ETHICS REFORM IN PERIL
Ethics reform became a talking point around the time the city started its aggressive movement to redevelop and commercialize the beach area of Deerfield Beach in the late '90's. Public ethics issues raised by actions of then City Manager Larry R. Deetjen and the city commission were discussed in some detail on this website and in other publications.
I proposed a number of reforms in an online treatise Essays on Public Ethics and in other essays.
Actual reform did not gain political traction until two members of the city commission, Mayor Al Capellini and Commissioner Steve Gonot, were charged with crimes of public corruption and arrested. Mr.Gonot resigned his post and Mr. Capellini was removed from office by Governor Crist.
Politicians resist the adoption of local ethics law to supplement and tighten the state code of ethics. State law does not provide a local process for hearing complaints from citizens of alleged ethical violations. This is one thing that a local code does.
In fact, no top Deerfield Beach official has ever been found guilty of an ethics violation by the state ethics commission. Yet the press has repeatedly called Deerfield one of the most corrupt cities in this area.
In March 2009, in the final days of its term and in the wake of the Capellini and Gonot arrests, the city commission enacted an ethics code. However, within six months, the new mayor, Peggy Noland, moved to repeal the code.
The city commission did not repeal the code but appointed a citizens committee to review the code and make recommendations concerning its amendment or repeal. The committee largely focused on the unique "don't ask, don't take" gift provisions of the new law.
On June 1st, 2010, one year, three months after the initial adoption of the ethics code, the city commission unanimously accepted the committee's recommendations, without discussion.
The city attorney, Andy Maurodis, moderated. Voting members were Donald Londeree, Gloria Battle, Pam Militello, Todd Drosky, and Joan Maurice.
Thus started the great debate on ethics reform.
Ethics Committee Almost Finished - 01/30/10
The Deerfield Beach Ethics Advisory Committee is slated to complete its work at a final meeting on February 10th, 2010. This meeting will also be the first official opportunity for public comment on the proposed revisions of the ethics code before it's submitted to the city commission.
The Broward County Ethics Commission, which is drafting a code of ethics for county government under a voter mandate, is also winding up its work this month. Under its charter, the BCEC is required to finish its code and submit a proposal to the county commission in March. The county commission then must enact the ethics code into law exactly as presented in the projet, or call for a referendum on the code in November.
Our ethics committee is not under any rigid time constraints and could request an extension of its charter from the city commission if needed.
I don't know if the citizens of Deerfield Beach are interested in honest government or not. Only five or six citizens attended the meetings of the ethics committee on a regular basis. Mayor Noland attended all or most of the meetings and Commissioner Miller was present for part of at least one meeting.
I have learned that at one BCEC meeting only two people from the public attended. That's from the entire county. By that standard, our ethics meetings were almost mobbed. However, the BCEC allowed public comment at each meeting. It also heard from public officials and experts. The Deerfield Beach counterpart did not formally take public comment at any of its meetings, although it did hear from Norman Ostrau, a former chairman of the state ethics commission; and Tom Connick, the principal author of the ethics code.
The citizens of Deerfield Beach, in order to protect the health, welfare and safety of its residents, and promote honorable, efficient and responsive government, hereby adopt a revised Home Rule Charter in accordance with the Constitution and Laws of Florida. - Preamble of the City Charter of the City of Deerfield Beach
Whatever the public's interest, it is pretty obvious that some of our public officials are not interested in honorable government or a strong code of ethics. If they were they would not have sought to repeal or to rewrite the ethics code passed by the previous commission only six months after its enactment.
The only major defect I see in the code revealed over those six months is that the requirements for submission of a complaint are a bit too informal, which invites abusive or at least sloppy complaints. More on this later.
First, I want to address, once again, section 2(o), the gift section. This section states that public officials shall not solicit or accept gifts from most of the people who do business with the city government.
This is the part of the current provision which is most relevant to my discussion here [Code of Ordinances § 2-502(o)]:
A regulated officer, his or her spouse or domestic partner, child or step-child, parent, or member of his or her household, shall not solicit or accept a gift as defined in F.S. § 112.312 from any person or entity that a regulated officer knows, or has reason to believe, has received or sought a land use plan amendment, development permit (other than a building permit) or contract or the payment of city funds from the city within the previous three years.
