Image: State Representative Steve Toth, Republican of Conroe, shown at left with former County Attorney JD Lambright (center), the namesake for the JD Lambright Local Government Ethics Reform Act.
Austin, May 9 – With brilliant State Representative Steve Toth, Republican of Conroe, guiding his bill to passage, the Texas House of Representatives passed House Bill 1495, the JD Lambright Local Government Ethics Reform Act, to passage by a 109 to 28 vote early in the afternoon of Wednesday, May 8, 2019. All three members of the Montgomery County delegation to the House – Toth, Representative Will Metcalf of Conroe, and Representative Cecil Bell of Magnolia – voted for Toth’s bill.
Toth told The Golden Hammer a few minutes after the floor vote, “The people of Montgomery County, as well as our current County Judge [Mark Keough], petitioned my office for this bill more than any other. I’m thankful the House voted with the people of Montgomery County in bringing greater transparency to local government.”
“The people of Montgomery County, as well as our current County Judge [Mark Keough], petitioned my office for this bill more than any other. I’m thankful the House voted with the people of Montgomery County in bringing greater transparency to local government.” – – State Representative Steve Toth, Republican of Conroe.
The House bill applies to Montgomery County and nearby Chambers County and generally tracks the provisions of an ethics statute now only applicable to El Paso County.
There were two amendments to Toth’s bill prior to its passage. Toth accepted both amendments as friendly.
One amendment of State Representative Mayes Middleton, Republican of Houston, added Chambers County to the bill in addition to Montgomery County. Middleton, along with Toth and Senator Brandon Creighton, Republican of Conroe, has championed local government ethics reform legislation. Another amendment made clear that county ethics codes only apply to county officials as opposed to candidates for county office. The House adopted both amendments unanimously.
The only opposition to the legislation came from a special interest group who has had legal disputes with the Texas Ethics Commission, the state agency which enforces Texas campaign finance laws.
The following individuals and groups have endorsed passage of Toth’s House Bill 1495 as well as Senator Creighton’s Senate Bill 710, which would apply to every county statewide:
- Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough, the “People’s Judge,”;
- Montgomery County Attorney B.D. Griffin;
- The entire Montgomery County Commissioners Court, which unanimously adopted a resolution in support of the legislation;
- The Montgomery County Republican Party, which unanimously adopted a resolution in support of the legislation; and
- The Travis County Commissioners Court (which has supported Senator Creighton’s statewide bill).
Senator Creighton’s Senate Bill 710 passed the Texas Senate on a 30 to 0 vote on April 8, 2019. The Senate bill is pending before the House County Affairs Committee which held a hearing at which Judge Keough and one other Montgomery County citizen testified in its favor. Representative Middleton and Representative Toth are sponsoring Senate Bill 710 in the Texas House of Representatives.
JD Lambright, Montgomery County Attorney until he lost a brief battle with cancer and went into the arms of the Lord on March 9, 2019, spent the last several years of his life and career as an advocate for ethics and integrity in government, Free Speech, and citizens rights. One of his greatest achievements during his six years in office as County Attorney was drafting a Code of Ethics for Montgomery County. Sadly, the Code of Ethics lacked any enforceability, because Texas law currently only allows one county, El Paso, to adopt an enforceable ethics code.
Senate Bill 710, the JD Lambright Local Government Ethics Reform Act, is Lambright’s dream to give all counties in Texas the ability, but not the duty, to adopt an ethics code which would have enforceability through civil penalties. House Bill 1495 is similar but only applies to Montgomery County and Chambers County.
The Lambright Act has nothing whatsoever to do with regulating Free Speech. Otherwise, Lambright would not have championed the concept. Rather, it merely gives county governments the right to establish ethics codes with enforceability, if and only if the county so chooses.
As Senator Brandon Creighton, the author of Senate Bill 710, made clear, the legislation only applies to “county public servants,” pursuant to Section 161.101 of the Texas Local Government Code, whom the current statute, Section 161.002(8) defines as:
- a county officer or county employee;
- a person appointed by the commissioners court or a county officer to a position on one of the following, whether the position is compensated or not:
- an authority, board, bureau, commission, committee, council, department, district, division, or office of the county; or a multi-jurisdictional board;
- an attorney at law or notary public when participating in the performance of a governmental function;
- a candidate for nomination or election to an elected county office; or
- a person who is performing a governmental function under a claim of right although the person is not legally qualified or authorized to do so.
The legislation would only authorize ethics codes applicable to county public servants. They would not regulate any conduct of private individuals whatsoever.
The ethics commissions under the Lambright Act have nothing whatsoever to do with the regulation of any private activity. They would only have jurisdiction over county governments.
Many counties desperately need ethics code in order to combat epidemics of nepotism, conflicts of interest, and gifts and inappropriate “favors” for county officials, among other ethics challenges.
Ethical people stand for ethics in government, which should represent all of us as we strive to be ethical.
Texans have a wonderful opportunity to give counties a tool for creation of enforceable ethics codes which only El Paso County has. The ethics statute, Chapter 161 of the Texas Local Government Code, has worked remarkably well in El Paso County.
With Lambright’s dream, the other 253 counties in Texas will have the opportunity to implement ethics codes to regulate county elected officials and county government employees, should they so choose.
Thanks to Representative Toth, Representative Middleton, Senator Creighton, and Judge Keough on this important issue.