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Attitudes - 01/04/10

We hear a lot these days about the culture of corruption in South Florida. Public officials are charged. Others are suspected of illegal activities.

No one knows, of course, how far the "war on corruption" will go, but more arrests are expected.

But what exactly is the culture that breeds corruption and criminal behavior on the part of public servants?

As I define it, the culture is as much about attitude as the corrupt acts by officials: they think they can do whatever they want; and citizens, for the most part, really don't care too much and look the other way. Consequently, officials have a kind of practical immunity as long as they aren't overtly criminal and run afoul, say, of the FBI.

Public corruption, you see, is not necessarily bribery, embezzlement, or extortion. It can be, and usually is, a simple lack of integrity. Lying to the public, hiding facts, efforts to stifle or quiet opposition by underhanded means, disrespect of citizens -- just basic dishonesty in the way officials deal with the public -- these are signs of a corrupt political culture which does not necessarily breed criminality but still allows the weeds to grow.

Last week's paper had an article about a grass-roots political group in a neighboring city, the Concerned Citizens of Coconut Creek, called for short, 4C. Like our own OSOB, 4C grew out of opposition to a specific use proposal, in their case, a shopping plaza proposed for environmentally sensitive land.

Coconut Creek Mayor Marilyn Gerber has something to say about citizens groups: "Unless their stance is a negative one, I think citizens groups are good. We certainly welcome any feedback we can get."

But Concerned Citizens isn't that group; 4C is "a bit negative." The article went on to say that Gerber feels that public response to the city's land-use policy has been largely positive, "aside from the outcry from Concerned Citizens over the Cocomar development. With that, she added that she'd welcome another voice that offers constructive criticism in the city."

This is what I mean. This is the attitude. It's subtle. Groups of "concerned citizens" are okay, as long as they don't oppose. Mayor Gerber would welcome other voices that offer "constructive" criticism, but not groups like 4C that have a "negative" stance.

I guess the punchline could be: you're free to speak your mind, just shut up about it.

There is an interesting parallel with the OSOB history in Deerfield Beach. This was a tiny, unrepresentative group, they said -- even "terrorists" -- because the group managed to pull together enough votes in four referenda to bury the city's grandiose, and obviously very unpopular, plans for the beach. City officials teamed up with local media, as apparently have Coconut Creek officials, to slander and marginalize the OSOB.

Public officials commonly think they know what people want, regardless of the facts. Deerfield Beach officials also said that most people supported their plans for the beach. Despite these claims, voters voted no to these plans, handing substantial victories to the OSOB. Still, in the cases of the third and fourth referendum votes, the city insisted, the people were misled and misinformed. City officials even considered a SLAPP suit against OSOB in response to the 2002 charter amendment votes. (I plan to discuss SLAPP's at a later date.)

As it turned out, the trashing did not work, and the OSOB became the most effective political group in the history of Deerfield Beach. It appears that Creek commissioners similarly fear that 4C will became a political force they can't control.

But again, it's the dismissive, arrogant attitude of some public officials like Mayor Gerber that helps to nourish this culture.

If there is a "war on corruption," it has to move on several fronts. Ethics reform, changes in public procurement systems, and campaign finance reforms are the blockades.

Vigorous prosecution of criminal corruption is the artillery; let's face it, the complaint-driven State Attorney's Office in Broward has been quite timid in its pursuit of crooked public officials.

There must also be a political front, and this is where groups like 4C and OSOB come into the picture. Voters must be woken up. They have to get excited by the idea that by the election of superbly competent and ethical officials, they can have superbly competent and ethical local government.

Or the citizens can look the other way and let politicians do what they want. That's pretty much the history and the dominant political culture up to now.