The Tallahassee City Commission is scheduled to introduce an ordinance Wednesday expanding the jurisdiction of the local ethics board. The move comes as city leaders face a number of ethics complaints and an FBI investigation.
Tallahassee’s Edison Restaurant is perched at the edge of what many consider to be the city’s crown jewel, Cascades Park. The restored electric building opened with the support of the city commission. It was meant to be a place for swanky affairs and happy hours but instead has become a lightning rod for controversy with the latest strike hitting City Manager Rick Fernandez. The Tallahassee Ethics board recently discussed a complaint made against Fernandez after the city manager received a discount from the Edison for the catering at this daughter's wedding.
“Do I think this is some place where he did something very wrong? Probably not. Is there a perception of impropriety? Absolutely so,” said Bruce Grant, a member of the Tallahassee ethics board.
Another complaint alleges Fernandez helped an Edison employee to later get a job with the city. Fernandez is on temporary leave from his post while those complaints and another head to the state ethics board for consideration. But he’s not the only local leader who has been mentioned in ethics talks. Grant and Tallahassee ethics officer Julie Meadows-Keefe also recently discussed a complaint made against Mayor Andrew Gillum:
Grant: “We had talked a number of meetings ago about the sheriff’s office conducting an investigation into one of the complaints we received a while ago on the mayor. Has that been concluded?”
Meadows-Keefe: “Are you talking about the purchase of software? They did complete that and there were no charges filed.”
Meanwhile the FBI is in the midst of an investigation involving a number of city leaders and organizations. And the city auditor is looking into a continuing service agreement that could give work to the brother of Tallahassee City Commissioner Nancy Miller’s husband. Miller has announced she won’t seek another term—mentioning in an op-ed written for the Tallahassee Democrat the difficulty she’s faced with the “tone and tenor of public discourse.” And Ben Wilcox with the watchdog group Integrity Florida says Miller isn’t alone in feeling frustrated.
“I almost don’t have words to express how much I don’t want to see the city in this kind of position. It hurts the city and it hurts our reputation nationwide. There is a U.S.A. Today story about the FBI investigation that went nationwide and that’s going to hurt our efforts in Tallahassee to bring new businesses and jobs to the city," Wilcox said.
But Wilcox says strengthening the city’s ethics code could help turn that around. He says the city needs to create what he calls “an atmosphere of ethics.”
“In the case of the city manager, getting a several thousand dollar break on wedding services provided by a city vendor—it just doesn’t look good. And you know, it may not be a violation of the state ethics code, but to the average citizen of Tallahassee it just doesn’t look good and public officials need to be sensitive about that,” Wilcox said.
The Tallahassee ethics board couldn’t take action on complaints filed against city manager Rick Fernandez because of the limited nature of the local ethics code. But the board has sent a letter to Fernandez and the city commission warning about the damage that even the appearance of impropriety can do. Meanwhile proposed changes to the city’s ethics code would expand the local board’s jurisdiction giving it more ability to take action on cases in the future.