Leon County Ballot Preview: Proposed Tallahassee Ethics Reform Initiative

Oct 31, 2014

Credit MGN Online

Note: Every day this week, we took a look at amendments on the Florida ballot.

In the final installment of our amendment series, we’ll look at a proposed ethics reform ballot initiative that has a bipartisan group at odds with Tallahassee city officials.

It all started with the United Republic—a Massachusetts nonprofit group. Josh Silver is the director of Represent.Us, a project of United Republic.

“Our organization, Represent.Us is a national group, but we work on the city and state level to pass laws that address ethics, lobbying, campaign finance, transparency to make politicians more accountable to people,” said Silver. “And, we do that by organizing people from the political left and political right together around these anti-corruption laws that pass bold and comprehensive reforms. I met Dan Krassner, a Tallahassee resident and the leader of Integrity Florida, and he suggested Tallahassee would be an interesting place.”

So, after meeting with Krassner along with other groups, like the League of Women Voters and the Tea Party Network, a bipartisan coalition came together to form “Citizens for Ethics Reform.” And, Silver’s group has since poured about $100,000 into the campaign.

Krassner says while the city has made strides in creating an ethics advisory panel that met close to 20 times last year and made many recommendations—which the city is implementing—he adds, “tremendous progress made in the city on ethics, and what a great place and a great opportunity …the timing was right to go a few steps further and that’s what the November 4th item is about.”

So, what does the proposed charter amendment—which garnered more than 20,000 signatures to get on the ballot—actually do?

One provision creates an independent seven-member ethics board that will then appoint an ethics officer that will answer to that board. Krassner along with Tea Party Network Chair and Co-Chair of Citizens for Ethics Reform Catherine Baer call it necessary.

“The ethics officer answering the board is like answering to the citizens of Tallahassee and not to the people who are hiring the City Auditor, the City Attorney, whoever,” said Baer.

“The key question is do, voters want an ethics officer reporting to city staffers or an ethics officer who’s independent and accountable to the people of Tallahassee,” added Krassner. 

The city just hired an ethics officer. It’s among the recommendations made by the 2013 ethics advisory panel. The difference is Julie Meadows-Keefe—who started this month—reports to the city attorney and city auditor—which Citizens for Ethics Reform is against and differs from the ballot proposal.

On WFSU’s Perspectives, Meadows-Keefe spoke about how it’s important she be transparent.

“Transparency is something that we talk about a lot in government,” said Meadows-Keefe. “But, it’s hard to necessarily implement that. So, I think a big part of this job is engagement with citizens who have questions, concerns, or complaints, that want to get responded to that they’ve got that contact person and they get feedback.”

But, Marilynn Wills with the League of Women Voters and co-chair of the movement maintains that hiring an ethics officer should be up to the independent board. So, how will that work with an already hired ethics officer? While critics say it may mean Meadows-Keefe is out of a job, Wills says there’s always option B.

“This person who is the ethics officer could certainly be one of the applicants and certainly be chosen by the board,” said Wills. “So, it’s not like she will be automatically out of a job. So, there is that opportunity also.”

Other provisions include limiting current campaign contributions from $1,000 to $250. And, using city money, another would provide a $25 refund as part of a rebate program to people who donate to city candidates—which draws more controversy. Baer says the goal is to get more people involved.

“So, many times people are going ‘well, these large donations are going in and our elected officials aren’t hearing us anymore because they are beholden to the people who have made large donations,’” said Baer. “This $25 donation where they can apply for a refund is designed to get the every day citizen involved that can’t afford to get involved and get people to feel like the government and elected officials are beholden to them than these large donations.”

But, First Presbyterian Church pastor Brant Copeland is against the idea. He’s one of the people who sat on the city’s ethics panel. And, he says he’ll vote against it on Election Day.

“Well, the way I understand it is for candidates for Mayor or city commission, a donor can give whatever amount of money they like to that candidate, but the city would be required from its own funds to reimburse the donor  up to $25. So, the donor gives the money to the candidate, the candidate keeps the money, and the city pays the donor. I can’t understand how it empowers citizens, but it could impoverish the city, so…”

That was also part of the legal challenge against the “ethics anti-corruption code” amendment that city attorney Lew Shelley brought. He also argued in court the ballot language is “misleading and inflammatory,” adding that it implies there's corruption to root out. But, a judge didn’t agree. Now, he says just wants voters to see both sides.

“I think the thing folks need to be aware of is we had a full year of a blue ribbon panel looking at the state of city ethics and after many outside speakers, both local and statewide came in and made recommendations, and the specific scheme of the outside ethics commission—separate from the city commission—was fully considered and rejected by that panel. So, the Citizens for Ethics Reform is simply taking another shot at that and we’ll see how it goes,” said Shelley.

Meanwhile, the amendment focuses on the Tallahassee area, and Citizens for Ethics Reform is hoping if it passes, it will extend to other areas of government, such as the county level.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.