Naples Daily News, Editorial Board Published 6:05 p.m. ET April 6, 2017 | Updated 14 hours ago
Time will tell the outcome of an ethics complaint one Naples City Council member filed against another, though there’s a demonstrated track record to indicate what that conclusion will be.
Together, those two factors -- the time it will take to reach a resolution and the predictability of how it will turn out -- reinforce the reasons we’ve contended local public officials should devise a better way to have ethics complaints addressed more swiftly and closer to home.
In a joint meeting in early March, Collier County commissioners and Naples council members quickly dispatched with a discussion about creating a localized ethics review panel instead of having complaints against public officials decided by the Florida Commission on Ethics.
That decision was regrettable. At the least, there could have been some direction to explore options. One possibility we recently advocated is to ensure -- during 2017-18 budget preparation -- that the State Attorney’s Office for Southwest Florida is sufficiently funded and staffed to vigorously investigate and expeditiously prosecute any local ordinance violations.
There is no point in adopting local regulatory ordinances, notably tougher ethics rules and regulations recently approved by the Naples council and Collier commission, if enforcement lacks. This might require an additional financial commitment from our tax-supported agencies to ensure this effort doesn’t take away from the State Attorney’s Office's resources needed to investigate and prosecute felony and misdemeanor crimes against people and property.
No other avenue
Naples Vice Mayor Linda Penniman recently disclosed she filed an ethics complaint against Councilman Sam Saad in early March over his relationship with a development group building a convenience store in River Park. The council approved the project 4-3 last year, so Saad’s vote could have affected the outcome. Residents of the working-class neighborhood sued over the project’s approval, but dropped the suit in late March because they ran out of money. Saad vigorously denies any conflict.
Penniman’s complaint was filed around the time the council on March 1 approved a tougher ethics ordinance, including new disclosure requirements for developers proposing projects. If there’s willing compliance with this disclosure rule, terrific. If there’s no clear threat of penalizing anyone bypassing it, then it’s a paper tiger.
Days after Penniman mailed her complaint, she and County Commission Chairwoman Penny Taylor were on the right track at the March 7 joint meeting to seek a more localized oversight board than the state ethics panel.
Penniman made her complaint public, but typically these aren’t. Late last year, we provided statistics showing 150 state ethics cases had become public with more than half summarily dismissed as insufficient and many others concluding with “no probable cause” of a violation. Of about 20 allegations sustained for probable cause, many ended with the state panel taking no further action.
That’s in keeping with what we’ve historically found -- the ethics commission is slow to respond given its broad statewide responsibility and periodic meetings, plus it’s weak in punishment. Remember the Stadium Naples public corruption case in Collier some 20 years ago? The state panel was willing to sign off on a negotiated settlement. Later, some of our then-commissioners were criminally charged after the State Attorney’s Office got involved.
So what do we expect to occur with the Saad complaint? Unfortunately, our answer is “time will tell.”
Consider the time that lapsed between August 2015 when a complaint was filed concerning whether Marco Island Councilman Joe Batte overstepped his authority to retaliate against neighbors he contended were operating a noisy party house. The state panel cleared Batte in October 2016 -- 14 months later, rejecting the attorney general staff conclusion that Batte’s actions “were intended to benefit himself, and were inconsistent with the performance of the public duties.”
As for Saad? Elected in 2010, he’s limited to two four-year terms by city charter. If there’s no finding well before the Feb. 6, 2018, city election, he already will have left office.
In the meantime, a cloud hangs over Naples council -- one a more locally focused ethics review might have been able to clear up by then.