On Thursday, City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow held a public forum on ethics at the Leroy Collins Leon County Library. The forum’s goal was to generate conversation about rebuilding the public’s trust and faith in Tallahassee’s local government, following the recent federal corruption trial which finished last month.
In attendance and to help facilitate discussion was; Florida State University Professor Richard Herring, who was the former Chair of the Tallahassee Independent Ethics Board, Professor Robert Atkinson, a noted scholar on legal ethics, Ben Wilcox, the Research Director at Integrity Florida, and Catharine Baer from a local watchdog group, citizens for ethical reform.
After introductions, Matlow began the forum by asking, “what is the real impact on our community when these ethic rules are violated?”
Wilcox responded that these violations “cause people to lose trust in local government,” that the ramifications trickle down the line, consider economic development, the goal is to attract businesses to the community. Still, no company wants to be under a corrupt government. “There is a black eye on this community which will take years to recover from,” said Wilcox.
When the conversation turned to lobbying, Matlow stated more transparency is needed and gave an example of an elected official keeping a record when approached by a lobbyist. He also suggested the possibility of penalties for vendors who hire lobbyists that are not registered.
The group discussed the recommendations by Tallahassee’s Independent Ethics Board to strengthen the city’s lobbying ordinance. The four suggestions which are currently in front of the Tallahassee City Commission are:
- To update the definition of lobbying and lobbyist to eliminate ambiguity.
- To require lobbyists to include the name, title, and ordinance they wish to discuss with elected officials and mandates contact logs.
- To mirror state law that bans lobbyists from being paid on a contingency basis.
- Requiring that quarterly compensation reports are available on a public website.
The discussion addressed whistleblowers, their protection and possible incentives for people coming forward who have knowledge of questionable actions. For example, a financial incentive could be offered to city or county employees who make the public or authorities aware of any wrongdoing by elected officials or government.
Matlow wrapped up the meeting by clarifying that his goal is to continue these kinds of free-form engagements with the public to maintain transparency. He said recorded sessions will show how he and hopefully other commissioners come to their conclusions and proposals brought to the committee.
Matlow voiced concern about how big items get pushed through with little discussion and he said the “fundamental way Tallahassee governs is broken.”
Matlow also said he wants to work more closely with the Leon County Commission to achieve a shared vision of ethics reform.