This is the proposed revision adopted by the committee at its December meeting (added language underscored):
A regulated officer, his or her spouse or domestic partner, child or step-child, parent, or member of his or her household, shall not accept a gift as defined in F.S. § 112.312 in excess of $50 (during any calendar year) from any person or entity that a regulated officer knows, or has reason to believe, has received or sought a land use plan amendment, development permit (other than a building permit) or contract or the payment of city funds from the city within the previous two years or within six months of the date the regulated officer assumed his or her respective office, whichever is shorter.
The "don't ask, don't take" rule in the current code is quite unique. Most ethics codes set a limit on the value of gifts, but do not prohibit "small" gifts. State law requires officials to report gifts over $100.
I can't think of a single reason why an honest public official would accept, let alone ask for, a gift of any value from anyone who has an interest in the outcome of a decision in which that official has a say. In effect, the proposed change, to allow officials to accept up to $50 worth of gifts per year from each person who would otherwise be prohibited, provides wiggle room for officials who are not so honest; and it also provides opportunity for abuse.
The words "solicit or" ("A regulated officer ... shall not solicit or accept a gift....") were stricken from the proposed revision (at the suggestion of the author of this website) because this language in the proposed revision as written would have implied that officials could lawfully solicit gifts up to the amount of $50 per year.
If the committee proposes to change this rule and allow officials to accept up to $50 worth of gifts per year, and the city commission adopts this radical revision of the code, it must explain to the public two things:
One: How is a citizen to know how much a commissioner receives from a developer or contractor per year, let alone from his corporations, shareholders, officers, wives, children, and other principals or representatives?
The adoption of this revision has the effect, as a practical matter, of repealing this section of the code.
Two: How do commissioners explain to their constituents that they are entitled to gifts and other perks from people whose intent is to influence their votes and actions on important matters?
During the committee discussion about this section, one of the members said that surely our officials cannot be swayed by a small gift or doodad.
This is simply naive. When a contractor or developer offers a gift to a commissioner, the intent is to gain the favor of that official and to influence or reward his vote in almost every case.
And the acceptance of that gift is not honest or in the public interest. Clearly, the gift serves only the personal interests of the official and the giver.
This could be said also of most campaign contributions, but these, at least, are reported regardless of the amount of the contribution.
Other examples mentioned during this debate included the case of a developer or contractor who just happens upon an official at the diner and picks up the tab on a glass of ice tea, a seemingly innocuous gesture. One of the committee members raised a situation where an official and contractor or developer were friends or neighbors and customarily exchanged food or items that are defined as gifts by the code at cook-outs and other social events.
Of course, these are situations that are possible. But the code is intended to address the more realistic and damaging case where the contractor or developer wines and dines the official at JB's, not to mention Howard, Tommy, and other relatives or friends. Is anyone so unrealistic as to believe that three-martini lunches are merely "friendly" gestures?
If the committee persists, it needs to do two other things, in my opinion. Section 2(o) needs to prohibit the solicitation of any gift or payment from any person having business with the city. And it needs to require that any gift of any value be reported, just as campaign contributions must be reported under current law.
Maybe if a public official is required to disclose all gifts to the public, he may think twice before accepting one from a city contractor or developer and having to explain it to his constituents.
A few other issues:
A clever and dishonest official could evade the provisions of the revised section 2(o) by "deconstructing" the gift or aggregate of gifts from different sources that represent the same interest.
As I read the revised section, the official might receive a gift from Jack Builder, a developer; from Jack, Jr; from his wife; from Builder, Inc., his corporation; from his dog and from myriad shareholders and lobbyists representing Jack and Builder, Inc. So the aggregate of gifts could be $100 per year, $150, or a lot more. And remember, also, there are no reporting requirements; the chances for the public to find out about this strategy are just about zero.
(Note: this is probably not the way the section is intended to be interpreted.)
It might also be possible for an official to evade campaign contribution laws by accepting "gifts" without reporting requirements. The contributor "donates" a certain amount to the official, who gives the money to his own campaign, without reporting the actual source of the money.
Finally, with respect to section 2(o), there is no solicitation provision as the current proposal is written. Any solicitation of a gift could appear to imply a promise of something in return. So the official "informs" Jack Builder (of Builder, Inc.) that the commission has recently enacted a law which allows him to accept gifts up to $50 per year (wink,wink) without actually proposing a quid pro quo (which would be bribery and violate state law).
