Odessa isn’t a small city anymore. But the Odessa City Council acts like it when it comes to ethics filings that state law requires for politicians in cities of Odessa’s size.
In Texas, council members of cities with a population of more than 100,000 must file personal financial statements, just like state officials do. These yearly filings show where officials earn their money and their employers.
The disclosures provide a tool for voters to keep elected officials accountable by making it easier to connect the dots when elected officials’ personal interests conflict with their public duties. In addition to the elected officials, candidates, the city manager and the city attorney must file the forms too.
But — even though Odessa is undoubtedly larger than 100,000 people — City Council members don’t file the personal financial statements. Their legal justification lies in out-of-date information from the last census in 2010.
At the time, the official tally of Odessa’s population was 99,940. By only 60 people, that fell below the threshold that requires a more transparent government. And now, because state law relies on the federal count for population, cities like Odessa can use eight-year-old information to avoid the disclosures if they want to.
“As a legal matter, the City of Odessa is not currently a beneficiary of or subject to laws that apply to a city over that size,” Interim City Attorney Gary Landers said.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Nothing prevents Odessa’s City Council members from disclosing their financial interests, and the City Council has the power to declare a more accurate population for the city.
“If that’s what’s required then I think we need to be transparent and do it,” Mayor David Turner said. Asked if the City Council should do it anyway, Turner said “I don’t know” and that he wanted to talk to the city attorney.
It’s not unusual for city councils in Texas to officially declare their own population — It actually happened in Tyler when Landers was city attorney there.
In Odessa, even city officials acknowledge thousands more residents today than what the 2010 census reflects. In the budget passed by the City Council for the fiscal year underway, city officials estimated a population of more than 124,000 people in the city limits. Similar population estimates exist all over the city’s website.
“You would have a hard time finding a demographer who would tell you that you are not over 100,000,” State Demographer Lloyd Potter said.
By January 2016, Potter’s office estimates more than 119,000 people lived in Odessa, slightly higher than the estimate of the U.S. Census Bureau using a slightly different methodology.
Even though it’s not clear if the Odessa City Council will consider addressing its population, there would be clear advantages beyond greater transparency.
One is a greater ability of officials to control the city’s borders. At 100,000 people, what’s known as Odessa’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, becomes bigger. The ETJ is land extending just beyond a city’s limits, allowing room to grow. The City can annex land in the area, where everything built has to conform to city zoning laws.
For cities with fewer than 100,000 people, the ETJ extends out 3.5 miles. For cities with 100,000 or more, it becomes five miles.
That could matter right now, as city officials seek to benefit from development just outside the city limits.
“We are looking at that very issue in terms of: Is this an opportunity for us to begin to look at other areas of the community — north, east, south and west — where the city can do additional annexation up to our ETJ and capture some of the development that’s currently occurring in some of those corridors,” Interim City Manager Michael Marrero said. “One prime example is the I-20 corridor. There’s a lot of development.”
Landers, for his part, said he would bring the issue to the City Council “because we are so close now.” But Landers said it was beyond his role to recommend that the City Council declare a more accurate population for Odessa, which would also require the ethics disclosures.
District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner said that regardless of whether the City Council is required to file the personal financial statements, Odessans have a right to know the sort of information they reveal.
“I definitely think it is appropriate for the public to know where you work, where you live, and if you have multiple streams of income,” said Gardner, a manager at Permian Basin Energy Services.
Not everyone shares that view. For months, District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton sought to conceal his employer from the public, insisting it was none of anyone’s business.
Before the Odessa American revealed in October that his employer was Sentry Wellhead Systems, an oilfield equipment and servicing company, the public had little way of knowing that. Or that in May 2017, Hamilton voted against public incentives for Weir Oil and Gas, a direct competitor of his employer.
Cities like Odessa can set stricter ethics policies than what state law requires. And some do. But for now, the city also has no rule, ordinance or advisory regarding ethics of conflicts-of-interest requirements for Odessa City Council members and top appointees, Landers said.
Today, Landers said he does not know where all of the elected officials work but the “primary responsibility” to disclose conflicts lies with them.
In the meantime, there are still some ethics disclosures that City Council members must comply with. One is a conflicts disclosure statement that requires officials to report gifts and certain relationships with vendors doing business with the city.
Of the current City Council members, District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff made such a disclosure in 2015 to report travel reimbursements for her role as a representative with the Texas Municipal League.
Council members are also required to abstain from votes that would financially benefit them. If that happened, they would also have to file an affidavit explaining the conflict — such as a financial connection to a business or property.
None of the current Council members have ever filed one of these forms, but that’s because none have had a conflict that required it, City Secretary Norma Grimaldo said.
Council members have still abstained from votes that generally relate to their work. For example, District 2 Dewey Bryant and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales said they have abstained votes that had to do with their careers in banking and insurance so they could avoid the perception of a conflict, even though the matters did not directly relate to their companies.
Turner said the city needs an “ethics ordinance or policy” and that he wanted to examine what other cities have done.
But the law requiring politicians to file personal financial disclosures adds teeth to government accountability, with the possibility of criminal and civil penalties for officials’ who don’t comply with the law, said Ross Fischer, an Austin attorney and former chairman of the Texas Ethics Commission.
“The public needs to feel confident that their elected officials are acting in the public interest and not in the officials’ own self interest,” Fischer said.
The disclosures show who politicians owe money to. They reveal where they get their occupational income. They list the property they own — something the public could watch to see if council members are benefiting from votes to develop certain streets or neighborhoods. They document holdings like stocks, bonds and mutual funds.
And they also apply to their spouses and dependent children.
“There’s nothing to preclude the council from just saying we are going to adopt this and comply with it,” Fischer said.
- Personal financial statement example (pdf link).