For Flagler and Palm Coast Officials, Mandatory Ethics Class Puts Primer on Common Sense
FlaglerLive | January 28, 2015
Flagler city and county elected officials gathered for a two-hour class on ethical behavior in office Tuesday to comply with a relatively new state law making the training mandatory. The session produced discussion, questions and derision that revealed the gulf between what the law requires and what officials tend to know, with lacking agreement on what even common sense might mean. The derision was over the very low threshold that enables anyone to make ethics accusations against public officials–at times frivolous accusations–thus drawing ink and hurting the official’s reputation regardless.
There was no balancing discussion, however, about the serious ethical charges that do result in findings of violations by the ethics commission, two of which have affected Flagler officials this year: County Commissioner Barbara Revels (who attended the training session) and Sheriff Jim Manfre.
The Legislature unanimously passed the law in 2013. Gov. Rick Scott signed it on May 1 that year. It requires constitutional officers such as sheriffs, county commissioners, school board members and clerks of court to complete four hours of training annually in ethics, open meetings, and public records laws. In 2014, the Legislature added elected municipal officers to the list of those required to take the training, which can be accomplished through in-person sessions or through the web (the state Commission on Ethics provides a list of training videos here).
Palm Coast set up two, two-hour training sessions for its council members and opened it to any interested officials or members of the public in the county. (The second session, in February, focuses on open government and the Sunshine law.) The mayor of Marineland, several members of the Beverly Beach City Commission and Flagler Beach City Commission, two members of the county commission (George Hanns and Revels), one member of the Bunnell City Commission and every member of the Palm Coast City Council attended. No constitutional officers attended, but several city staffers did, as did County Manager Craig Coffey.
City Attorney Bill Reischmann led the training, which consisted of Reischmann standing at a podium in the city’s conference room (where the council holds its workshops), addressing the audience and using a 28-page handout as a guide.
Few people in office read the state’s ethics law, which can be challenging. “I’ve read it a bunch of times,” Reischmann said, “I’ve been to seminars about it and I still struggle with it, and I don’t think I’m the only one, because the commission on ethics has submitted thousands of opinions trying to interpret” the law. He recommended articles on ethical behavior such as “Know the Law, Trust Your Conscience” (from a Florida League of Cities publication) as a helpful primer.
The law addresses such matters as the prohibition on accepting gifts of over $100 from a lobbyist, the prohibition on elected officials selling goods or services to the government they serve, the requirement that an official abstain from voting on any matter that may bring a private gain or loss to the official, and the requirement that conflict-of-interest forms be filed within 15 days of declaring such a conflict.
Revels’s issue was the direct result of a violation of that conflict-of-interest rule. Sheriff Jim Manfre is currently embroiled in a matter before the state ethics commission involving gifts and the use of sheriff’s vehicles for private travel.
For all the complications of the law’s wording, a recurring theme in Reischmann’s presentation was common sense: the law may be opaque, but common sense is straight forward. “I would ask all of you,” Reischmann said, “why is that person who you’ve probably never gone on a holiday with or you’ve never gone to church with or your kids don’t play soccer together, why is that person all of a sudden wanting to give you a gift? I’m sorry, I’m an attorney, I’ve been doing it for 33 years, therefore by definition I’m cynical, but my guess is that that person is giving you a gift because sooner or later, and probably sooner, they’re going to ask you for something.” Reischmann’s advice: “Don’t take it. Say thank you very much. If it’s something that you need to give, you can give it to my government, you can give it to my city.”
He continued, “This is common sense, folks. If you’ve got a developer that’s coming in front of you, or if you’ve got the head of a homeowner association and all of a sudden they want to take you out to a big steak dinner, you just want to say thank you very much, I look forward to making a nice, fair decision on anything that comes before you, but at this point it would hurt you—this is what I would always suggest to my clients—tell him that it would affect you and hurt you more than it would hurt me. And all of you know, all of you know that because of government in the sunshine, because of public records, everybody in this room is on the radar.”
The reporting of gifts applies to attending dinners, conferences where private companies underwrite lavish food and drink offerings and even dinners provided by the local hospital—as Florida Hospital Flagler does, in an example brought up by Mayor Jon Netts—when it treats local officials and others to annual celebrations.
Reischmann noted that all public officials have the right to call the state ethics commission and ask for formal or informal opinions regarding specific situations they’re facing (no hypotheticals). That’s an advantage to officials, but it also further closes the aperture of excuses, as public officials who claim to have not known what to do in a given situation have a direct line to an answer from the state’s chief authority on the matter.
There was a lot of discussion from participants about the definition of gifts and lobbyists, and who provides the alleged offender’s defense.
“My position would be that we look into it and there doesn’t appear to be grounds, based on what we’ve seen,” said City Manager Jim Landon, who attended the session, then the city would provide the defense. If there does appear to be grounds, “then good luck, you’re on your own.” (Landon was himself the target of an ethics complaint in 2012, which the ethics commission dismissed, though the experience left Landon embittered.)
Another recurring theme was the reason given to stay on the safe side of the law: not because it’s right for its own sake—not because it’s inherently ethical, as the law and common sense compel—but because it’s a way to stay off the front page of newspapers, and to keep political enemies from gathering ammunition, even though the law’s purpose, as Reischmann quoted it, is “to protect the public’s confidence in our public system.”