“Ethics law” is not about what is “ethical.” That’s just one of the things I learned in my two-year term on the Jacksonville Ethics Commission. Confused? People are. “Ethics” are those things that go further than the law — it’s a personal code — standards and values that define behavior beyond the law. “Ethics” is the aspirational state of civil conduct. The “law,” is not a choice – it is a defined boundary with punitive consequences for stepping over it.
Typical “ethics laws” are centered on preventing the converting of public resources for private or personal gain. What’s more, if a Jacksonville public official or city employee violates a section of the municipal ethics code, they can be found guilty of a criminal offense. There are also sections of the code that cover professional conduct in the areas of “conflict of interest” and disclosures. Unlike a personal ethic, these laws are not a personal choice, but a legal mandate. Another thing I learned, many people do not know or cannot distinguish the difference between violations of “ethics law” and what they consider to be “unethical.” The result, many members of the public have expectations for the Ethics Commission that are not realistic. And, the public is pushing for new powers and funding for a volunteer, civilian commission with a general misunderstanding of what that group can do, even with unlimited resources.
The Jacksonville Ethics Commission is not powerless — far from it. The Jacksonville Ethics Commission members are appointed by a more diverse and independent methodology than members ofFlorida’s State Ethics Commission. They have the legal authority to investigate any matter that may violate city ethics law. Jacksonville’s ethics code combined with the state’s public records law (FS 119) allows commission members to obtain virtually any record from a public official that may be pertinent to an investigation — without the need for a subpoena. As for “independence,” the commission’s decisions can be legally binding on a public official or city employee. It can “censure” violators. It has the power to do these things in “any circumstance or situation of which the commission may become aware that appears to violate or may potentially violate an acceptable standard of conduct for city officers and employees.” (Sec. 602.903)
Here’s the problem: The public often has an expectation that something they deem to be “unethical” should be addressed by the Ethics Commission. After all, “ethics” is part of its name. But, unless that issue potentially violates a section of ethics law (Sec. 602) it’s not a specific responsibility of the Ethics Commission to address it. Added to this, is the problem of preserving legitimate political discourse. Despite best intentions, a public official who is critical of any part of expanding Ethics Commission powers is likely to find quick admonishment in the court of public opinion. The result is a chilling effect on legitimate debate. Absent debate and the balance of contrasting perspectives, “independence” can turn into “unaccountable.”
So what do we need? We could benefit from greater clarity, less emotion and the resulting possibility of real political discourse. Anger and retribution are natural human responses to violations of the public trust. But to be objective, we make laws in advance of untoward events to minimize the effect of emotions in the implementation of necessary corrective action. Today, the city ethics function is often immersed in emotion. Taking out the emotional response and restoring legitimate political debate can only further the quality of government and compliance with our Ethics Laws. – Scott Shine