New conflict of interest law could hit small towns hard

1

Lewisville Mayor Rudy Durham might be the first but will probably not be the last to leave his post because of a new state law that prohibits elected officials from working for their local appraisal districts.

Durham told The Texas Monitor, “I’m not resigning, I’m being forced out” as mayor, effective Dec. 31, 2019. He believes the new legal language targeted him specifically. 

However, The Texas Monitor identified at least two others in the Denton area who will be affected by the change: Troy Gregg, the mayor of Alvord and an appraiser for the Wise County Appraisal District northwest of Denton; and Randy Armstrong, director of residential appraisal for the Tarrant Appraisal District and board president of the White Settlement Independent School District west of Fort Worth.

Gregg said Friday he thinks he will be forced to step down as mayor, too, and is concerned that governance in small-town Texas, where elected office usually translates to poorly compensated public service, will suffer.

Durham also hinted, but would not confirm, that the new law will be challenged in court. “It doesn’t bother me as much as it does some other people,” he said. “They ask me why I’ve got to go. I’m not sure why.”

Durham has to go because of language that came out of Senate Bill 1146, which did not pass, and was added in the last few days of the session to Senate Bill 2, the Texas Legislature’s property tax bill (see page 17).

“An individual may not be employed by an appraisal district if the individual is an officer of a taxing unit that participates in the appraisal district or an employee of a taxing unit that participates in the appraisal district,” the section of the property tax bill says.

SB 1146 was filed in February by state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, whose District 30 includes homeowners and businesses in the Denton Central Appraisal District, where Durham has worked since 1986 and is now chief appraiser. The bill failed to make it out of committee.

In his statement of intent, Fallon said his bill was intended to eliminate a conflict created when an employee for an appraisal district responsible for determining property values also serves an elected body that controls property tax rates. “It stops a glaring conflict of interest,” the statement says.

Neither Fallon nor anyone from his office contacted Durham before or after filing the bill. Durham said he knows of no bad blood between him and Fallon.

When news of the bill’s filing on Feb. 26 broke locally, Fallon repeatedly declined to comment on it. A message left with Fallon’s staff for comment by The Texas Monitor was not returned.

Durham said he had never considered it an issue until he was contacted in October 2017 by Ross Kecseg, president of Empower Texans, a conservative political activist group based in Austin. 

Kecseg produced three analysis pieces concluding that Durham’s dual duties constituted a conflict of interest. “Surprisingly,” he wrote in the first piece, “this glaring conflict of interest remains legal under current state law.” 

In the last, published Nov. 15, 2017, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, chairman of the Senate’s Property Tax Committee, said he would support outlawing the conflict of interest as part of a broader reform of the state’s property tax system. Bettencourt was co-author of SB1146.

Kecseg did not reply to an email with questions about Empower Texans’ role in influencing Fallon’s bill.

When he was contacted about the bill in early March by a local Community Impact reporter, Durham wasn’t aware it had been filed. Because the wording in SB2 applies only to employees of an appraisal district, Denton appraisal district board members Charles Stafford, a trustee with the Denton Independent School District, and David Terre, a city council member in The Colony, are not affected.

As a paid administrator for the appraisal district, Durham has no say in determining the budget for the district or doing appraisals on taxpayers in the district, he said. As mayor, he recused himself on budget matters pertaining to the appraisal district, although he said attorneys for the city told him they did not consider such votes a conflict of interest because Lewisville is one of dozens of local entities with a vote on those budget matters.

Lewisville city staff also issued a memo attesting that Durham neither has any individual control over the city’s property tax rate nor has he, as mayor, ever voted on that rate.

“I’ve been on the city council in one way or another since 1994 and there has never been a conflict of interest that I can recall,” Durham said. “At least no one has ever said to me they had a problem with it.”

According to its meeting agenda, the Lewisville City Council earlier this week discussed in closed session whether the city should challenge the new law but took no action, according to the local Community Impact newspaper.

Should Durham follow through on his intent to resign, Lewisville will add a mayoral question to its election ballot in May 2020 to fill the year left on Durham’s three-year term. 

There are likely to be many more special elections with 254 appraisal districts and thousands of local governments in Texas. Gregg said he is awaiting word from the Alvord city attorney before making a final decision.

Gregg ran unopposed for mayor in May after serving three years on the city council. In a city of 1,200, finding people to run for elected office is difficult, he said. He does no appraisals in the city limits, in order to avoid potential conflicts. 

“Listen, I truly understand the perception of a conflict, I just wish they would have put some kind of population limit on it,” Gregg said. “This is just going to make it tougher to find good people to run.”

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

 

1 COMMENT

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here