The City’s Ethics Advisory Panel held a public hearing Wednesday night in the City Hall Chambers. But before the public meeting, the Panel took care of some unfinished business with regards to the structure of the oversight authority for a new ethics code.
The focus of the Panel was a recommendation by Panel member Jaber on oversight authority that would create an ethics officer position that would report to the City Attorney. One member argued that such a structure lacked the independence required to have an effective oversight authority.
The Panel ended the discussion without taking a vote on the issue, but the consensus seemed to be leaning towards keeping the ethics officer position within the confines of the City Attorney’s office.
The public hearing began by taking input from seven citizens. The meeting format was informal and the speakers were given great leeway by Chairwoman Barnett to finish their comments.
Six of the seven speakers focused on the need for an independent oversight authority. But the most persuasive speaker was former City Commissioner Penny Herman. She stated as a former elected official her experience was that there needed to be an independent structure to enforce ethics rules that apply to elected officials.
When asked by a Panel member what was wrong with a process that would allow for the City Attorney to turn over ethics issues to a “contracted” ethics officer, Ms. Herman replied by saying that “the problem is the City Attorney would decide what is an ethics issue and the City Attorney works for the elected officials.”
Erwin Jackson, a consistent participant in these hearings, stated that “the City Attorney has been the ethics officer for the last 10 years and that has not worked. We cannot even get the City Attorney to ask the Attorney General of Florida for a legal opinion on deferred compensation. The Panel needs to recommend an independent oversight authority.”
The main argument against an independent oversight authority seems to be concern about creating a new bureaucracy and the associated cost. However, Ms. Herman pointed out that all you need is a citizen committee, like the Ethics Panel, that would hire an ethics officer to implement the adopted ethics code.
Those supporting an independent oversight authority at the public hearing and at other meetings include former City Commissioner Penny Herman, former Director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, Phil Claypool, and former City Auditor Sam McCall.
No public speakers opposed an independent oversight authority.
The Ethics Advisory Panel will meet Thursday morning to finalize the recommendations they will present to the City Commission.
The great difficulty is establishing a truly independent office. How and by whom will such a person be selected? Who will draft the qualifications and who will have hiring and firing authority? If the office is subordinate to the City Attorney the potential conflict is that the City Attorney serves at the pleasure of the city commission. If the ethics officer is directly subordi ate to the city commission, that potential for conflict is obvious. Contracting with an outside person with no interest or involvement in city politics or politicians may be a possibility.
When the independent office is established, elected officials should be prohibited from initiating contact with the office except upon inquiry from the office, or to file a complaint.
The model for an Office of the Independent Monitor already exists. The heavy burden on the members of the ethics panel is to do that which is very difficult to accomplish, remove political influence from the functioning of such an office to the greatest possible extent. I wish them well.
with all due respect to the members of the panel remember that they were picked by the City Commission. To get done what needs to be done in so far as ethical behavior on the part of the City Commission an independent panel must be convened.
My guess is that, for specious reasons, the notion of an independent ethics officer will not be acceptable. Should the notion be accepted such an officer will not be independent.