Conroe, January 24 – The Montgomery County Commissioners Court approved a limited Code of Ethics in a unanimous vote this morning. The Code was limited in two respects. First, it only meets the minimal requirements of the Texas Department of Transportation which has notified the County government that it must adopt those requirements by February 7 in order to continue to receive TxDOT grants. There are some minor additions the Court added to those minimal requirements. Second, there is no enforcement power to ensure compliance with the Code, even though the Court established a five-member Ethics Committee that has little power other than to reprimand a County employee or official who does not follow the Code.
County Attorney J.D. Lambright explained that he and his Governmental Affairs Assistant County Attorney Amy Dunham modeled the Code of Ethics after that of El Paso County. Under the circumstances of a Commissioners Court that showed little enthusiasm for ethics reform but wished to ensure that road grant funding continues to flow into the County, Lambright and Dunham did an excellent job drafting the Code of Ethics. First Assistant County Attorney B.D. Griffin seemed very confused regarding the law surrounding the Code of Ethics. When Commissioner James Noack asked Griffin why the Code of Ethics could not apply to the elected judiciary in Montgomery County, Griffin fumbled around and never found the correct answer that the Texas Constitution’s Separation of Powers Doctrine would prohibit a County Commissioners Court, acting as part of the Executive Branch, to make such rules. Lambright, however, noted that the County is “constrained” by the law and “is seeking to do what we can to meet the ‘gold standard,’ which is the El Paso County ethics ordinance.”
The Code of Ethics has limited conflicts of interest provisions and no anti-nepotism policy. The Commissioners Court voted to establish a five-member Ethics Committee, composed of citizens whom the Court would appoint. Two would be nominated by Commissioners Court members, while each of the remaining three nominees would come from the County Purchasing, Human Resources, and Audit Departments, subject to the Commissioners Court approval. District Attorney Brett Ligon suggested the possibility that the Code of Ethics enforcement method should involve “impartial adjudication by true professionals who look at the rule of law” such as professional arbitrators.
During a citizen comment, Ligon reminded the Commissioners Court they should follow the Texas Constitution and that “all men have wickedness in their souls but the Creator gives us the opportunity for greatness.” He urged that the County Judge, Commissioners, and County employees should all divest “yourselves of outside business interests.” Ligon noted that the definition of whether conduct is “ethical” is not whether it is minimally “legal” but “whether it looks right and avoids the appearance of impropriety.”
Lambright indicated that he would appear before the Commissioners Court within 45 days to suggest a plan for implementing the Code of Ethics.