Joseph Cranney, firstname.lastname@example.org; 239-213-60358:34 p.m. EDT September 7, 2016
The Naples City Council rejected a proposal Wednesday to make changes to the city’s ethics ordinance that some members argued would have weakened the rules governing the conduct of elected officials.
The council unanimously voted against City Attorney Bob Pritt’s proposal to eliminate the city’s ethics code and replace it with state rules considered by some council members to be less strict.
The council still could make changes to ethics rules relating to gifts for public officials or limits on professional relationships with firms that do business with the city.
Council members have described those parts of the city's ethics ordinance, adopted in 1998 in response to Collier County's Stadium Naples public corruption scandal, as too restrictive.
“Am I prohibited from doing business with any entity that does business with the city?” Councilman Doug Finlay said. “Tamiami Ford does a lot of business with the city. Does that mean I can’t buy my car from Tamiami Ford? Just doing that kind of business probably does not constitute a violation.”
Finlay wants to clear up the city’s guidelines on conflicts of interest in an ethics workshop the council scheduled for November.
The council also should discuss whether the city’s rules apply to the personal relationship Mayor Bill Barnett has long held with John Passidomo's law firm, Cheffy Passidomo, Finlay said. Passidomo and others at the firm do business with the city on behalf of clients.
“Could I use (Passidomo’s) law firm?” Finlay said. “I’m not convinced that if I use the law firm that (Passidomo) uses … that I have in fact become unethical.”
The Naples Daily News reported in March that Barnett frequently hired lawyers from the Passidomo firm to handle personal legal matters while Barnett was mayor in the 1990s and again from 2004-12. Barnett has voted to approve dozens of projects offered by John Passidomo, one of the law firm’s partners who often represents real estate developers before the council.
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.
Barnett denies that his relationship with the law firm was an ethics conflict and said the council supports him.
“The council is with me all the way,” he said. “Nobody said one word to me.”
Pritt’s proposal to replace the city’s ethics code with the state guidelines would have deleted 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.
Vice Mayor Linda Penniman said those rules should be clarified.
“I think the conflict-of-interest clause needs to be tightened considerably,” she said.
The council unanimously approved Pritt's proposal on first reading last month but backtracked after constituents expressed concerns that the changes would weaken the ethics rules.
Councilman Reg Buxton said he received more than 100 emails about the issue.
Still, the council signaled support for loosening at least one part of the ethics rules — a zero-tolerance policy on accepting gifts that Pritt said should prevent council members from even having a glass of wine at a homeowners association meeting.
Tweaking those rules to allow, for example, gifts of food and drink up to $25, would not “dilute ethics in any which way,” Barnett said.
Barnett said the zero tolerance on gifts is his only issue with the city’s ethics policy.
“I have lived with it for almost 20 years,” he said. “I’m totally content with exactly the way it is.”
Councilwoman Ellen Seigel said she was more interested in a line-by-line analysis of the entire city code.
“I would be disappointed if we only tweaked one, two or three things,” she said, advocating a stricter code.
“Every time we decline an offer, it’s an opportunity to educate someone else that there is an ethics code and we think about it very carefully,” she said.