State News
4:18 pm
Thu November 29, 2012

Report: Fla. Government Ethics Reformers Can Learn From Counties

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A new report from the LeRoy Collins Institute and government watchdog group Integrity Florida shows several counties have adopted ethics policies that are stricter than required by state law. The research could help local and state governments come up with more uniform ethics guidelines, researchers are hoping.

Florida has long been ethically challenged, according to researchers, who just their findings. Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, said, the state lags behind many other states in the level of accountability it demands from elected officials.

“Thirty other states have a state ethics commission with the authority to initiate investigations. Florida does not," he said. "Twenty-seven other states post financial-disclosure statements online for the public to see."

And it’s not just at the state level. Counties like Palm Beach have earned reputations for corruption in recent years. Incoming president Don Gaetz says, ethics reform is a huge priority for him. After all, he’s from Okaloosa County.

“A county commissioner was just removed by the governor for official misconduct, the tourist development director committed suicide after he stole bed tax and BP money, the speaker of the house was forced to resign, the tax collector was run out of office, our college president was fired for ethical lapses, and our sheriff is in federal prison," he said. "And that’s just in my county.”

Okaloosa and other counties are using the new report to see how they can do better. Okaloosa County Administrator Jim Curry said, his commission is writing an ethics policy for the first time.

“Our goal has been to survey the other counties in the state to see who’s done what," he said.

And Krassner said, he hopes the state can use the report, too, and maybe take some cues from county ethics reforms in areas like contract bidding and financial disclosure. He said, he’s encouraged by the drive for reform from Gaetz, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and Matt Carlucci, chairman of the Florida Commission on Ethics.

“We have a commitment from our top state leaders for ethics reform that Florida hasn’t seen in more than 36 years, so this is an exciting time," he said.

The report shows several counties have policies that go beyond the minimums required by state law. Florida Association of Counties spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller says, the association offers ethics training courses for local lawmakers.

“The association puts a high priority on this. We have for a long time," she said, "and I think the study represents not only our commitment to this but the commitment of individual counties.”

The researchers sent county governments a questionnaire, asking things like, do you have a law that prevents officials from voting on matters that might be a conflict of interest? Five counties did, including Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Orange. In some areas, though, the counties are lagging behind what’s required in Tallahassee.

“Only 10 counties responded in the affirmative that they require lobbyist registration," he said.

Of those 10, Leon was the only county to also require lobbyists to disclose their compensation. Florida State University’s LeRoy Collins Institute co-authored the study. Director Carol Weissert, says, many counties that haven’t had problems in the past are also enacting reforms to help with public perception.

"There’s a lot of skepticism about government today, so if the local governments and the state governments put in place strong ethics policies, that is a sign that we care about this issue," she said.

And Krassner says, the ultimate goal of the report is to help everyone find the best ethics policies that can be applied to all levels of government.

“We encourage the county officials and the ethics reformers from around Florida who are involved in the efforts to pass these policies to come to Tallahassee and share experiences, good and bad," he said.

And the report is just one more tool to help them do that.

Click here to read the report and see which counties went beyond the minimum ethics requirements.