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Don Gaetz: Florida Counties Will Participate in Upcoming Ethics Reforms

November 28, 2012 - 6:00pm

Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Destin, is reviewing a report published Tuesday by a pair of public policy think tanks on public ethics reforms at the county level, and his office says counties certainly have a role to play in formulating the Legislature's upcoming ethics reform agenda.

The report, titled Tough Choices: Florida Counties Bridge the Ethics Policy Gap, documents the ethics policies of 45 of the Sunshine States 67 counties, with a special focus on reforms instituted by seven of them since 1996. The report was published by Florida State Universitys LeRoy Collins Institute and Integrity Florida.

In short, the results show that a majority of the counties surveyed provide ethics training for elected county officials, have adopted local ordinances regulating procurement practices, and put in place restrictions on gifts from lobbyists to the county, according to the reports executive summary. Close to half of the counties have designated a point person for ethics issues.

"In many of the instances, reform followed the corruption," said Dr. Carol Weissert, director of the LeRoy Collins Institute, at a press conference Tuesday morning. "While there is always more to do, Florida counties are taking the initiative in creating an ethical culture and can serve as leaders for future state action in Florida and across the nation."

Wed encourage all county officials that have been involved at the local level to bring your ideas to Tallahassee, said Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida. Come before the Legislature and share your experiences of whats working and whats not at the local level.

Katie Betta, Gaetzs deputy chief of staff on communications, told Sunshine State News thats precisely what the Senate president has in mind.

President Gaetz is certainly supportive of efforts to improve rules governing ethics across the board; in fact, he specifically addressed ethics issues in his home county of Okaloosa in his remarks during the organization session, said Betta. He believes that counties certainly have a role to play in the discussions, which will begin with the first committee meeting next week.

In my medium-sized North Florida county, a commissioner was just removed for official misconduct, the TDC director committed suicide after he stole bed tax and BP money, the speaker of the House was forced to resign, the tax collector was run out of office, our college president was fired and our sheriff is in federal prison, Gaetz had listed off in the remarks referred to by Betta. Thats just my county.

Gaetz has made ethics reform of the Florida Legislature a very vocal priority of his term as Senate president and of the 2013 legislative session. The day he was sworn in to the Senate presidency, that body unanimously adopted new rules that included strengthening of the requirements to disclose potential conflicts of interest, requiring senators to abstain from voting in certain circumstances, and requiring all senators to undergo one hour of ethics training.

The presidents primary focus thus far has been on the Senate because he feels that if the Legislature is serious about improving ethics across the state, we need to start here at home, Betta told the News.

Excerpts from the reports executive summary:

Florida has long been ethically challenged. Supporting data confirm that the state has had a large number of federal public corruption convictions and recently received a failing grade on a report card from the State Integrity Investigation for ethics enforcement of state-level laws --laws that have not been revisited since Reubin OD. Askew was governor in the 1970s.

While the bad news is that Floridas state-level ethics laws and enforcement are essentially frozen in time, outdated, and ineffective, the good news is that local governments in the state are not waiting for the Legislature to address the states public corruption problems. Counties across the state are acting as ethics reform laboratories, addressing their unique experience with public corruption through innovative ethics reform solutions. ...

In short, the results show that a majority of the counties surveyed provide ethics training for elected county officials, have adopted local ordinances regulating procurement practices, and put in place restrictions on gifts from lobbyists to the county. Close to half of the counties have designated a point person for ethics issues.

Other areas of ethics are not as widely adopted. Only 12 counties have adopted an ethics code that is more stringent than the state code (Chapter 112, Florida Statutes) and only 10 require lobbyists and their principals to register. Only a handful of counties have adopted local ordinances regarding voting conflicts for elected officials, have their own ethics commission, have local ordinances regulating the financing of county campaigns, or require lobbyists to report their compensation."

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116.

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