Since October 1, 2012, the City’s Ethics Advisory Panel has held eleven meetings.
The panel’s research includes gathering information from around the state on how other cities address ethics, listening to testimony from citizens, former city commissioners, and the former Executive Director of the Florida Commission on Ethics.
The ultimate goal of the panel is to make recommendations to the full city commission sometime in June of this year. The panel was created to investigate the need for improved ethics rules by a unanimous vote of the City Commission last year.
The Ethics Advisory Panel meetings have been structured to have each member address one of the “focus areas” that was determined to be relevant by the panel. The panel has identified 10 such focus areas and they include financial disclosure, procurement practices, business conflicts, the revolving door and the establishment of an oversight authority.
While no votes have been taken, the discussions during the meetings indicate a level of consensus on a number of important issues. Panel members seem to agree on the following: (1) a more comprehensive financial disclosure form is needed for city commissioner’s, (2) the forms should be on the city website for easy access, (3) the establishment of an ethics hotline, and (4) the city is doing a good job with ethics training and enforcement for city employees.
Given the fact the panel sees fit to make policy recommendations that go beyond what is currently in place for elected officials, the next important issue to resolve is who will have ultimate oversight authority.
The current oversight authority rests with the city attorney, who is appointed by the city commission. The alternative approach that has been discussed is the establishment of an independent board that would appoint an ethics officer who would be responsible for implementing the ethics rules for elected officials.
During previous meetings, the former director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, Phil Claypool, told the panel that for ethics reform to be taken seriously by the public, the oversight authority must be independent of influence from City Commissioners.
In addition, appointed officials City Attorney Lew Shelley and Auditor Sam McCall indicated that it would be difficult develop a structure within the City Commission that would allow the oversight authority to be completely free of influence from elected officials.
During last Thursday’s meeting, the agenda called for panel member Lila Jaber to present her views on oversight authority. Ms. Jaber has impressive credentials. She is an attorney, a former Florida Public Service Commissioner and was recently appointed to the City’s Utility Advisory Board by City Manager Anita Favors-Thompson.
The thrust of Ms. Jaber’s recommendation was to “create a formal Ethics Officer position that reports to the City Attorney to address city staff-level issues.” When panel member Brant Copeland asked “what about elected officials”, Ms Jaber recommended “proactive ethics training by an outside consultant” and to leave further responsibility of oversight to the Florida Commission on Ethics. Ms. Jaber stated, while she considered an independent oversight authority, she ultimately concluded such a board would have responsibilities already vested in the Florida Commission on Ethics.
The discussion that followed revealed a consensus for an independent oversight authority, but the need to limit the creation of another bureaucracy that would have unlimited authority. However, as one of the panel members stated, “the devil is in the details.”
It is obvious from the discussions of the panel, that oversight authority is an issue that will ultimately decide the effectiveness of any recommendations made to the City Commission.