The subcommittee on Ethics from the Rules Committee of City Council has been tackling an important issue the last two weeks: Ethics reform. Headed by Councilman Art Shad, the subcommittee had recently reviewed bills 2011-167, 2011-197 and 2011-232 that seek to embed ethics laws in the city charter and strengthen its ability to enforce the Ethics Code.
Not everyone is at ease with the proposed changes. Though ethics in government is a common goal, some are concerned that a government bureaucracy may not be the best solution and could cause further problems.
Recently I had the chance to speak with Katie Ross, President of Jacksonville’s League of Women Voters, and Jim Varian, a Republican political strategist about the proposed ethics reforms, and I got two different opinions. Both could agree that ethics is important at all levels of government. Ross said that open and transparent government is one of the goals that the League of Women Voters works toward, and that ethics is a natural part toward that goal. Varian does not disagree, but he has reservations about the bureaucracy of the proposed reforms. Varian says “adding lots of process isn’t the same as having better ethics”- and he has a point.
During the subcommittee meeting on May 25, several amendments were made to the bills. One of those amendments changed the appointment process for members of the commission. Both elected officials and civic groups have appointment power in a check-and-balance type equation. Ross sees this as beneficial because it is important that third parties have a say in the process to prevent elected officials from ‘hiring their own bosses’, so to speak. Councilman Richard Clark expressed some concern over the appointment process at the May 25th meeting and Varian can understand some of Clark’s reservations. Varian says “Council members are naturally apprehensive about who will end up on the ethics commission and they tend to be wary that in the hands of opponents, ethics enforcement may be more of a political weapon than a good government initiative.”
Groups and offices with appointment power, as it stands with the current amendment, include the League of Women voters, The University of North Florida’s Ethics Center, the State Attorney of the Fourth Judicial Circuit, the Chief Judge and the Mayor. The appointed commission would then nominate three more members itself with all appointments subject to confirmation by City Council.
Another amendment requires the commission to act only on written complaints, neglecting hotline calls and other forms of complaint submissions. The power of the board to issue subpoenas is also in question. In order to issue a subpoena to carry out an investigation, the commission would have to go through the courts. Some are concerned that this will water down the commission’s enforcement ability; Varian disagrees, “If a complainant doesn’t think an issue is even worth putting in writing, how willing should we be to commit to a lengthy, expensive and very serious quasi-judicious process?” Court subpoenas would keep the commission’s power in check, and prevent it from becoming a political weapon.
I will concede, even as a student of Public Administration, that bureaucracy is not always the answer. An Ethics Commission though, is an important bureaucracy to have – especially in a council rife with no-bid contracts, questionable emergency legislation uses and expensive steak dinners with lobbyists. Maybe that commission should not have subpoena power, maybe their role should be more on exposure and less on enforcement. Either way, I agree with Ross when she says she is “happy we’re moving along” – so let’s leave the days of Trail Ridge and the like behind us. – James Croft
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