Naples residents call for more transparent government

, joey.cranney@naplesnews.com; 239-213-60359:55 p.m. EST November 10, 2016

Current and former Naples City Council members called for an independent watchdog Thursday to enforce the city's ethics ordinances that govern conduct of public officials.

The proposal from Vice Mayor Linda Penniman for an amendment to the city charter would create a tax-funded staff of investigators to review ethics complaints and give an independently appointed voting board the power to penalize public officials who have committed wrongdoing.

It's the first such proposal for Naples, which adopted its ethics ordinances in the late 1990s as guidance for public conduct but never provided an enforcement method to pursue violations. The move comes after the city considered adopting less stringent state ethics laws.

Penniman said she will bring up her proposal, which likely would require voters' approval, during the council's ethics workshop next week.

She said she is concerned the state doesn’t have the resources to address local ethics issues, including the questions raised in a Naples Daily News article this week regarding the business practices of Councilman Sam Saad.

Saad pushed to accelerate taxp-funded improvements in the same low-income neighborhood where his business partner oversees property owned by a company that has hired Saad for legal work, the Daily News reported.

Penniman questioned whether the Florida Commission on Ethics would rule on whether Saad’s relationship posed a conflict of interest.

“To go to the state board, you have to have an ironclad case,” Penniman said. “In this case, we have something that doesn’t smell good. We don’t have an ironclad case, and that’s what the state board needs.”

Saad couldn’t be reached to comment Thursday.

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Sam Saad (Photo: David Albers/Naples Daily News)

Penniman called for the change Thursday night after a Miami-Dade public corruption prosecutor told a group of residents that Naples doesn't have a way to enforce its ethics ordinances.

"You got an issue here," Joseph Centorino told several dozen residents gathered at the Bellasera Hotel for his hour-long presentation. Centorino was a 25-year prosecutor in the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office and now is executive director of the independent Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

"There's no enforcement authority for your code of ethics," he said. "I looked at it and said, 'Wait a minute. If somebody violates the Naples code, what happens?'"

Citizens for Preserving Naples, an activist group that formed this year, invited Centorino to speak after the council earlier this year considered eliminating its stricter ethics ordinances and replacing them with Florida statutes.

Centorino recommended Naples create an independent local agency like the one he oversees in Miami to enforce ethics ordinances. 

“In many ways, the idea of having ethics and an ethics enforcement agency is a way to get yourself to deal with corruption before it gets out of control,” he said. “In the long term, it can prevent more serious problems from developing.”

Collier County Judge Mike Carr, who wrote the county’s ethics ordinances after the Stadium Naples public corruption scandal in the 1990s, said the city’s ethics ordinances, without a means for enforcement, are only “aspirational.”

“If you don’t have an enforcement mechanism, you don’t have an ordinance,” Carr said.

Councilman Doug Finlay said in an interview he is concerned about local enforcement of ethics but wouldn’t support a proposal to use city dollars to pay for a new agency.

“Personally, I don’t think this town has any serious ethics issues that would require that kind of expense,” he said.

Penny Taylor, the Collier County commissioner and former Naples councilwoman who attended Thursday’s meeting, said she supported Penniman’s proposal, calling ethics the “undercurrent of government and policy.”

“We all think we have the best intentions, but government is such an easy vehicle to enrich yourselves on,” she said.

Former Councilwoman Teresa Heitmann, who helped arrange Thursday’s meeting as a Citizens for Preserving Naples member, said ethics is “the heart” of the issues she raised in her failed bid for mayor earlier this year.

“It’s important we have disclosure and accountability with our government,” she said.