Commission to set workshop on strengthening ethics ordinance

By: Mariel Carbone | WCTV Eyewitness News
September 13, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- City Commissioner Gil Ziffer is pushing for a stronger ethics code.

“With all the things going on right now with the City and people’s concerns and the Ethics Board expressing that their hands were tied and couldn’t deal with things, I pushed this a little bit quicker,” said Ziffer.

During the “sharing of ideas” portion of Wednesday’s meeting, Ziffer asked for the commission to work towards adding several provisions to the City’s ethics ordinance, with the hopes of voting on the changes in October.

Items he would like the commission to consider include adding misuse of position, misuse of city resources, potential conflicts with other employment, acceptance of gifts that might influence ones behavior and annual audits of each commissioner’s office to the ethics ordinance. He’d also like the commission to consider that penalties only be applicable if there is a sworn complaint.

“I think it’s important for us to do those things,” said Ziffer. “These are things that quite frankly if we had them on the books now some of our issues would be resolved before they seem to be getting out of control.”

The topic comes at a time when Tallahassee’s ethics code faces criticism.

The City's ethics ordinance faced criticism earlier this year following an investigation by the State Attorney into Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum's use of tax payer dollars for an email software system. Following a discussion about the same topic, the Independent Ethics Board decided it did not have the authority to investigate the matter. It's asked on several occasions to look into broadening its power.

Recommendations made by the Independent Ethics Board to improve the ordinance were sent to all commissioners several months ago.

Ziffer has also requested that the City Attorney and Ethics Board attorney sit down and discuss the matter. Ziffer said he’d like to see a draft ordinance come before the commission at the first meeting in October so that they can vote on the changes at the second October meeting.

However, some commissioners called this a “giant leap.”

“We have not seen a full airing of that in your recommendations so what you then just asked for is a draft ordinance which to me is a leap far beyond where we are right now,” said Mayor Andrew Gillum.

Gillum said he’d like to have a full discussion that would allow the entire commission to add ideas to a proposed ordinance. Commissioners Nancy Miller and Curtis Richardson agreed.

Miller noted a previous workshop that looked at strengthening the ethics code. In that case, she said some ideas limited first amendment rights.

“I think we need to revisit this in the same sense of attention to detail as to what those ramifications are,” said Miller. She would like to see a more in-depth discussion before drafting an ordinance.

Richardson said he does not think there needs to be a big rush in changing this ordinance. Rather, he'd like to take the time to get it right.

“If there are complaints filed right now there are ways to address them. Either through our local ethics board or through our state ethics commission,” said Richardson, noting the commission should look at this in a rational manner.

However, Ziffer disagreed.

“This Ethics Board needs more opportunities to deal with things so it doesn’t have to go to the state board. There are opportunities for us to deal with this locally. And I think we should give them the opportunity,” he said.

The commission agreed to schedule a workshop on the matter. Following the workshop, ideas will be drafted into an ordinance, which the commission will then vote on.

In the meantime, City Attorney Lew Shelley will look into the gaps that exist in the current code, meaning what issues are not covered by state law or city law.

Ziffer said he is pleased that the ball is now rolling.

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