outfit that's in line for the prized $200 million worth of food concessions that's on the block at Bush Intercontinental.)

But there was no reason to worry or get the wrong idea, or so Brown told the Chronicle at the time. Every citizen helping with his transition would have to sign a "code of ethical conduct" that, among other things, would prohibit them from working on any matter in which they or their relatives or business associates had a financial interest. Another provision would require Brown's transition team members to refrain for at least six months from lobbying any city official or employee on matters over which they had responsibility during the transition.

"We're covering ourselves on that," Brown proudly declared. "I consider this to be a hallmark of my administration -- we'll deal with the issues of ethics up front."

Or maybe later. As it turns out, neither of the conflict-of-interest disclaimers are in the "code" as actually signed by the members of Brown's transition committees. They were included in a preliminary draft, which was based on similar pledges used in other cities, but were removed by City Attorney Gene Locke, who determined they were "not necessary to achieve what the mayor wanted," at least according to the explanation given the Press by Brown's office. And while it's true, the mayor's office acknowledges, that some members of Brown's transition coordinating committee did express "concern" about the no-lobbying-for-six-months provision, "no one actually called and asked that it be removed from the document."

Aside from those two provisions, which were numbers one and two in the draft, the final product is virtually identical to the earlier version. You'll be happy to know that Brown did retain the prohibition against transition team members soliciting bribes in return for recommending someone for an appointive office or contract. Likewise, most of the other activities forbidden by the code are already against the law. Maybe "ethics" in the Brown administration will translate to "what's legal."

A Brown spokesman insists, of course, that there's nothing to be read into the excising of the conflict-of-interest provisions and that the new mayor is moving ahead to fulfill his pledge to enact "the strongest municipal ethics law" in the nation. That may be so. But some of the same interests assisting Brown's transition had a hand in gutting the last attempt at serious campaign finance reform for the city, and how surprising will it be if an expression of "concern" here or there causes one or two of the seven points in Brown's "ethics plan" to quietly disappear? (No calls or written requests, please.)

Which, symbolism aside, raises what will be the paramount question of the Brown administration: How easy is it to roll Lee Brown?


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