Ethics in government
Voter recall more certain enforcement
NAPLES DAILY NEWS
A public office is a public trust," proclaims the Florida Commission on Ethics motto. Recent decisions continue to convince us the best enforcement of the ethical principles that we expect elected officials to follow comes not in the form of any designated panel, but from an enabled public. An expeditious process for voters to decide whether to remove an offending elected leader from office seems a reasonable alternative to us.
Ethics questions arose on Marco Island as the Ethics Commission threw out complaints in October and September against Councilman Joe Batte and police Chief Alfred Schettino, both related to whether undue influence was used to crack down on a neighbor of Batte. Also in October, the state panel dismissed a seven-point complaint against then-Councilman Larry Sacher, who wasn’t on the ballot and left office with the Nov. 8 election.
Questions about ethical conduct also surfaced recently in discussions by the Naples City Council, including whether to relax its city ethics law that some say is stricter than the state’s — or to beef it up further with a local, independent investigative arm. The city’s attorney this fall suggested doing away with the city’s ordinance and following state law. Reasonable points were raised about whether the city even has the ability to enforce its ordinance.
An ethics law or ordinance that can’t be vigorously enforced loses value.
Based on its track record, we’re not convinced local ethics decisions are best left to the state panel.
Complaints can be specious, so all don’t progress to become public before the nine-member Florida Commission on Ethics. According to summaries of its 2016 meetings, nearly 150 cases have come forward so far this year into the public eye. More than half were summarily dismissed as legally insufficient. Among cases considered, many officials faced multiple allegations of wrongdoing. The ethics panel determined "no probable cause" existed in about 100 matters compared with some 20 allegations that were sustained for probable cause of wrongdoing. Among those, however, many then ended up with the panel deciding to take no further action.
One 2016 case saw a recommendation to remove a water district official. The time lapse is problematic to us, though, because this lingered based on a failure to file a state-required form in 2013.
Records show $1,500 fines were meted out twice. But for an elected official benefiting from ill-gotten gains, that’s a pittance. The maximum allowed fine is $10,000 per violation, but that’s an amount not seen.
Perhaps the most notable 2016 case led to a $6,200 fine for Flagler County’s sheriff, yet the panel’s adviser recommended $19,000. The ultimate sanction wasn’t in the hands of the Ethics Commission. It came in August when voters ousted the incumbent sheriff. That’s how the public can have its due say on an elected leader’s conduct.
We’re not suggesting the state ethics panel has no value. It issues advisory opinions on ethical questions. It also can review complaints against top staffers, as with Marco’s police chief.
When it comes to sa nctioning elected leaders, we point to what could have happened on Ma! rco Island. The city charter prohibits council members from delving into administrative matters, yet creates no penalty for doing so. Marco’s charter also doesn’t spell out the island’s recall procedure — the best potential penalty placed in the public’s hands.
Naples and Lee County charters rely on state recall procedures for removing elected leaders. Collier County doesn’t have a charter, so it too looks to state law that enables a recall process to commence with signatures of either 5 percent or 10 percent of registered voters, depending on a community’s size. Marco Island citizens in short order got a petition together, and signed, to create the prospect of a vote to repeal the controversial rental ordinance. That suggests to us citizens can tap into a reasonable recall procedure to place the ultimate sanction for an elected official into voters’ hand s with a quicker, improved chance of removal than through the state Ethics Commission, or a local one.