City Raises Contention Over Ethics Bill

City Raises Contention Over Ethics Bill
Group 4 At-Large City Councilmember Matt Carlucci addresses the Jacksonville Ethics Commission to express his continued opposition to Senate Bill 7014 at a special meeting on Monday, Feb. 12.

The Jacksonville Ethics Commission has issued a statement opposing a state bill containing amendments that it says would result in “reducing anti-corruption efforts of all local ethics commission in the State of Florida.”

The bill in question – Senate Bill 7014 – was passed on Feb. 1 with amendments added “last minute,” the statement continued, “without any notice to, or input from, any local ethics officials in the state.”

These amendments include language regarding how complaints can be submitted to ethics commissions, requiring allegations to “be based upon personal knowledge or information other than hearsay,” and virtually eliminating the ability to submit complaints anonymously by requiring “a complaint to be written and signed under oath or affirmation by the person making the complaint.” Furthermore, it would prohibit ethics commissions’ from self-initiating investigations.

During the Feb. 1 Senate Session, Senator Danny Burgess responded to questions regarding the personal knowledge requirement.

“What we’re looking to do here is add greater protection from more malicious or meritless attempts that are politically motivated,” Burgess said. “I believe this is consistent with what we already require in other areas,” adding that allegations or complaints must be “based on some form of merit.”

Senator Jason W.B. Pizzo said he was “fully in support” of the bill but argued the amendment pertaining to personal knowledge should not be included.

“I think this is a poison pill as a gatekeeping function, which I get because we think people abuse it,” he said. “But this is unnecessary, and we should just let with the standard that applies now, otherwise there’s a lot of stuff you’re not going to be able to uncover.”

Ultimately, the Senate passed the bill as amended.

The Jacksonville Ethics Commission has joined a coalition of local ethics commissions, including those from Miami-Dade County, Palm Beach County, City of Tallahassee and the City of Naples. In a letter sent to the member of the House State Affair Committee and the Florida House of Representatives on Feb. 12, the coalition, on behalf “all major Florida local ethics commissions,” urged representatives and committee members to:

  • “Pass the House Ethics Bill (CS/HB 1597) without any amendments that weaken anti-corruption laws and local ethics commissions;
  • “Oppose the personal knowledge requirement for ethics investigations and complaints, which would dismantle oversight of government;
  • and “Oppose any efforts to restrict local ethics commissions’ ability to self-initiate investigations of public corruption.”

The Jacksonville Ethics Commission held a special meeting on Monday, Feb. 12 to discuss the legislation and its response to it.

During the meeting, City of Jacksonville Office of Ethics, Compliance and Oversight Executive Director Kirby Oberdorfer said the amendments included in SB 7014 are “a solution for which there is no problem, at least in Jacksonville.”

Ninety-four complaints have been filed with Jacksonville’s ethics commission from 2015 to 2023; of those, 55 were “either anonymous or informal.”

Twelve of those 55 complaints were considered for self-initiation, Oberdorfer said, and the commission has “self-initiated in two of the 55.”

At-Large Group 4 City Councilmember Matt Carlucci attended the meeting as a guest to speak to his continued opposition to the legislation. 

“The way that the language was inserted into the bill, without public hearing and without any committee work, that’s the height of contempt and arrogance, and I think it’s unethical, which is exactly why we are against it and most of the local commissions around the state are against it – matter of fact, all of them are,” he said after the meeting.

In its statement released later that evening, the Jacksonville Ethics Commission urged the House to reject the amendments as the requirements included therein “may intimidate and have a chilling effect on persons who have information about corruption by local officials and employees.”

“If this bill passes, it would be a disservice to Jacksonville citizens and it will cause us to move backwards in ethical oversight,” said Jacksonville Ethics Commission Chair Juanita Dixon in the statement. “This will impact public trust in government. We hope this bill, as amended in the Senate, does not pass in the Florida Legislature.”

The statement also requested that representatives of local ethics commissions have the ability to testify before the House of Representatives before the amendments are voted on.

SB 7014’s companion bill in the House of Representatives – House Bill 1597 – does not currently have these amendments and as of Feb. 19 was added to the State Affairs Committee agenda.

By Michele Leivas
Resident Community News

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