Over a six month period from October, 2012 until July, 2013 something special happened in City Hall. Something that a lot of people in this community had been seeking for a number of years. But those people were told they were naysayers and critics. The powers in City Hall told these people “take your three minutes and then sit down.”
But then it happened. Without any planning, unexpectedly and spontaneously, a woman named Martha Barnett took charge of the Ethics Advisory Panel (EAP)and its eight other members and demonstrated how transparency, citizen engagement, and respect can make our community better.
The EAP met 17 times and some citizens attended every meeting. Ms. Barnett soon knew them by name. Ms. Barnett allowed “regular” citizens to participate in the deliberations. Yes, you had committee members discussing issues with “regular citizens.” It was special.
Then things got way out of hand. Ms. Barnett and other members actually stated that the public testimony from the previous meeting impacted how they were going to craft their recommendations! Unbelievable – this was democracy at work!
The end result were ground breaking recommendations that included an appointed ethics officer, penalties for elected officials who violate the new rules, and the requirement for City hired lobbyists to disclose their clients. But then, as quickly as it happened…it ended!
On Wednesday, November 20, 2013, the day the EAP recommendations were to be presented to the City Commission, someone named “Staff” rained on the parade. “Staff”, nameless and faceless, asked the City Commissioners to vote against the major recommendations made by the EAP.
Just like that it was all coming back- this was how it normally works. Hear the citizens out and then ignore them – nobody will care! And nobody with any credibility will challenge us!
But this time they were wrong! They were challenged and by people with credibility.
Retired Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court, Harry Anstead, a member of the EAP stood up to defend the EAP recommendations. Jay Landers, former Secretary of the Department of Environmental Regulation and Director of the Florida Department of Natural Resources was there to speak on behalf of the EAP.
And then there was Martha Barnett, a former President of the American Bar Association, fighting for what she worked six months to accomplish and truly believed in. It was inspirational!
Now the City Commissioners must decide. At the meeting on Wednesday they could of voted to accept the EAP recommendations. But instead, only Commissioner Gil Ziffer offered support. The others decided to wait until December 11 to make their final decision.
This is a defining moment for the government and the citizens of the City of Tallahassee. Will the insiders that have held the power for so long, give into the will of the people and allow oversight into the decisions that affect our lives or will nothing change?
Chair Martha Barnett said about the EAP “we are here because there are problems and we have a once in a decade opportunity to make a difference.” Something special can happen again at City Hall!