Joseph Cranney , email@example.com; 239-213-6035Published 2:02 p.m. ET Jan. 5, 2017 | Updated 13 hours ago
After the Naples Daily News reported in November on a potential conflict of interest involving votes cast by Naples Councilman Sam Saad, council members have questioned the city’s policies for handling ethics complaints against public officials.
With no obvious precedent for the issue, council members have asked: Who can file a complaint? Who or what agency would review it? And what power, if any, does the council have to penalize Saad if he is found to have committed wrongdoing?
In fact, the city’s nine-page code of ethics, enacted after a large Collier County public corruption scandal in the late 1990s, doesn’t include a policy on how complaints should be handled if they are sent to the city, nor does it provide penalties for ethics violations.
The city clerk’s office said it doesn't have any record of an ethics complaint being filed with the city, at least not within the past 30 years.
City Manager Bill Moss said complaints regarding city staff members could be sent to his office. But he deferred to City Attorney Bob Pritt when asked how a complaint would be handled if it involved an elected official.
Pritt said the city's overall code of ordinances allows for general penalties under which a resident could file an ethics complaint, even though the ethics policies don't include their own provisions on penalties.
In that case, Pritt said, the complaint would be treated as any other criminal inquiry and handled by a local investigative agency.
That means the city’s ethics policies allow complaints against elected officials to be investigated by their employees in the Naples Police Department, which raises new questions for some council members who have argued for strict, independent enforcement of ethics.
Vice Mayor Linda Penniman is renewing her call to establish a local ethics watchdog with the authority to investigate complaints and suspend violators or remove them from office.
She said it’s inappropriate for the city’s policies to allow police to investigate complaints against council members who approve the police budget and staffing.
Naples City Councilman Sam Saad III stands in front of the building he purchased for his firm, which focuses on the protection of business and real estate interests of clients, on Oct. 31, 2014, in Naples, Fla. He plans to be operating from the 8,700-square-foot-building on 2670 Airport-Pulling Road South on Dec. 15. (Dania Maxwell/Staff) (Photo: Dania Maxwell, Dania Maxwell)
Councilman Doug Finlay said the policy could lead to investigations that would fail to be “totally objective.”
“That’s not to say the police can’t do objective investigations — they can — but the tie is too close,” Finlay said.
Pritt declined to say whether there would be an inherent conflict of interest if the police investigated their bosses but said, “Elected officials are not above the law.”
Lt. Seth Finman, a police spokesman, said the department would agree to take an ethics case at the discretion of Chief Tom Weschler.
“I can tell you that any investigation that Professional Standards undertakes would be unbiased,” Finman said.
If treated as a general code penalty as Pritt suggested, Naples ethics violations carry up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail, Pritt said.
Finlay said those penalties don’t go far enough.
“In my opinion, a $500 fine is totally inadequate,” Finlay said. “In most ethics cases, money is involved. Well, you can make that $500 in no time in this town.”
Penniman has been arguing for stricter enforcement of ethics policies in the wake of the Daily News’ reporting on Councilman Sam Saad’s relationship with a real estate investment group that owns property in the low-income River Park neighborhood.
Saad cast a deciding vote to approve the group’s contract to redevelop and sell one of its commercial properties without fully disclosing his business partnership with the group’s property manager and the legal work his law firm has done for the group, the Daily News reported.
Penniman said the concerns could be addressed through her proposal for a three-member ethics commission to investigate complaints and vote on penalties.
“The problem has been from the very beginning that we have an ethics code that is unenforceable,” Penniman said. “Now we have an appearance of a conflict of interest. That does not rise to a criminal level, but it is a violation of the code and the public’s trust. And we have no way of seeing to it that it’s dealt with.”
Saad didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Saad was part of the majority of the council that turned down Penniman’s proposal for an ethics commission in November, but she said she plans to bring the issue back up during a joint meeting with the Collier County Commission set for March.
Penniman said the ethics commission, if installed, should have the power to suspend or remove officials from office.