On another matter, not relating to gifts, the committee members raised concerns about "abuse of process" or "frivolous" complaints by some ill-intended complainants, which result in needless costs to the city and, of course, tarnish the reputation of the respondent officials. "Frivolous" in this sense does not mean a complaint found to be without merit, but one in which the complainant knows the complaint is without merit and files it with malicious intent.
Responding to these concerns, the city attorney drafted an elaborate procedure which was designed to be independent of political pressures and to assure fairness to all parties. My concerns were that procedures to collect costs from a complainant, depending on what they were, could have a chilling effect on potential good-faith complaints and could also raise due process issues, which I will not detail here.
Under the current code, there are no formal requirements for filing a complaint which kicks-off the process of investigation and hearing of an alleged violation of the ethics code. Complaints can be filed by e-mail. You or I, conceivably, could create an e-mail account using a fictional name or someone else's name and file a complaint; nobody's the wiser.
I proposed and the committee accepted a different, but very simple and reasonable, approach. It will require that the complaint be filed under oath or affirmation.
Therefore, a complaint may not be filed anonymously or by e-mail or falsely in someone else's name. It should, without having a chilling effect on legitimate complainants, discourage intentionally "frivolous" complaints.
Groundless, as well as frivolous, complaints might also be discouraged if the burden of proving that the hearing officer, if appointed, would be competent to hear and decide the complaint fell to the complainant. In other words, a complainant could be required to cite in the complaint the specific provision of the code which the complainant alleges was violated. Obviously, if the complaint (even if it had merit in some other forum or in a college ethics seminar) is not within the "jurisdiction" of the hearing officer, it would be legally insufficient and a waste of time, at some cost to the city.
Incidentally, a requirement of this nature was incorporated in the recently enacted ethics commission law in Palm Beach County.
This article does not address all of the changes likely to be proposed by the ethics committee. Some proposals are useful, as, for example, this change to another part of section 2(o) (again, added language underscored):
Entity includes employees, shareholders, members, partners, officers and directors of the entity, or any person who for compensation has sought during the previous two years to encourage passage, modification or defeat of any proposal, measure or recommendation by any regulated officer.
This revision brings lobbyists into the prohibition, in addition to persons or entities "that a regulated officer knows, or has reason to believe, has received or sought a land use plan amendment, development permit... or contract or the payment of city funds from the city."
The lobbyist ordinance, which requires lobbyists to register, was enacted after the ethics code. This amendment brings the two laws into sync.
Ethics Committee Ends on a Disappointing, But Not Unexpected, Note - 02/11/10
Both the city ethics committee and the Broward County Ethics Commission were expected to finish their work this week. The mission of the city committee was not the same, however, as the BCEC.
For one thing, the BCEC was mandated by voters. The mission was to toughen ethics laws applicable to Broward County government. Whatever the end product of its work, the commissioners of Broward County have only two choices and no others: Yes or No. They can take the new code of ethics as is, or let the voters decide in November.
If history is any guide, the voters will approve the code of ethics, whether it's tough as nails or as wimpy and pointless as the new code of ethics in Palm Beach County. Hopefully it will be the former.
The city ethics committee, by contrast, was mandated by politicians who don't want strong rules of conduct. There is no reason to believe that citizens wanted the new ethics code changed or repealed, or that the review was intended to serve the public interest in any way. It would be a good bet that had the ethics code enacted last March, or an even stronger one, been laid down before city voters in a referendum, it would have been overwhelmingly approved. And the politicians would have had to live with it, regardless.
The committee was a stall. Mayor Noland and Vice Mayor Poitier wanted the code repealed -- flat out, no discussion. Other commissioners recognized the "political problem" in such a precipitous move in view of the building, high-profile corruption scandals in Broward County from which this city would not be immune. So they "compromised" by establishing an ad hoc committee to review the code. No better way to avoid an issue than to appoint a committee.
The intent, clearly, was not to make the code better or stronger. If that had been the case, the other three commissioners, flat out, would have voted down the motion to repeal.
Unlike the BCEC also, where public comment was solicited at every meeting and the testimony of county commissioners was public and on the record, the ethics committee based its work on private discussions with the commissioners whose contents were never made public. Public comment was not solicited, nor welcomed, until the last meeting, last night, when the principal decisions had already been made.
The city ethics committee was a "citizens" committee only in terms of its composition, but not in terms of its representation. The committee represented the city commissioners, not the people of Deerfield Beach. No ordinary citizen rose to speak, when citizens finally had a chance, to advocate that elected officials be allowed to ask for and be showered with gifts from grateful constituents.
