Tallahassee Reports has learned through a public records request that Tallahassee City Manager Anita Favors Thompson sent out an email soliciting donations from a city lobbyist, city vendors and city employees for a charitable event involving City Commissioner Gil Ziffer.
City Commissioner Gill Ziffer told Tallahassee Reports he was not aware of the email.
The following email was sent to Gary Yordon, a registered lobbyist with the City of Tallahassee, on October 14, 2013:
Hello to All: Commissioner Ziffer is leading a walk team for the Making Strides Event to raise money for Breast Cancer prevention. I am a member of the COT-4th Floor Team and am walking on Sunday. I have already made my donation and if you are interested in making a donation towards my walk for this important cause, please feel free to donate at the site below. Any amount is helpful. We have all been impacted and prevention and cures are most critical. Thanks so much!
An email reply by Mr. Yordon indicated that the email had been sent to a number of city employees and at least two individuals who have a history of doing business with the City of Tallahassee.
Most state and local governments address the issue of gifts and donations in policies and laws because of the possible influence or perception of influence on decisions made by elected officials as well as public employees.
The Tallahassee City Manager has wide ranging responsibilities that include the operations of all public utilities, the airport, the police department, procurement services and other core services.
Does the email sent by City Manager Anita Favors Thompson violate any state or local laws or city policy?
Florida state law prohibits the solicitation of or acceptance by any public officer or employee of any gift, loan, favor, reward, or service that would cause a reasonably prudent person to be influenced in the discharge of official duties, or that is based upon any understanding that the action and/or judgment of the public officer or employee “would be influenced thereby.”
The Florida state law does have some exceptions for charitable donations and does require certain elected and appointed officials to report charitable contributions under certain circumstances.
The City of Tallahassee Policies and Procedures Manual appears to be more stringent than state law in regards to gifts, but does not specifically mention charitable donations. Chapter 706, Section E of the manual reads as follows:
No public officer or employee or member of the employees family may solicit or accept any gratuity from any person who is seeking to obtain a contractual business agreement with the City; who conducts activities regulated by the City; or who has interests that may be influenced by the performance or non-performance of the employee’s official duties.
No public officer or employee, or member of the employees family may accept gifts or gratuities from contractors and suppliers doing business with the City of Tallahassee. This policy shall not be interpreted to prevent an employee from engaging in a bona fide business transaction for goods and services from a firm doing business with the City when no special privilege or benefit is granted to or sought by the employee because of status as a City employee.
The second paragraph would seem to indicate that if a charitable donation was considered a gift then it would appear that the email sent by the City Manager would be a violation of city policy.
How do other municipalities in Florida address this issue?
The City of Jacksonville, which has recently put an Ethics Officer in place, puts a limit on gifts. Their policy states:
No officer or employee of the City or of an independent agency, or any other person on his or her behalf, shall knowingly accept, directly or indirectly, any one gift with a value greater than $100, or an accumulation of gifts in any one calendar year that exceeds $250 dollars, from any person or business entity, when the gift is given as a result of the officer or employee’s official position, or as a result of the business relationship developed as a result of the officer or employee’s position or employment. For purposes of the $250 annual accumulation of gifts, gifts of food and beverage not exceeding $25 on any given day shall not be included.
The City of Sanford’s policy is concise and clear:
City policy prohibits the offering of gifts and gratuities to City employees by a vendor, contractor, and/or consultant. Also, City employees are prohibited from acceptance of gifts from either potential or actual contractors, consultants or vendors. Employees must not become obligated to any supplier and shall not participate in any City transaction from which they will benefit directly or indirectly.
The Palm Beach County Ethics Commission specifically addresses charitable donations. The gift law enforced by the Palm Beach County Ethics Commission allows for the solicitation of charitable contributions under certain condition but expressly prohibits any solicitation of charitable donations “if made to any person or entity with a pending application for approval or award of any nature before the county or municipality as applicable.”
Tallahassee Reports is seeking more information about the amount of donations made by individuals and if any of the individuals were doing business with the City of Tallahassee or had any pending decisions before the City Commission.
Also, Tallahassee Reports is checking to see whether or not Ms. Favors Thompson is required to file a report with the Florida Commission on Ethics listing charitable contributions that were solicited from individuals doing business with the city.