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Senate Panel Gives Citizens Prez Vote Of Confidence, Passes Gift Ban Exceptions

Barry Gilway

The president of Citizens Property Insurance is a step closer to keeping his job, after a Florida Senate committee grilled him about mismanagement at the company. The same committee also passed a bill on Monday that would create some exceptions to a lobbyist gift ban.

The first thing on the agenda for the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee was recommending the appointment of several people to various state boards and councils. Twenty-seven of them sailed right through in one block vote—that’s everyone who was up for consideration, except for the first person on their list:  Citizens Property Insurance President Barry Gilway.  

Upon taking the microphone, Gilway said, “I can only wish that I was under Tab 2 through 28.”

Instead, he was in for about an hour and a half of questioning about how he’s fixing a broken company. It’s been nine months since he took the helm, amidst media reports of waste; unethical behavior, including sexual harassment by managers; and severance packages with eye-popping price tags. Add to that the grumbling of policy holders who saw their rates go up for things like sinkhole coverage, and the senators on the panel had a lot of ground to cover.

Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami) said, her constituents need some reassurance.  

“You understand that you’re coming into a situation where there’s a major trust issue. There’s a trust issue in the issue of insurance from top to bottom. There’s extra trust issues when it comes to property casualty insurance. And there’s even extra, extra trust issues when it comes to Citizens insurance,” Flores said.

Gilway said, he’s committed to rooting out waste and any perception of mismanagement. He’s let go 14 employees, and he’s reorganized the internal audit process to prevent bias, he said.

And he said, he’s learned, as the head of a state-run company, he has to work on communicating better with both the media and the legislature.

“I think it was quoted as saying, ‘He may have the capabilities of doing the job, but he’s politically naïve,’” he said. “That may very well have been the understatement of the century.”

Gilway’s confirmation needs to be approved by the full Senate. His answers today put him a step closer, earning him yes votes from everyone on the ethics committee, including Chairman Jack Latvala.

“To me, attitude’s about 80 percent of the game. And I think you have the right attitude,” Latvala said.

The committee also passed a bill that would allow lobbyists or groups that employ lobbyists to give lawmakers food and nonalcoholic beverages in some situations. These are tweaks to the all-out lobbyist gift ban Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon) pushed through when he was Senate President in 2005. Lee is now sponsoring the exceptions to his ban.

“I’ve heard some of this has created some awkward situations from some members, and I really want to try to help, be helpful with that,” he said.

The measure has one strong supporter in Tallahassee Mayor John Marks, who testified that the gift ban has been devastating to the capital city’s economy. One study out of Florida State University shows restaurants and other businesses have lost more than $4 million as a result.

“They have experienced dramatic and significant declines. Job losses in this economy, we just don’t like it of course. Many of our local restaurants have closed,” Marks said.

And  finally, the committee passed a measure that would make the Legislative session start in January, rather than in March, as it does now. Sponsor, Sen. Flores, said, the schedule shift would prevent the Passover-Easter holiday conflict. And it would give government departments and school boards more time to implement budget changes, because their fiscal year starts July 1.

Neither the gift-ban bill nor the Legislature-time-change bill has a companion yet in the House.