Notwithstanding, the committee could have made recommendations aimed at making the code more effective -- it isn't a perfect document -- and it did make some good suggestions, mostly technical in nature. But from the first meeting, it seemed more obsessed with the gift provision and "abuse of process" than it did in making the law better for citizens. That's because, as one citizen pointed out, the people they actually represented did not want, at least privately, to make it better.
The decision of the committee to repeal the "don't ask, don't take" gift rules applicable mainly to developers and city contractors, and allow commissioners to take up to $50 per year from every person and company that represents these interests, is the biggest disappointment and, in my opinion, its largest mistake.
Granted, the now infamous section 2(o) is a unique provision. Most ethics codes allow "small" gifts. But it is not totally unique.
In fact, the BCEC is adopting a zero-tolerance rule for its code similar to our current provision, prohibiting gifts of any kind or size from contractors and lobbyists.
So as they move towards our position, we move backwards.
Both the Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel have editorialized in favor of zero-tolerance when it comes to gifts to public officials. The Herald put it this way: "[W]hy public officials should be allowed to accept any gifts other than honorary plaques is anybody's guess."
Editors, we know why, and it's no guess. Honest officials will not accept, let alone solicit, gifts of any value from people who have business with the city, no matter what the law says. That's because they know that gifts, just as campaign contributions, are offered for a reason. That reason is to influence decisions.
What the proposed amendment does, in effect, is to give wiggle room to dishonest officials who don't give too many damns about the public trust. Just look at the politicians who wanted to repeal the code outright.
Only one committee member opposed the revision. She even offered a compromise, say ten bucks, to allay concerns that inconsequential, doodad-type gifts elected officials get from time-to-time might trigger an ethics complaint from a persnickety citizen. But I seriously doubt most of the politicos around here are worried about refrigerator magnets and cheap ball point pens. They are worried more about the Bloody Marys at the Cove and free lunches at JB's they are now denied. This leads me to a question:
What difference does it make if the gift is $1 or $100 -- or an aggregate of gifts totaling $50 per year -- if it influences a public official to make a decision that is not in the public interest?
The only way to avoid this conundrum is to prohibit gifts of any value.
It's now up to the commission to do it right. Unfortunately, I can count and we know the history of Deerfield Beach.
Ethics, Shmethics: The New County Ethics Code - 02/25/10
The voter-mandated Ethics Commission has finished its work on a "Code of Ethics for the Broward County Commission." The deal is that the county commission must take the code as is or send it to the voters in November. One glitch, realized late in the day, but fortunately not too late, is that the code is an ordinance and once adopted can be changed -- weakened -- by the county commission until rendered pretty much useless (think state code of ethics).
To counteract this, the ethics commission wrote the following "Restrictions on Amendment" into the enabling ordinance (§ 2):
Except as to any amendments required as a result of changes in governing law:
(a) The Board of County Commissions may at any time strengthen or supplement the restrictions and protections provided under this Code, but the restrictions and protections hereof may be weakened or removed, in whole or in part, only by citizen initiative as referenced in Section 7.01 of the Broward County Charter [relating to powers of initiative and referendum].
(b) If any Court determines that the above-provided requirement of a citizen initiative is inconsistent with applicable law, then, to the full extent permitted under applicable law, the restrictions and protections of this Code may be weakened or removed, in whole or in part, only by an affirmative vote of a majority plus (1) member [six members] of the full Board of County Commissioners.
This may take care of the problem, but it also invites litigation. Does a change strengthen or supplement or weaken or obliterate "the restrictions and protections" of the code? These are questions that could be raised every time the code is amended by someone who doesn't like the change. And a question for lawyers to ponder: how far will the courts go to answer these questions.
Commissioner Sue Gunzberger offered a proposal at the February 23d meeting of the county commission, that the code be put on the November ballot as a charter amendment. This way, of course, the commission could not tamper with the code, period. Her motion failed for want of a second. But, as we say: ethics, shmethics. It will be a cold day in July before the county commission moves to strengthen, improve, or protect this code of ethics.
For all of the hype the proposed code has generated and all the hair pulling the drafting process entailed, it is actually fairly conservative. It sets out seven standards of conduct. Additionally, the code mandates an educational program for commissioners, creates an office of inspector general, and provides for penalties.
