This Martian Life: A column
By SEAN WARDWELL
Many people will applaud the Hays County Commissioners Court for moving forward with Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton’s (D-Kyle) ethics code for dealing with companies doing business with the county.
I’m not one of them.
I always appreciate government making an effort towards creating an ethics policy. However, ethics policies usually show up at one of two points – when a company or organization forms, and after a problem. As Hays County was not recently formed, there must have been a problem.
And so there was. By now the dealings of Hays County and KBR have been well documented, and that’s the problem. The accusations have been very well documented. The accusations have been in the national media for some time. This is not a new condition for KBR. Anyone could have seen the potential for controversy, especially the five people on the court who saw the KBR contract before any of us.
So no, I don’t buy it. I especially don’t buy it after comparing these two statements from the creator of the ethics policy, Jeff Barton.
In a story published here on Feb. 16, Barton said, in relation to the then-pending KBR contract:
“I’ll say when I first saw the (KBR) packet it raised my eyebrows because I’m just aware that some people have some concerns about them. I don’t know enough to pass judgment. And again, you had staff and the commissioner recommend it for what seemed to be good reasons – that they’re already out there and familiar with the project, so I don’t have any objection to our hiring them.”
But weeks later, after the contract is dead, after citizens protested, after having time and opportunity to challenge the KBR contract before it even got to this point, Barton changed his tune in a statement announcing his ethics proposal:
“Our incentives and our contracts should be structured to discourage destructive behavior and to hold executives and companies responsible for their actions,” Barton said. “If you want to make a business decision to maximize profits by playing loose with the rules, jeopardizing people’s lives, cutting corners – fine. But then as a society we’re going to seek to punish that behavior under the law. And we’re going to follow-up where it hurts some of these companies the most – in the bottom line.”
What changed? This remains the same issue as it was on Feb. 16, when there was “no objection.” Yes, personal testimony from veterans is compelling, but was it really needed to do the right thing, anyway? As I see it, the only thing that changed was the political wind.
I’m also willing to bet the possibility that a hotly contested Democratic Party primary race for county judge next year has factored into this proposal. It’s widely believed that Barton desires to be judge at some point in his career, and the seat is up for election in 2010.
The real tragedy here is that Barton actually has a good idea. We should take a stand on who we want working here, and who we don’t. It’s good to see government stepping up. Take note, San Marcos. The city has somehow skated through this tempest untouched, even though it was the city that brought KBR into the FM 110 project. Indeed, the city has hired KBR five times in the last five years.
While the commissioners yanked a contract from KBR and started on an ethics policy, the city continues to whistle past the commotion. One city councilmember wouldn’t even comment recently on whether the city would or should continue working with KBR.
However, there shouldn’t be any victory laps or pats on the back for the county, either. This is not a stunning moment of anagnorisis on the part of Barton and the court. This isn’t leadership. It is damage control. To say that instituting this policy is like closing the barn door after all the horses escaped is inadequate. This is more like building a new door for a barn that’s already burnt down to the ground.
I welcome the policy, but I find the timing questionable, at best. It’s not enough to haul out a shiny new proposal, and think that washes away months of shoddy oversight. The problem was lying right in front of the court all along, and good ideas don’t lend themselves to free passes.
However, the one thing that gets me the most about all this is that it had to be force-fed to the court by citizens, who, thankfully, did their jobs. They shouldn’t have had to, and I wonder if we have to wait for another protest to actually get some good government, even indirectly.
All this really does, in the end, is remind me of a person sitting on their porch, watching an angry mob go by.
“There go my people,” the person said. “I must find out where they are going so I can lead them there.”Email | Print