Joseph Cranney, email@example.com; 239-213-60354:53 p.m. EDT September 5, 2016
The Naples City Council is set to vote Wednesday on a proposal that some consider a loosening of ethics guidelines for public officials, including eliminating a rule that forbids council members from doing business with firms seeking council approval for projects.
“It’s absolutely a weakening of the ethics code,” said former councilman Fred Coyle, who helped draft the city’s ethics guidelines in the late 1990s in response to the Stadium Naples scandal, the largest case of public corruption among elected officials in local history. “There are just too many circumstances, particularly in a small town like this, where elected officials get too friendly with people doing business with the government.”
The proposed ethics changes offered by City Attorney Bob Pritt would delete a city rule forbidding council members from having an “employment or contractual relationship” with a firm that “routinely seeks zoning, permitting, or inspection approval” from the council.
Pritt proposes replacing that language with state guidelines, which forbid council members from having a professional relationship with businesses subject only to the “regulation” of government. Coyle said those rules aren’t as strict as the city’s rules.
“I don’t consider that wording to be particularly effective,” he said. “It’s subject to too much interpretation.”
Vice Mayor Linda Penniman said the state ethics guidelines are “too ambiguous."
“There are too many gray areas in there,” Penniman said. “For us not to hold ourselves to that high of a standard is, in my opinion, an insult to the people that put us in those chairs.”
The Naples Daily News reported in March on concerns about a potential conflict of interest involving Mayor Bill Barnett’s personal relationship with a Naples law firm that frequently represents real estate developers before the council.
Barnett, his relatives or his businesses hired lawyers from the Cheffy Passidomo law firm at least 17 times in the past two decades, including many cases that coincided with Barnett’s time in office. Barnett’s daughter, Lisa Barnett Van Dien, also worked for the firm from 1999 to 2014 and worked on at least one project Barnett voted to approve.
Cheffy Passidomo includes John Passidomo, who says he has represented clients before the council more than 100 times since the early 1990s.
Barnett was mayor from 1996 to 2000 and served another eight years from 2004 to 2012. He started another term as a councilman in 2012 before he ran again for mayor and won a fourth term this year.
Barnett denied that his relationship with Passidomo’s firm, which records show extending as recently as January 2015, is a violation of the city’s ethics rules.
“It had nothing to do with city business, ever,” Barnett said. “I didn’t enter into any contract. That was so far back ago.
“And they all got paid,” he added, referring to attorney’s fees for his legal work.
Passidomo declined to say if his firm’s work constituted an ethics violation for Barnett.
“I have no idea,” said Passidomo, who also served as Naples vice mayor and council member from 1990 to 1992. “Bill would have to give his own analysis.”
Passidomo said the council has a “good ethics law in place.”
“I would think they should be looking to strengthen ethics law, and not weaken them,” he said.
Barnett said he didn’t ask for the change to the city's ethics code and will vote with his fellow council members if they choose to reject the changes.
“It’s not affecting my mindset, one bit. It’s not affecting my personal life, one bit,” Barnett said. “I’m willing to support what the majority of council wants to do.”
Coyle said Barnett should have disclosed his relationship with the firm, and he worried that a loosening of ethical standards could lead to another corruption scandal.
“We don’t take [ethics] as seriously as we used to,” he said. “We will slowly drift into that situation again where people will begin skirting the edges of that law.”
After the Daily News report in March, Councilman Sam Saad sent an email to constituents and called Barnett’s relationship with Passidomo a “huge undisclosed conflict of interest.” Saad supported Barnett's opponent in this year's mayoral election, then-incumbent John Sorey.
“The conflict undermines the majority of votes taken by Mr. Barnett over his entire time as mayor,” Saad wrote in the March 6 email.
He declined to expand on the email last week.
The city adopted its ethics policy in 1998 after a Collier County racketeering and corruption scandal that included charges against a local real estate developer doing personal favors for three county commissioners.
Coyle, then a councilman, spearheaded the effort to write local guidelines stricter than the state’s.
“The state has really never had a really tough ethics ordinance,” Coyle said. “That’s why we enact ethics ordinance at local government. The people at a local level want to impose higher standards on their local elected officials.”
Pritt proposes replacing the entire city ethics code, which includes more than a dozen sections on public conduct, with the guidelines from the state, which were last updated in 2013 and otherwise largely resemble the city's rules. Pritt said the overhaul will avoid “confusion” as to which rules city officials should abide by.
Pritt denies that his proposal would weaken the city’s ethical standards.
“I don’t think it makes any significant changes to how we do things,” he said. “I think it makes it easier for us to interpret the code.”
The council unanimously approved Pritt’s proposal on first reading Aug. 17, but some council members last week said they have changed their minds.
“The intent of these changes was to bring the city’s code up to the standards of the state of Florida,” Councilwoman Ellen Seigel said. “But I think by blanketly eliminating large chunks of our language, it demeans the city of Naples.”