A week ago, Tuesday, the La Joya City Council adopted an ethics ordinance, and no, this isn’t a joke. Really.

Given a litany of public scandals involving the former mayor, former city manager and former housing director, the public, inured from the salacious headlines, yet again collectively rolls their eyes and dismissively labels the lot as greedy Grinches or self-interested Scrooges.

Leonardo Olivares, JD, MPA.

What is risible is the number of federal, state and local laws designed to prevent and punish public corruption. From the get-go some cities require officials to sign the Texas Constitution anti-bribery statement before they take their oath of office. Some state and local laws iterate disclosures or prohibitions twice or thrice. Santa just checks twice twice. More ethical requirements are lurking in contracts or even agreements with other public entities.

All these laws and affidavits and forms, and yet some officials do naughty things. How is this possible? Two points.

First systems are only as good as the people who manage them. In La Joya, public corruption scandals have inflicted trauma on employees. A culture of fear of retaliation permeates the organization. When asking who did something, the answer invariably is “City Hall.” When pressed, the response is, “Administration.” No one wants to name names.

Second, even fail-safe systems, like anti-corruption laws – fail. Why? It’s usually due to a series of errors or omissions. For example, you may have watched Air Disasters on TV. The airline industry prides itself for its safety record due to fail-safe systems. You are 19 times more likely to die in your car than a flight. 

Yet, when a plane does crash, it commands headlines. When planes crash, it’s because mechanics forgot to tighten a screw and the runway wasn’t inspected and the pilot didn’t get enough sleep and then — disaster. In like fashion, out of hundreds of hum-drum council votes or transactions, headlines chronicle the few instances of corruption. The “fail-safes” failed.

In response, cities or legislatures pass more laws or create more paperwork. La Joya’s response was to go back to basics. Identify all relevant laws and regulations at all levels and train everyone, yes every official, employee and volunteer. Change the culture of fear to one of pride of ownership.

Since some ordinances can get stale over time (like those ginger bread cookies your tia baked just for you), an advisory board also is established to review proposed changes and make recommendations to the Council every two years.

A last, but critical, provision includes putting teeth in the ethics ordinance in the form of penalties. An elected official’s failure to complete the training imposes a nominal $75 fine. The deterrent is not the monetary fine, but rather the accompanying public notoriety. Employees failing to complete training are subject to disciplinary action; volunteers and board appointees may be removed.

La Joya’s legendary Coyote pride will transform City Hall. But, a caveat: There are no fool-proof fail-safes. Care to heed the admonition that “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom … and good government.” Santa – and the public – is watching.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Leonardo Olivares, JD MPA, interim city manager for the City of La Joya, Texas. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author. Olivares can be reached by email via: [email protected]

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