Palm Coast, Flagler Beach and Bunnell Officials May Face Stronger Financial Disclosure Requirements
FlaglerLive | February 15, 2017
A House committee unanimously approved an overhaul of local ethics rules Tuesday, paving the way for legislation that would require more stringent financial disclosure by some city officials and create a state registration system for local lobbyists.
The proposal (PCB PIE 17-03) comes amid a broad-based push by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, to toughen ethics rules on lobbyists and lawmakers.
The bill approved Tuesday by the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee would require council or commission members of cities with more than $5 million in annual revenues to fill out more-detailed personal financial disclosure information, known as a Form 6.
In Flagler County, the change would apply to city council members in Palm Coast and city commission members in Flagler Beach and Bunnell. The bill defines a city’s revenue as total revenue, not just general fund revenue, and bases those totals on figures reported to the Florida Department of Financial Services. In 2014, the last year for which the division had total figures for all three cities, Bunnell had revnues of $7.6 million, Flagler Beach of $12.7 million, and Palm Coast $121.8 million.
Currently, city government officials are only required to fill out a less-detailed Form 1. The Form 6 is required for state and county officials.
The difference between the two forms is significant. Compare, for example, Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland’s Form 1 to County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin’s Form 6: Holland on her form is not required to list dollar figures (it’s optional), whether of assets or liabilities, as McLaughlin is–down to the value of the vehicles he owns, the amounts in his checking and savings accounts, or other sources of revenue.
The detail required of Form 6 has on occasion led to errors and ethics charges against local officials, most recently against former County Commissioner Barbara Revels, who had to correct errors on three years’ worth of forms and pay a fine to the Florida Ethics Commission in a settlement finalized last month. But complaints against local officials are not filed by the ethics commission, which does not itself review the forms unless a complaint is filed. The complaints are often filed by political opponents looking to damage candidates or sitting officials, as was the case with Revels. In effect, while numerous officials may file error-prone forms similar to those filed by Revels, few of those mistakes may result in intervention by the ethics commission absent complaints. Nevertheless, the complaint system is intended to enable citizens at large a means of being the watchdogs over their elected officials.
The proposal in the House was toned down slightly from an original House idea that would have required all city council or commission members to file the more detailed form. And the requirement would not apply to administrative staff.
Public Integrity & Ethics Chairman Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, said the $5 million threshold was an attempt to try to balance out a desire for transparency with the needs of smaller cities, which often pay elected officials very small sums.
If the more detailed disclosures were required of even small towns, Metz said, “you might discourage people from serving in public office by doing that.”
“But the other side of the coin is the public has a right to know, especially when large sums of money are involved,” Metz said.
According to the most recent figures, which cover the year that ended Sept. 30, 2015, 204 cities would be covered by the new disclosure rules.
There are some concerns about how to implement that system, though, given that some cities might cross the threshold in certain years and miss it in others. For example, there were 254 cities that had $5 million of revenue in the year that ended Sept. 30, 2013, and 250 the year after that.
Virlindia Doss, executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, said lawmakers might need to figure out a way to design a system that would be easier to predict instead of the $5 million threshold.
“That (revenue) number could fluctuate for a given municipality, and I think in the end you would not want your city council members to be filing Form 6 one year, Form 1 the next year, Form 6 the year after that, as the number goes up and down,” Doss said.
The bill would also create a statewide lobbyist registry for people looking to influence local governmental entities. While some local governments have set up their own systems, and water management districts are required to have a registry, the new legislation would require the Commission on Ethics to register lobbyists for about 2,400 local governments and special districts.
Doss said the commission would likely need workers to keep track of the new standards. Currently, it handles the registrations for 1,200 to 1,300 people who lobby the state’s executive branch.
The committee approved another bill (PCB PIE 17-04) that would create a trust fund that could use local lobbyist fees to help pay for the registration, but Doss said the state would need to invest some money up front to start operations.
–FlaglerLive and the News Service of Florida