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Tallahassee's lobbying code hangs on election outcome

Citizens for Ethics Reform is pushing for people who lobby the City of Tallahassee to register, showing their clients, fees and who they're dealing with at the city
Citizens for Ethics Reform is pushing for people who lobby the City of Tallahassee to register, showing their clients, fees and who they're dealing with at the city

During the past few years, Tallahassee’s governance has come under federal scrutiny. Two former mayors, a local administrator and a local developer have faced corruption charges. Some have gone to prison. So the question of ethics is very much part of the current mayoral race. And it’s yet another issue on which Mayor John Dailey and Leon County Commissioner Kristin Dozier disagree.

In 2014, city residents approved the creation of an Independent Ethics Board and other reforms. That was before they knew the FBI was investigating corruption at City Hall. Before former mayor Scott Maddox, his partner Paige Carter-Smith and developer J.T. Burnett went to prison. And before former mayor Andrew Gillum and his longtime associate Sharon Lettman-Hicks were indicted. Long before that, Ben Wilcox of Citizens for Ethics Reform was working to tighten the requirements for lobbying with the city.

Right now they’re notoriously weak, and we saw in the federal public corruption trial that, for example, Paige Carter-Smith was being hired to lobby for a number of different companies, but she never registered as a lobbyist for the city of Tallahassee," Wilcox said. "That kind of unregistered lobbying is still going on to this day in the city of Tallahassee.”

The city did pass an enhanced ethics code in 2019. The Independent Ethics Board is responsible for maintaining a hotline for corruption and fraud, referring certain cases to law enforcement, and educating officials and staff in state and local ethics laws and code. But Peter Butzin of Citizens for Ethics Reform says until the city requires lobbyists to register, it is still in peril from bad actors.

“The true influencers in Tallahassee will continue to say that they are consultants and not lobbyists," said Butzin. "We’ll never see their list of clients. We’ll never see their compensation. We will never see the targets of their influence or contacts with commissioners and staff.”

Dailey has often said he’s proud of the city’s ethics package.

“Look, the city of Tallahassee has passed the strongest ethics reform package in the 198-year history of the city, and we have the strongest ethics reform package of any municipality in the state of Florida. I am very comfortable where we are, but if there’s more work to be done, of course we will entertain any and all ideas as we move forward.”

Dailey said that in a recent candidate forum sponsored by WFSU, the Tallahassee Democrat and the League of Women Voters. Here’s Dozier:

“That’s true. We’ve made good progress. But important recommendations from that board, such as expanding the definition of lobbyist -- yes, the city commission has heard that, but they have not moved forward on a majority of recommendations. You can look at their annual report and see the difference between what they accepted and what they didn’t.”

Dailey said the city hasn’t changed its definition of a lobbyist on the advice of attorneys, including the attorney for the joint city-county Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency.

“Because the city attorney, the Blueprint attorney and the county attorney said that based on case law, it is easier to prosecute if you have a similar definition,” he said.

That prompted the moderators to ask why members of Citizens for Ethics Reform have continued pushing so hard on the city commission.

“Well, I think you should ask those three individuals," Dailey said. "I can’t speak for them.”

Moderators: “Okay. Very good. Okay.”

The critics in question are Wilcox and Butzin, who regularly attend city commission meetings.

"Now, I’ll throw the county right back the same question: Why haven’t they made the motion to change their definition of lobbyist where we could all move forward together?," Dailey asked.

Wilcox says the city should be the first to change the definition of a lobbyist because its process is already underway. And here’s Butzin speaking to commissioners on September 7, when the commission proposed changes to its own lobbying package:

“As if you hadn’t done enough to discourage people from registering as lobbyists, the proposed ordinance drives a stake in the heart of the registration requirements.”

That proposal from the city attorney would have banned people convicted of certain crimes -- such as bribery and misuse of public office -- from lobbying the city for 10 years. But it wouldn’t have required lobbyists doing business with the city to disclose their activities. Here’s Wilcox:

“This does nothing to address the real problems facing the city of Tallahassee, which is that unregistered lobbyists -- or as I call them, “ghost lobbyists,” are actively engaged in lobbying city government even as I speak. Because they choose to call themselves consultants rather than lobbyists allows them to operate out of public scrutiny, without disclosing who their clients are -- which they would actually have to do if they were registered as lobbyists.”

Why does this matter in the run-off for mayor? Because a Dozier victory would alter the commission majority on this question. So far Dailey has prevailed on keeping the status quo, supported by Mayor Pro Tem Curtis Richardson and Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox. Commissioners Jeremy Matlow and Jack Porter favor lobbyist registration, as does Dozier.

“We’ve got a lot of good work," Dozier said. "We can move very quickly and I think we need to, because this is at the heart of all the challenges we’ve had in recent years.”

Scott Maddox is serving time in Pensacola and Burnette in Montgomery, Alabama. Carter-Smith was released in July and remains on house arrest. Gillum and Lettman-Hicks are awaiting their federal trials.

Follow @MargieMenzel

Margie Menzel covers local and state government for WFSU News. She has also worked at the News Service of Florida and Gannett News Service. She earned her B.A. in history at Vanderbilt University and her M.S. in journalism at Florida A&M University.