War of the Worlds - 08/06/10
This week's talking points: the county commission's plan to adopt a code of ethics, then destroy it; PBC commissioner Jeff Koons playing hard ball too hard in the eyes of prosecutors; and the continuing saga of Sylvia Poitier.
Let's start with Sylvia P. I don't want to run this story into the ground, but it seems that, at every commission meeting, the problem of Commissioner Sylvia Poitier gets worser and worser.
When I was a kid, I loved horror movies. My favorite horror film of that era was War of the Worlds, Gene Barry version, 1953. W.O.W. won an Oscar for special effects. Those tentacle things, coming out of the space capsules that looked like giant meteors, and zapping people... that was scary stuff.
Now comes War of the Worlds, Sylvia Poitier version, 2010. The war, in this case, is between the world of Ms. Poitier and her District 2 supporters, and the world of the rest of us. At the core of this struggle is old-time matriarchal-type politics that Ms. Poitier represents, and that District 2 voters can't seem to move beyond. The thought of Ms. Poitier serving on the commission for four more years is horrifying to many people.
Bill Ganz, the District 4 commissioner, alluded to censure in his justified rant about Ms. Poitier's disruptive behavior at the meeting on Tuesday.
I have mentioned censure a couple of times on this page as an option for the commission to deal with Ms. Poitier's continuing bad conduct. It is probably the only practical action the commission could take. Unfortunately, Ganz is also the only commissioner confronting her head on; the other commissioners sat stoned-faced during the exchange between Ganz and Poitier.
Granted, censure probably would do little to change Sylvia Poitier. There is a risk it could make matters worse. It would, on the other hand, establish a precedent, if it's well drafted, and send a message: certain conduct by commissioners at the public meetings is unacceptable. Mrs. Poitier's behavior is not only bad for her district, but is insulting and disrespectful to the whole community of Deerfield Beach.
Debate, discussion, disagreement is one thing. Incivility is a different matter. Mrs. Poitier not only represents District 2, but makes decisions, along with the mayor and other commissioners, that affect the interests of all residents of Deerfield Beach. In that sense, she represents every citizen.
And it's not just disruptive behavior, talking out of turn, or making exaggerated claims, like her claim she can make one call to HUD and piles of money will head our way. She often comes to commission meetings unprepared.
I doubt that confidence in Ms. Poitier's competency is high outside District 2. There are people in District 2, also, fed up and embarrassed by her outrageous conduct.
Ms. Poitier's response to censure? I can't be "censored," she said. It would violate her First Amendment rights. Either she does not get it, or she purposely stirs up controversy and creates chaos to achieve her own ends.
I have also suggested on numerous occasions that the city adopt a set of standards and guidelines like the Santa Clara, California, Code of Ethics and Values. I even gave a pocket version of this code (for which I take no credit) to Commissioner Miller.
This code is different from customary ethics codes, which deal with conflicts of interests, gifts, disclosure, and the like. Rather, this code focuses on behavior, not only ethics, but right conduct all round. It spells out the "core values" upon which standards for the right conduct of their officials ("representatives") are based:
• Service Oriented
• Fiscally Responsible
However, this is the real world. I do not expect this commission to adopt guidelines for their behavior, or for them to censure Ms. Poitier. I won't venture a guess how close authorities are to charging her with a crime or unethical conduct. There are rumors swirling around that they are close. Regardless of what happens on that front, I believe her conduct over the course of several meetings at least warrants censure. It is interesting that Mr. Ganz brought it up.
The Jeff Koons case is also interesting. Most public officials are charged with "traditional" public corruption crimes like bribery, taking kickbacks or unlawful compensation, or honest services fraud. Instead, prosecutors charged Koons, a Palm Beach County commissioner, under a lesser-known Florida criminal statute (Fla. Stat. § 836.05), caption-titled "Threats; extortion":
Whoever, either verbally or by a written or printed communication, maliciously threatens to accuse another of any crime or offense, or by such communication maliciously threatens an injury to the person, property or reputation of another, or maliciously threatens to expose another to disgrace, or to expose any secret affecting another, or to impute any deformity or lack of chastity to another, with intent thereby to extort money or any pecuniary advantage whatsoever, or with intent to compel the person so threatened, or any other person, to do any act or refrain from doing any act against his or her will, shall be guilty of a felony of the second degree....
At common law, there was a class of offenses against public justice and authority, and some addressed public corruption by public officers as we think of it in modern times. Bribery and malfeasance were the major public corruption crimes.
Different crimes constituted malfeasance. Extortion was malfeasance, but extortion, in this sense, was more or less what we know today, in Florida, as unlawful compensation, i.e., kickbacks.
Another form of malfeasance was oppression, which was, not exactly, but more or less, the gist of the statute cited above.
According to the charges, Mr. Koons threatened some businessmen who opposed a pet project to expose them as having a conflicting interest. He asked code enforcement to go to their property and take pictures in case there were code violations he could use against them. In other words, he played hard ball with these people, but a little too hard from the standpoint of Fla. Stat. § 836.05.
"Koons did not just get carried away with his passion for a good cause. He tried everything in his power to stomp out opposition over a public project that he said in threatening voice mail messages had become 'a personal thing for me.'" (Sun-Sentinel, 08/04/10)
He broke the law. Did LRD's use of code enforcement to harass people who spoke out against him violate this statute, as did Koons'?
As the Sun-Sentinel concluded:
Nothing should justify the kind of political bullying Koons has admitted to. After all, what can be more intimidating, and harmful to the public's participation in their government, than an overzealous politician run amok and threatening to use the superior resources at his disposal to quash dissent, or ruin lives if he can't? [...]
Let Koons' downfall serve as notice to every e3lected official in South Florida that they are members of a treasured democracy, their role is limited and crossing the line will no longer be tolerated.
What about the lines in Fort Lauderdale? Will the citizens of Broward County tolerate what the county commission may do with the new code of ethics next week?
Here is the plan, according to the meeting agenda: First, the commission passes the code of ethics as written by the drafters. They might just as well because they have only two options. They either pass the code now, as written, or put it on the November ballot. Voters will likely to ratify the code.
Minutes later, commissioners will enact a "glitch" ordinance to "fix" certain "problems" with the code just passed. The argument is this: You see, when the voters directed the commission or the committee appointed to write a code of ethics, it directed them to write a code for the conduct of county commissioners, not other people. But the ethics commission went beyond this, and folded spouses and kids into provisions of the code regarding gifts and lobbyist activities.
Thus, the commission will now "fix" this unlawful exercise of power, by eliminating these provisions. In the view of some, this will pretty much destroy the core provisions of the code.
This is another War of the Worlds (County commission version, 2010). This one is between the world of the politicians and political elite of Broward County, and the world where the voters and citizens live.
Shades of Deerfield Beach? It was only months after the previous commission had adopted the code that Mayor Peggy Noland called for its repeal. Noland used a flap in a contract award as her excuse. What she actually wanted to do was to repeal the restrictive gift provisions of the code. In fact, the ethics committee appointed to review the code never addressed the offending contract provision, which required bidders to disclose any campaign contributions they had made to the sitting commissioners. Instead, it revised the gift provision out of practical existence and made a few technical changes. All the commissioners were happy to adopt these revisions.
The fact is that few public officials in office -- even the supposedly good guys -- want effective ethics reform. So what's happening downtown and what happened in Deerfield should not surprise us.
Conclusion: The lesson of these three, seemingly unrelated, stories is that local politics is a business of money and power. It's a get rich game for some people; a power play for others. Politicians -- from Sylvia Poitier to the county commissioners -- don't like ethics rules, and will do anything to destroy or evade rules that interfere with their game.