Proposal for Naples ethics panel draws enough signatures for ballot spot
Lisa Conley, firstname.lastname@example.org; 239-213-5308 Published 4:30 p.m. ET April 24, 2018 | Updated 6:06 p.m. ET April 24, 2018
A local political action committee aiming to improve Naples' ethics ordinances has collected enough petition signatures to put a referendum on the August ballot to establish a local ethics commission.
Similar to the Florida Commission on Ethics, which looks at issues regarding public officials throughout the state, the proposed commission would have the power to investigate complaints against Naples officials and oversee sweeping changes to the city's ethics ordinances. It also would have the ability to subpoena witnesses, audit records and punish officials for ethical violations.
If voters approve, the ethics commission would be the first in the city's history.
To qualify the referendum, the Ethics Naples PAC had to collect petition signatures totaling at least 10 percent — about 1,500 — of the city’s roughly 15,000 registered voters from the last election. The Collier County Supervisor of Elections office verified the petition signatures Tuesday.
Although several City Council members initially supported the referendum, they're now saying it has too many problems, and city attorney Bob Pritt has argued that parts of it even might be illegal.
"It's not a matter of if it's a good idea or bad idea, but a lot of times the devil is in the detail, and the details here lead me to believe that the measure is defective," he said at last week's council workshop.
One of the more questionable aspects of the referendum is a requirement that any proposed amendment to the Ethics Code by the Ethics Commission shall become law unless five or more City Council members vote against it.
"That's called a negative option, which means this happens unless you do something," Pritt said. "Negative options are typically disfavored or illegal."
The referendum also states that two of the five ethics commission members would be appointed by the state attorney and the public defender for the 20th Judicial District. Pritt said they might have potential conflicts of interest if an ethics violation becomes a criminal case.
Representatives of Ethics Naples were not at the workshop.
Mayor Bill Barnett, one of the referendum's original endorsers, revoked his support, citing Pritt's concerns about the language.
"I, like all of us sitting up here, am in favor of good ethics, and at the beginning when Ethics Naples presented this to me, I signed on," he said, "but I can't support this anymore."
At least one volunteer who helped collect petition signatures is questioning the referendum after hearing the City Council's concerns.
"I'm embarrassed for myself and for city governance in general," one man said at the April 18 council meeting after the April 16 workshop. "When the Naples Ethics board did not show up (at the workshop), I felt lost, embarrassed for the loss of opportunity and for my own shortcomings. However, I was very encouraged by what I heard from you all that day."
Typically when a referendum petition receives the required number of signatures, council members then vote to submit the question to the county to be placed on a ballot. However, because the referendum's legality is in question, the council can refuse to submit the question.
PAC Executive Director Ray Christman defended the referendum and said it should be up to residents to decide whether it's a good idea.
"We entered this process having done our legal homework," he said Tuesday. "Now there's an effort to suggest there's some aspects of the referendum that would prevent it from going to the ballot, and that's jaw-dropping. Let the voters vote and make their own decision."
The City Council has until June 29 to submit the referendum question to the county to place it on the Aug. 28 primary election ballot.