The seven standards of conduct deal with the following subjects:
Perhaps the most interesting parts of the code from the standpoint of our own recent discussions of ethics in Deerfield Beach are the proposed standards dealing with gifts and honest services.
This is draft § 1-19(b)(1) of the Code of Ordinances dealing with the acceptance of gifts:
a. County Commissioners, their spouses or registered domestic partners, other relatives and office staff, shall not accept gifts, directly or indirectly, regardless of value, from lobbyists registered with the County or any principal or employer of any such registered lobbyist, or from vendors or contractors of Broward County.
b. County Commissioners may accept gifts from other sources given to them in their official capacity, where not otherwise inconsistent with the provisions of Florida Statutes Chapter 112, Part III, up to a maximum value of $50.00 per occurrence. Gifts given to a County Commissioner in his or her official capacity up to $50.00 in value are deemed to be de minimis. The above restrictions and limitations do not apply to gifts given to County Commissioners in their personal (non-official) capacity, and such gifts are still subject to the reporting requirements of Florida Statutes section 112. 3148.
In a previous essay I noted that while the county appears to be moving to our "don't ask, don't take" position with respect to gifts offered to public officials, we seem to be in retreat. Compare the proposed subsection a, above, with the controversial § 2(o) of the Deerfield Beach Ethics Code.
Our code prohibits gifts of any value from developers, city contractors, and people asking for money from the city. The proposed county code does not cover developers, but includes lobbyists.
The change recommended by the Deerfield Beach ethics committee is to omit the zero-value provision altogether (substituting a $50 per year limitation) but expanding the restriction to include lobbyists. The county proposal, however, permits a $50 per gift limitation on all others including those seeking land-use changes.
Now if our city commission were to keep the zero-value provision in our code as is, extend it to lobbyists, and adopt a $50 limit from other sources, it would be one step ahead of, and not behind, the county standard as proposed.
Draft § 1-19(b)(4) incorporates an honest services provision similar to federal law:
a. A County Commissioner may not engage in a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the material intangible right of honest services or any activity in contravention of his or her duty to provide loyal service and honest governance for the residents of Broward County.
b. This section shall be construed, to the extent possible, in accordance with the standards and intent set forth under 18 U.S.C. s.1346, as may be amended, and Florida Statutes Chapter 838.
The ethics commission also inserted in an artful way a section on appearance of impropriety; this is a common feature of federal ethics rules, but for whatever reason this concept mortifies local officials. It provides [§ 1-19(b)(3)]:
County Commissioners should avoid even the appearance of impropriety in their interaction and dealings with lobbyists registered under the Broward County Lobbyist Registration Act and the principals or employers of lobbyists.
A lot of the ostensibly corrupt behavior of county officials (remember that the county commission has already agreed to apply this code to other officials besides themselves) is in their dealings with lobbyists. Thus, the two provisions -- appearance of impropriety and honest services -- taken together could have interesting consequences.
Even without this pairing, the honest services provision could be the key element in combating corruption at the county level. The federal counterpart of this provision, 18 U.S.C. § 1346, is a type of mail and wire fraud. The county version, of course, is not tied to the use of mails or electronic transmissions to be operative, so it is to that extent more flexible than its federal counterpart. The Florida statute referred to in subsection b, Florida Statutes Chapter 838, is bribery, unlawful compensation, and official misconduct in its various forms. Official misconduct under Florida Statutes § 838.022 means conduct by a "public servant,"
with corrupt intent to obtain a benefit for any person or to cause harm to another, to:
(a) Falsify, or cause another person to falsify, any official record or official document;
(b) Conceal, cover up, destroy, mutilate, or alter any official record or official document [including only public records] or cause another person to perform such an act; or
(c) Obstruct, delay, or prevent the communication of information relating to the commission of a felony that directly involves or affects the public agency or public entity served by the public servant.
The federal honest services fraud statute is increasingly used by federal prosecutors to pursue corrupt state and local officials. However, the statute is controversial because it is not specific as to the sort of conduct that constitutes fraud. Thus, it may not give sufficient notice as to the crime and may be unconstitutionally vague. (One question: must there be a violation of state law?) Some readers may be aware that the Supreme Court is currently considering three cases involving honest services convictions. There is concern that the Court could strike down § 1346. This would be quite a blow to the federal prosecutions of local public corruption. Oral arguments have been heard in two of the cases; arguments have not been heard in the third case and are not scheduled. A ruling is not expected until arguments in the third case are heard.
