Commission moves to beef up ethics ordinance

Published: Oct. 25, 2017 at 6:02 PM EDT
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By: Mariel Carbone | WCTV Eyewitness News

October 25, 2017

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- The Tallahassee City Commission took steps Wednesday to strengthen its ethics ordinance and add more jurisdiction to its ethics board.

"(To) give them some ability to enforce what the electorate wanted is the right thing to do," said City Commissioner Gil Ziffer, who pushed for Wednesday's workshop.

The changes come at a time when several high profile leaders are facing public scrutiny.

Complaints were filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics against Mayor Andrew Gillum and City Manager Rick Fernandez for allegedly accepting gifts; both of those were made by local critic Erwin Jackson. An anonymous complaint, as well as another complaint by Jackson, were also made with Tallahassee's Independent Ethics Board regarding Fernandez. The IEB reviewed allegations against the Mayor earlier this year about his use of city funds to purchase email software. And, the city is currently under the eye of the federal government for its development deals.

"I hope that all of us can feel proud of our work and that the public will feel increasingly confident that we place our service to them ahead of our personal interest," said Richard Kerring, Chair of the Independent Ethics Board.

The board suggested several amendments to the current ordinance, including rules on misuse of position, acceptance of gifts and financial disclosure.

Those read as follow:

  • "No city official, officer, employee or member of a city board or committee shall intentionally use or attempt to use his or her official position or any city property or resource which may be within his or her trust, or perform or fail to perform, his or her official duties, to secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption for oneself or others valued at more than $25."
  • "No city commissioner or appointed official shall knowingly solicit a gift of any value from any person or business entity that the recipient knows, or should know with the exercise of reasonable care, is a vendor, lessee of city property, lobbyist or any principal or employer of a lobbyist who lobbies, sells or leases to the City, or from any potential vendor or lessee that is currently engaged in procurement or negotiations with the city or a bid protest.
  • No city commissioner or appointed official shall directly or indirectly accept a gift with a value of greater than one hundred dollars ($100.00) in the aggregate for the calendar year from any person or business entity that recipient knows, or should know with the exercise of reasonable care, is a vendor, lessee of city property, lobbyist or any principal or employer of a lobbyist who lobbies, sells or leases to the City, or from any potential vendor or lessee that is currently engaged in procurement or negotiations with the city or a bid protest."
  • "Financial disclosures for elected officials. (a) In addition to the standard financial disclosures required by Florida Statutes, the city's elected officials shall disclose the following information on forms created by the city's treasurer-clerk: (1) Business relationships with city vendors; (2) Business relationships with city employees; (3) Membership on corporate and not-for-profit boards; and (4) Land ownership (in any form, whether located in Florida or another jurisdiction). (b) For the purposes of this section, "business relationships" means ownership, either directly or indirectly in the form of an equitable or beneficial interest, during the disclosure period, of more than five percent of the total assets or capital stock of a business entity (a corporation, partnership, limited partnership, LLC, proprietorship, joint venture, trust, firm, etc., doing business in Florida); and receipt of more than $1,000.00 in gross income from that business entity during the disclosure period. (c) The forms shall be filed with the city's treasurer-clerk at the same time financial disclosure forms are filed with the state pursuant to Florida Statutes. (d) Elected officials shall file their state financial disclosure forms and their quarterly gift disclosure forms with the city’s treasurer clerk, in addition to the required filing required pursuant to Florida Statutes."
  • Commissioners spent the first half the workshop discussing the wording of the first amendment- which deals with misuse of position- picking apart what the terms "intentionally" and "corruptly" mean.

    Commissioner Maddox moved to accept that amendment, but pushed for the word "intentionally" to be changed to "corruptly." He noted the word was in line with state rules and is more commonly used.

    However, staff with the ethics board explained the word "intentionally" was used because it makes it easier to prove and prosecute than "corruptly." Herring also said that that amendment was the number one priority of the board, as misuse of position is one of the top issues brought before the state.

    The commission voted 4-1 in favor of what Maddox put forth, with Commissioner Richardson voting against it.

    Nancy Miller said discussing the wording and nitty gritty details of the amendments are key, noting that many commissioners serve on different boards and may receive lodging, meals and more while serving on those capacities, which others may perceive as misusing position.

    "None of us want to do anything dishonest. Or, unintentionally misuse our position. But, there are others that see a lot of things as misuses,

    that we wouldn't think about," said City Commissioner Nancy Miller.

    The commission moved unanimously on the latter two amendments.

    It also moved to audit the commission and City Auditor's Office for the last three years. As well as take up the issue of double jeopardy, meaning how to handle if the Sheriff's Office or Florida Commission on Ethics is taking up the same case as the IEB.

    "Having gone through this exercise, having the chair of the ethics panel here, we can now approve these, we can now go forward. We can give the ethics board more teeth to enforce so if hopefully we have problems we can deal with them and make sure it doesn't happen again," said Ziffer.

    Mayor Gillum also put forth amendments that he'd like to see to the ethics ordinance. Those include action like banning all former mayors and city commissioners from lobbying before the commission for three years after leaving office and banning all those who serve or seek to serve as mayor or commissioner from accepting funds from any entity or person who has done businesses of $5,000 or more per year with the city in the last three years.

    The commission moved to pass those along for review by the IEB, before bringing them back to the commission.

    All amendments still require public hearing before officially being implemented.