During the 17th meeting of the City’s Ethics Advisory Panel, on Monday June 10, the issue of oversight authority was front and center. The question of who an Ethics Officer would report to has been lingering over the meetings for the last few weeks. While the discussions had been cordial, it was obvious that a divide on the issue was developing. Would the Ethics Officer, who will be responsible for implementing the new ethics rules, report to the City Attorney or would another structure, with more autonomy, be recommended to the City Commission.
The previous meeting set the stage for the debate. Lila Jaber, the Panel member responsible for presenting a recommendation, had proposed that the Ethics Officer report to the City Attorney and if issues with elected officials arose, the City Attorney would contract with an outside consultant to handle the investigation.
However, the Panel pushed back on Jaber’s approach, with members seeking more autonomy for the Ethics Officer. The meeting concluded shortly after Chairperson Barnett recommended elevating the Ethics Officer to a Charter level position with a citizens advisory board providing oversight.
For the next meeting, Chairperson Barnett asked the Panel to review their notes on the issue and asked staff to provide information to the Panel members on how Jacksonville, where an Ethics Officer position was recently created, handled the oversight issue.
So, on Monday, the Ethics Panel was set to decide the most controversial issue left on the table.
The discussion on oversight authority began with Panel member Jaber. She stated that she had reviewed what had been proposed and took into account the public comments and concluded that there was no need to change her original recommendation – the Ethics Officer should report to the City Attorney.
After a couple of attempts by Panel member Jay Landers to fine tune Jaber’s recommendation, former Supreme Court Judge Harry Anstead delivered an impassioned fifteen minute speech.
Panel member Anstead said that he was influenced by the public hearings and the reasoning by Chairperson Barnett for an appointed Ethics Officer. On Barnett’s proposal he said, “This is what we should strive for in ethics and professionalism: something to hold up to what government should be.”
For those who argued against the proposal because of cost and a another “layer of bureacracy” , he said, “the city’s budget is $750 million, the cost to properly fund an Ethics Officer position would be insignificant” and “one more citizen advisory board among the 30 City boards already active should not be a problem.”
He finished by saying that “Tallahassee is the capital of the fourth largest state. We are missing a golden opportunity to distinguish Tallahassee if we don’t do this. Ethics and professionalism is the heart of public service.”
Panel member Jaber responded by saying “I fail to see why the City Attorney can’t do this job.”
But the mood of Panel was clear when member Brent Copeland spoke. He stated his support for Chairperson Barnett’s proposal and said that while all other issues, to this point, had been decided by consensus, it was okay if this difficult issue was not.
The vote was 5-2, with Panel members Jaber and Landers voting no.
Panel manner Jaber requested that her recommendation be presented to the full City Commission. There was no vote on the request and at the end of the meeting it was not exactly clear how this would be handled.
The final meeting of the City’s Ethics Advisory Panel is schedule for June 26.