Ethics Advisory Panel Struggles With Oversight Issue, Chairperson Barnett Calls for Charter Amendment

Ethics Advisory Panel Struggles With Oversight Issue, Chairperson Barnett Calls for Charter Amendment

While the City’s Ethics Advisory Panel is set to recommend significant changes to ethics rules for elected officials with respect to financial disclosure, business conflicts, and training, the question of who will be responsible for implementing these new rules has yet to be resolved.

During the Panel’s meeting on May 30th, scheduled to be its last before presenting their recommendations to the City Commission, the issue of oversight authority could not be resolved and an additional meeting was set for June 10th.

At the May 30th meeting, Panel member Lila Jaber was responsible for presenting a recommendation on oversight authority to the full Panel. The essence of Ms. Jaber’s recommendation was to create a formal “Ethics Officer” that reports to the City Attorney to address staff-level issues. Under Jaber’s proposal, if the City Attorney, who works at the pleasure of the elected officials, determined there were ethic issues with any elected officials, then an outside consultant would be hired to address the issue.

After Ms. Jaber presented her proposal, Panel members began to state their own positions.

Panel member Anstead was the first to weigh in and stated that the public hearing, held the night before, had caused him to rethink his position on a independent board. Based in part on the public testimony, he recommended a five person independent ethics board assisted by a contract ethics officer responsible for implementing the new ethics policy.

For details on what happened at public hearing, click here.

Jaber disagreed and stated “I am not for a board because I do not want to promote confusion. Give the City Attorney a chance.” Panel member John Calhoun agreed with Panel member Anstead on the need for independence and stated that he also was influenced by the public hearing.

Panel member Copeland was concerned about the misuse of power, but was cautiously supportive of Anstead’s proposal. Panel member Landers said he was moved by the public hearing, but that an independent board was too much.

For a list of Panel members with bios, click here.

And then Chairwoman Martha Barnett spoke. And she dropped a bombshell.

As everyone waited to here which way the leader of the Panel would break, Ms. Barnett began by saying that the city of Tallahassee is a well run, complex machine with a budget approaching $1 billion.

She also stated “we are here because there are problems and we have an once in a decade opportunity to make a difference.”

With that, Ms. Barnett said she was not in favor of combining ethics responsibilities with the City Attorney’s office and recommended creating an appointed Ethics Officer and advisory board with responsibilities detailed in the city’s Charter.

Such a proposal would require the City Commission to approve a ballot initiative that would be submitted to voters for approval.

Current City Attorney Shelley was quick to disagree and added that the City does not have an ethics problem and blamed the current issues on “one or two people who keep speaking out.  We have had eleven ethics complaints filed over the years and not one has been found to have any merit.”

Tallahassee City Attorney Shelley

In response to Mr. Shelley, Panel member Rasmussen pointed out that “the problem is no one has any confidence that the Florida Commission on Ethics will hold anyone accountable.”

After some discussion, Chairperson Barnett recognized that their was no consensus on the issue and asked that staff schedule another meeting. She also requested that staff look into having the Ethics Officer in Jacksonville speak to the Panel in person or through a conference call.

The City of Jacksonville created an independent citywide ethics oversight and compliance office in 2010. Read about the details here.

The next Ethics Advisory Panel meeting is scheduled for June 10th at 11:30 in the Tallahassee Room on second floor of City Hall.

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