However, draft code § 1-19(b)(4) may have successfully avoided the vagueness issue by specifying that "a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the material intangible right of honest services ... shall be construed, to the extent possible, in accordance with the standards and intent set forth under [the federal honest services statute] and Florida Statutes Chapter 838," i.e., bribery, unlawful compensation, official misconduct, etc.
It's not clear though that honest services fraud as contemplated by the code is limited to the crimes defined in Chapter 838. We will have to wait to see first, how narrowly the inspector general's office created to enforce the code construes § 1-19(b)(4), and second, how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on its federal counterpart.
If the Court rules, as it well could, that there are standards of conduct inherent in the fiduciary duty of a public official which he should know, whether or not enumerated by statute, this would be a boon not only to the federal prosecutions but would give the county ethics code a bit more muscle. However, this outcome is by no means a certainty.
Kessler Says: Stronger Ethics - 04/26/10
I had to laugh a little bit to myself when Mr. Kessler delivered his report to the city commission the other day in which he recommended a stronger ethics program for Deerfield Beach. Gee, I wonder why no one else ever thought of something like that.
It's not that the Kessler Report itself is laughable. It certainly is not.
In fact, Kessler found disturbing proof of mismanagement in the Community Development Division (CDD) and possible fraud. CDD administers city grants to assist low income residents.
Kessler's was not technically a criminal investigation -- it was a "forensic audit" or "internal review" -- but enough evidence of possible criminal conduct was unearthed to justify bringing law enforcement into the picture. BSO has already seized computers from the CDD office.
The inquiry was confined to CDD. No one can be faulted to wonder, though, how far beyond CDD this kind of "mismanagement" (i.e., corruption) extends. Of course when there's lots of money to be given out by governments -- and the city has lots of money to hand out -- who knows?
It was not the recommendation that made me laugh. It was the people to whom the suggestion for a stronger ethics program was directed. I'd wager the city commission is far less concerned about "ethics" than they are about the potential blame the CDD scandal could bring right back on them. This is CYA 101.
When has this commission ever considered, or given a hoot-n-holler about, a code of ethics for city employees? This is the same commission which only last year moved to repeal the code of ethics which is applicable only to them and the city manager.
This is the specific recommendation from the written Kessler Report:
It is suggested that the City consider implementing a stronger Anti-Fraud and Code of Ethics Policy and that a program be established to teach personnel the red flags of fraud and an ethics training program be required for city workers.
Kessler also recommended the city establish "a fraud and mismanagement reporting system."
Those are very good ideas: A stronger ethics code and ethics guidelines and training applicable to all city workers. How long can you hold your breath?
Okay, in quasi-fairness, the city commission did not repeal the ethics code. They formed a committee. The commission could have outright voted down the motion to repeal. They didn't. Who was it that said, if you want to avoid a decision, form a committee?
The committee thus formed was a "citizens' committee" but it didn't represent citizens. It represented the appointing commissioners and based a lot of its work on interviews with the commissioners which were never made public. It didn't take public comment until after the key decisions were made.
The ethics committee's final report will be delivered to the city commission, at last word, on May 4th. Ironically, this is the same day county commissioners will be holding a workshop on its newly drafted code of ethics. Among other suggestions, the ethics committee will recommend changes to the code's advanced-thinking gift provision that will weaken it to the point of making it pointless. The other irony is that the new county code contains a gift provision that is even more stringent than the one our city commission will water down.
Not all of the committee's expected recommendations are bad. On paper, extension of the gift provision to lobbyists is good. There might be louder applause if the gift provision still meant something.
The recommendation that ethics complaints be filed under oath is a really good suggestion. I have to say that: it was my idea. I suggested it privately to the city attorney who passed it on to the committee.
You see, the committee was concerned about "frivolous" ethics complaints. The measures being considered, in my opinion, would not have prevented only frivolous complaints but probably would have scared the B'Jesus out of any person who might want to file a complaint. Maybe that was the idea; I don't know.
I suggested that the code require complaints be filed under oath or affirmation. No Draconian fraud provisions or Star Chambers needed. Currently, a complaint can be filed via e-mail under an anonymous name. This sensible requirement will, at the very least, discourage fraudulent ethics complaints. This is the approach of some other jurisdictions.
Somewhat to my surprise (because they seemed unfriendly at first), the committee actually bought into this idea.
