Opposition is growing to a measure moving through the state Legislature that critics say would weaken ethics laws in the state — including Jacksonville — and make it easier for officials to avoid an investigation.
The state Senate on Feb. 1 unanimously approved a bill (SB 7014) that would restrict when state and local ethics boards could begin investigations.
Amendments added just before the measure’s passage require complaints to the Florida Commission on Ethics to be based on first-hand knowledge or information to qualify for an investigation. The amended version of the bill requires local ethics boards, like Jacksonville’s, to follow the same procedure.
One of the loudest critics in the Jacksonville area is current at-large City Council member Matt Carlucci, a former member of the state ethics commission who helped create the Jacksonville Ethics Commission.
“I think when you make it harder for complaints to be filed, what that will eventually do is embolden bad behavior by elected officials all over the state of Florida,” Carlucci said.
Carlucci said that during his experience on the state ethics commission, a person could file a complaint after gathering information through media reports, meeting agendas, public records and other means. That would no longer be allowed under the Senate bill.
Integrity Florida — a nonprofit institute that promotes integrity in government and exposes public corruption — has also come out against the bill, as has the Jacksonville Ethics Commission.
In a news release Monday, the Jacksonville group called local ethics commissions “a bastion against fraud and corruption in the public sector.” The commission urged the House to reject amendments in the Senate bill.
“If this bill passes, it would be a disservice to Jacksonville citizens, and it will cause us to move backwards in ethical oversight,” said Juanita Dixon, chair of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission. “This will impact public trust in government.”
Over the past eight years, only two of 55 complaints to the Jacksonville commission have been initiated by the commission itself, the news release said. The Senate bill would prevent the
commission from following up on insider tips, inspector general referrals or media investigations, the release said.
In July 2010, the Jacksonville City Council unanimously passed a law that gave the Ethics Commission the ability to self-initiate complaints after implementation of due process safeguards. In 2014, City Council placed the issue of the authority of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission on the ballot for citizens to consider, and it passed.
“The commission’s due process safeguards and procedures ensure that meritless complaints are rejected at the earliest possible stage,” the commission said. The Senate bill, as amended, would
“wipe out the efforts of our City Council and the votes of Jacksonville citizens,” the commission said.
Sen. Danny Burgess, a Republican from Zephyrhills, spoke in favor of the bill. He said the amendment requiring first-hand knowledge is designed to put more protections in place from malicious complaints.
The amended bill also would require someone making a complaint to a local ethics board to sign their name to it, removing any anonymity. Integrity Florida said removing anonymous complaints can turn into a problem at the local level where government employees may fear retaliation. Carlucci said citizens should have a right to file anonymous complaints if they choose to.
Meanwhile, Burgess said that amendment was designed to prevent those making the complaints from being able to pick and choose which ethics board they want to go to.
The House version of the bill (HB 1597) does not yet include the language the Senate has approved, but that could change when the House State Affairs Committee likely takes up the bill Wednesday.