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With less than a week away from the start of early voting in Dallas, a preliminary panel of the city’s Ethics Advisory Commission has moved to investigate a complaint against City Council member Philip Kingston for possibly benefiting from a zoning change in his own neighborhood in East Dallas.
The allegation, made anonymously through the City Auditor’s office, states that Kingston shouldn’t have pushed to allow Accessory Dwelling Units — often known as mother-in-law suites or granny flats — in the Belmont Addition Conservation District.
Kingston challenged the complaint’s validity and disputed that he received any economic benefit from the zoning case.
But shortly after a City Council vote on Jan. 9 approving those changes — in which Kingston voted in favor — he and his wife Melissa pulled a permit for a second-floor addition of a detached garage at his home near Lower Greenville.
Months before, Melissa Kingston had filed a conservation district work review form with the city’s Department of Sustainable Development and Construction, proposing to remodel their kitchen and “expand [their] existing garage loft.”
The complaint claimed that Kingston knew that this vote and his promotion of ADUs would “affect his own economic interests” since they could be rented out, yet he chose to proceed anyway.
Doing so, the complaint stated, was in violation of the section of the city’s Code of Ethics that bars city officials or employees from taking “any official action that the city official or employee knows is likely to affect particularly the economic interests” of themselves.
On Tuesday, the preliminary panel focused its attention only on two limited questions: whether the complaint stated a valid claim under Chapter 12A, and whether it was supported by “just cause” — essentially whether it was legally sufficient.
On both questions, the panel split on a 2-1 vote, with vice chair Royce West II and commissioner Scott Shirley voting in favor, and commissioner Rob Cañas voting against.
The decision forwards the complaint to an evidentiary hearing by the full commission; a date for that hearing will be set later this week, said City Secretary Bilierae Johnson.
Kingston has long championed bringing Accessory Dwelling Units to Dallas.
In June 2018, when the City Council approved methods to allow for granny flats to be built, Kingston praised the move as an opportunity to address some of Dallas’ affordable housing needs. Neighborhoods would become “more resilient and sustainable” with income and age diversity, he said.
Kingston did not attend Tuesday’s ethics panel meeting, nor did he respond to a request for comment by The Dallas Morning News.
But in a written response submitted prior to the meeting, Kingston challenged the complaint on both questions considered by the preliminary panel.
First, he stated that since the complaint was made anonymously from a “member of the public” through the office of Interim City Auditor Carol Smith, there was no way to verify that the person bringing the allegations met residency or jurisdictional requirements found elsewhere within Chapter 12A.
City staff told the panel that those requirements only “come into play when a non-anonymous complaint comes through the City Secretary’s office.”
Kingston also stated that a council vote on something as broad as an overlay “does not create a special effect on the economic interests an individual council member that is distinguishable from the effect on the economic interests of other members of the public.”
Kingston cited a 2015 Texas Attorney General decision where planning and zoning commissioners in Beaumont weren’t required to recuse themselves from votes to amend a historic district in which they lived. He also pointed to a 2017 Dallas City Council vote in which his colleague Sandy Greyson did not recuse herself voting in favor of increasing the homestead exemption for seniors, even though Greyson was part of that “specific class of residents” who benefited by a policy change.
Shirley, the ethics commissioner, said just cause was found in the allegations. The complaint, he said, wasn’t only about the City Council vote, but the manner in which zoning change — an overlay — made its way to the City Planning Commission in the first place.
The complaint alleged that the Belmont Addition Conservation District did not follow the newly created paths to allow for ADUs, circumventing those routes through Kingston’s appointee on the City Plan Commission, Paul Ridley.
“The overlay has a very specific process that you have to go through,” Shirley said. “And in the complaint, they point out that it doesn’t follow either one of those processes.”
The upcoming hearing won’t be Kingston’s first trip in front of the city’s Ethics Advisory Commission. He received a letter of reprimand in 2017 after violating ethics rules when he filmed a campaign ad in his City Hall office.
The complaint came as Kingston seeks a fourth — and final — two-year term on the City Council. He represents District 14, which is made up of parts of Downtown Dallas, Uptown, East Dallas and Oak Lawn.
Kingston is running against financier David Blewett and business owner Warren Johnson.
Early voting in Dallas runs from April 22 to April 30. Election Day is May 4.