Who knows if the Kessler Report will turn the commission's thinking around on the subject of public ethics?
Peggy Noland spearheaded the move to repeal the ethics code because it interferes, she claims, with her duties.
Sylvia Poitier voted against the code of ethics just after the former mayor was charged with public corruption and removed from office.
Joe Miller, District 1 commissioner, I think, is a basically honest guy, but he's uncomfortable with complicated ethics laws and he's cozy with developers. The gift provisions are mostly aimed at developer types.
Based on their public statements and actions none of these elected officials can be relied upon to embrace an enlarged and more effective public ethics program. That's three out of five.
I'm sorry to say, at the end of the day, Deerfield Beach will be lucky to have an ethics code at all, let alone "a stronger Anti-Fraud and Code of Ethics Policy" which applies to all the people who work for the city.
Ethics Debate Over, For Now - 06/02/10
Not surprisingly, the city commission enacted the changes to the city ethics code recommended by their puppet ethics committee last month. The commissioners agreed fully with the concept that they, as the persons elected to the commission to run the city, had every right to solicit and to accept gifts from people who have business with the city -- contractors, developers, people seeking grants, and the like.
The public trust? What's that? The intensity of the discussion about the proposed changes shows how serious the present commissioners are about ethics and the public trust.
That being said, there was no discussion: not a single word questioning the propriety of obliterating the gift rule.
It looks like the commissioners, individually or as a body, don't care about ethics and they don't care what citizens think. They will be re-elected anyway because this is the history of Deerfield Beach. That's why the commissioners can pull shenanigans like with the recycling contract and get away with it.
It makes one wonder how much grease was applied to the palms of the commissioners who pulled that stunt on the residents and taxpayers of Deerfield Beach.
Not even Marty Popelsky questioned the changes. The vote was unanimous. Popelsky is the only current member to have voted for the original code in March 2009, which introduced the "don't ask, don't take" rule, now repealed, which applied to certain prohibited sources.
Not even Bill Ganz. He promised ethics reform in his campaign. I guess weakening the code of ethics is what he meant by reform.
I have to ask this question: What is the point of a code of ethics if it leaves room for unethical conduct? Because no honest official will accept gifts from somebody they know has business with the city. All this change does is to tell public officials that they can engage in unethical behavior. Just make sure the wink isn't too obvious, otherwise it might be construed as criminal behavior -- you know, bribery.
Not even Joe Miller. He serves on the ethics committee of his church. Apparently influence peddling isn't one of the deadly sins at Coral Ridge.
As for Poitier and Noland, no surprise there. They didn't want any ethics rules. I don't think we have to wonder why in their cases.
It's too bad the changes had not come earlier. They could have helped immensely some of the people who had appeared recently before the lawmakers and gotten a bit roughed up in the process.
Take for example the Mango Festival people. If the festival organizers could have taken some of those commissioners out to lunch at JB's, maybe the commissioners wouldn't have been so adamant in demanding that the organizers post a bond to insure that the cops and firemen be paid for their services to the event.
It seems they are having trouble getting the bond. (It's possible the festival could be scrapped because of this.)
But, jeez, those hard-ass commissioners might have softened up a little with some nice lobster salad and a few martinis at the lovely beachfront bistro. Who could deny such gracious hosts and not let them off the hook for that little bond technicality thingy?
Or the tattoo guy. Here he stood, a small business man, taxpayer, and employer, before a hostile commission. He just wants some signs in his shop windows that don't quite meet code.
The commission was pretty hard on the tattoo guy. God help this city if the commissioners had been that tough on the church that wanted, that same meeting, a variance on a sign out front of their building (which they got).
Again, if only the tattoo guy could have offered lovely $49.99 butt tattoos to the commissioners, he might have his signs today. Who can say for sure?
All's not lost with respect to the Mango, however. Now the commishes can get into the festival free. Other people pay 35 bucks for tickets to get in.
But, citizens, you have to understand that our commissioners -- as opposed to the crooks and ingrates that serve on the governing councils of the other 30 Broward cities -- can't be bought for such small change as the $50 they're now allowed on an annual basis from each gift giver.
That's what we heard at the ethics committee meeting when they discussed the new gift rule. Heck no, it would take a whole satchel full of cash to influence the impeccably honest public servants who serve as commissioners of Deerfield Beach.
Now that commissioners can go out and solicit and accept gifts from developers and vendors and festival promoters, I feel a lot better about city government. How about you?