(SS) A set of proposed government ethics reforms won approval Friday from a group of Broward's top ethics experts.
Offered by Broward Inspector General John Scott, the slate of reforms could appear on the 2018 ballot. But they're likely to be subject of intense debate between now and then.
- Empowering an ethics commission or ethics czar to interpret the Broward Code of Ethics that applies to elected officials, city and county employees and local government vendors across Broward. Currently, the code is interpreted by city and county attorneys.
- Banning cities from making any changes to the ethics code. Currently, cities can opt out of elements of the ethics code by changing the city charter. A handful of cities have done so.
The ideas were embraced Friday at the fifth annual performance evaluation of Broward's first and only inspector general.
Broward voters created Scott's post after a parade of public officials and their family members were charged with public corruption. He reports to an oversight board, which last year granted him a second four-year term. Friday, they focused on his proposed reforms, endorsing them as ways to help him police local government officials better.
"I saw where we've been, and I see where we're at, and I see where you want us to go and take us,'' said oversight board member Tim Donnelly, in charge of the public corruption unit at the Broward State Attorney's Office. "... You're proficient and professional, maybe one day even popular.''
While Scott is popular with his bosses, his continued advocacy for a uniform code and a centralized way to interpret it hasn't won him friends in city halls.
"It has not been and will not be embraced, shall we say, by the Broward League of Cities and therefore probably not by the County Commission,'' former Broward State Attorney Phil Shailer said, invoking memories of past debates of the changes.
Cooper City Mayor Greg Ross, who is chairman of the Broward League of Cities, said the current setup and changes that were made to the code in 2015 provide "ample infrastructure to ensure that Broward County and its municipalities operate in an ethical manner. The League believes that our elected officials strive to conduct themselves above and beyond the guidelines of the county ordinance.''
But the county's Charter Review Commission is considering the proposals, former County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger, a charter member, said. And it has the ability to send proposals directly to the 2018 ballot.
"Nothing's off the table,'' said Charter Review Commission Executive Director Carlos Verney.
The countywide ethics code was created to apply to elected officials, government vendors and government employees across Broward. Wording in the county charter says the county's rules prevail over any city ordinance on the topic. But the wording doesn't mention city charters, so a handful of cities changed their charters in recent years to opt out of some elements.
"Just my personal feeling, that offends me,'' said former Florida attorney general Bob Butterworth, an oversight board member.
Jennifer Merino, general counsel for the inspector general's office, said a city could negate the entire ethics code if it wanted to, using the loophole.
"There's nothing but their honor that would prevent them from doing so,'' she said Friday.
Wilton Manors Mayor Gary Resnick said in an interview after the meeting that the proposal "sounds nice'' but is unnecessary.
His city altered its charter so that elected officials can appear as lobbyists in other Broward cities, something banned in the countywide ethics code. Resnick, a land use attorney and lobbyist, said he thinks the county's prohibition is unconstitutional, anyway. Wilton Manors also nixed a requirement that elected officials submit a more detailed financial disclosure than state law required.
"What's the point that they're actually trying to address?'' Resnick asked. "I haven't heard at all over the years this has been in effect, that there's any problems with it.''
Resnick also questioned the proposal to create a countywide ethics commission, saying it could be costly and isn't needed. Currently, a city elected official who's unsure how the ethics code applies to a fuzzy scenario can ask the city attorney.
But Scott says that creates a patchwork of 31 city attorneys and a county attorney, all possibly giving different advice on similar sets of facts.
"I really don't understand turf wars over ethics,'' oversight board member Jan Jacobowitz said Friday. Jacobowitz is director of the Professional Responsibility and Ethics Program at the University of Miami. "I'm an ethics professor, and there's a lot of gray. Why wouldn't you want to have a central location where everyone gets the same answer. I feel like saying, 'What's up Broward?' I really don't get it.''