VIEWPOINT: A lot of questionable ethics talk



Ethics is a new favorite word in Liberty Hill. But lately it is being used primarily as a way to cast shadows, stir doubts and at times as more of a blunt object, when it should be a measuring stick of good public behavior and standard for public service.

The term “ethics” has a fairly straightforward, simple definition: “moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity.”

But the term has been used on social media as a weapon against essentially anyone representing the City prior to the May 4 election, as vague accusations swirled and were turned into an opportunistic campaign battle cry.

New Council member Steve McIntosh has been a good sport of sorts, becoming the point person by default on this issue because he was the first, and through the campaign the most willing, to answer questions on the issue. I know he is more than tired of the questions.

He did not create the stories living on local Facebook pages. He can’t make them go away on his own.

But in February, he gave them a political boost by introducing them to the campaign during his first interview with The Independent.

“The development aspect is a big thing to me because I feel like there is a perception in the area that there are some unethical things going on, and I’ve heard that from the community,” he said in February. “I’ve been to meetings where it is a concern of mine and I hope to get to a little bit of the bottom of that. I feel like the citizens are underrepresented and the developers are over represented. I think the citizens deserve to have someone that’s looking out for them.”

Well, here we are, one month after the election that brought McIntosh, Gram Lankford and Liz Rundzieher to victory under a unified message shared by Mayor Rick Hall – let’s “get to the bottom of that”.

During the campaign, candidates seized on the issue, citing community uproar and occasionally chiming in on social media threads with pledges of change, and urgings that something must be done.

Seeking a balance between getting bogged down in non-specific allegations and the desire to match facts with rumors, The Independent decided about a month into the campaign to wade into the discussion.

Lankford said on his campaign Facebook page that if elected he planned to “represent the entire City of Liberty Hill not just a single development.” He said at the time there was a particular issue related to his online comment, but hesitated to identify it, saying “I’m not trying to stir up any controversy.”

But controversy was already swirling and gaining traction.
No one was willing on the record to surrender the names of any alleged offenders when it came to unethical dealings. No one was willing to cite any specific evidence or incident. Yet no one was willing to give up the claims either.

The Independent asked the questions of candidates, City officials, and Council members. As expected, there were denials of any wrongdoing. The issue was reported just the same and the questions continued.

Even Mayor Hall said “someone should look into it,” so The Independent has been doing so.

At the election’s conclusion, the newspaper asked each of the winners where this issue would go next, because at that point, the option to look more closely into allegations seemed easier.

Rundzieher, the long-serving incumbent who was re-elected, said the issue was expected to be on the City Council agenda May 13, and said she had some information but wasn’t ready to discuss it publicly.

It still has not been taken up by the Council in open or closed session.

The allegations should have been no less important to the community after the election, but they sure appeared to lose steam. From a reporter’s point of view, it appeared very much like it was no longer seen as something to keep in the forefront.

Last week, following the resignation of Chris Pezold from the Planning and Zoning Commission, both Hall and McIntosh initially indicated the issue might be done. Additional questions from The Independent were met with frustration as both men said it may be looked into further.

The newspaper’s reporting was called into question in April for not investigating enough prior to Election Day, and ironically it has been similarly called out for pushing too hard in May on the same issue.

Why does The Independent push for resolution on this issue? Because the community should know whether anyone in our town is guilty of profiting or benefiting from their position. Equally, the community should know if the stories and rumors circulated are proven false.

The City of Liberty Hill has an ethics ordinance. Deep in that ordinance, past the long list of potential violations, is a clearly spelled out procedure for filing ethics complaints.

That process does not include fueling the fire on social media. It doesn’t include one-on-one conversations with the Mayor that end in ambiguity.

It is a process that expects those alleging complaints provide their name, the name of the accused, the circumstances of the allegation and evidence to back them up.

No one has filed such a complaint with the City to date. But we know a lot of energy was put into talking about the issue on Facebook and Mayor Hall had a conversation with Chris Pezold – the one person the ethics police have let slip out publicly as a “suspect”. Had Pezold not reached out to The Independent, it is likely there would be no more public information on this issue than there was on Election Day.

The real sticking point in all this is the fervor is gone. The desire for justice through change is not burning so bright today.

What’s different? The election is over.

That’s a perception.

But it’s a perception every bit as valid without evidence as the perception that served the “change” campaign so well in March and April.

Making sure we do the right thing and hold everyone to these ethical standards doesn’t end when the ballots are counted or those accused quit defending themselves. To be real, justice requires closure. It demands a conclusion of guilt or innocence, not a convenient outcome that is easy to walk away from.

The Independent was recently told to “Stop playing this little political game,” being a “mouthpiece for Chris Pezold,” and doing this “subjective journalism garbage”.

The Independent didn’t create the politics of this issue. But The Independent will be there when it comes to a close, with news that either the City’s ethics policy was violated or that social media rumors, and campaigns capitalizing on them, ultimately engaged in some questionable ethics.

Ethics is a two-way street, and it is a fair question now to ask everyone if they are truly operating ethically as they politic in Liberty Hill.