Uncertainty surrounds Jax ethics commission following ethics legislation approval.Uncertainty surrounds Jax ethics commission following ethics legislation approval.
Uncertainty surrounds Jax ethics commission following ethics legislation approval.

Ethics officials worry new law will tie their hands

Published on March 12, 2024 at 12:08 pm

The Jacksonville Ethics Commission is worried that a new ethics law could allow misconduct by public officials and block citizens from exposing it.

The Florida Legislature gave final approval March 7 to a controversial measure (SB 7014) that critics say would make it difficult for the public to file complaints. Both chambers in the Florida Legislature have approved the measure and it is headed to the governor’s office.

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The most controversial portions of the measure would require complaints made to the Florida Commission on Ethics to be based on first-hand knowledge or information to qualify for an investigation. That would prevent the Ethics Commission from following up on insider tips, inspector general referrals, media investigations or complaints based on public records.

Local ethics boards — like the one in Jacksonville — would have to abide by the same rule. Anyone making a complaint to a local ethics board would be required to sign their name to it, removing any anonymity.

Juanita Dixon, chair of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission, said the commission has self-initiated only two of 55 situations reported to the commission over the past eight years. Nearly 60% of the complaints the commission receives every year come anonymously, she said.

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“So if that says anything, almost 60% of what we receive comes from what’s just been banned, and I think that’s just unbelievable,” Dixon said.

Supporters of the legislation say having first hand-knowledge or information would put more protections in place from malicious complaints. The provision requiring someone to sign their name was designed to prevent people from picking and choosing which ethics board they would want to go to.

One vocal critic has been Jacksonville City Council member Matt Carlucci, a former member of the state Ethics Commission who helped create the Jacksonville commission. After the Legislature approved the measure, Carlucci released a statement of disapproval.

“The law has been sent to the governor, and short of a veto, over 40 years of hard work for good government will be gone. I am thankful to those members of the Duval delegation who voted no,” Carlucci said.

Dixon said the Jacksonville commission is unclear what effect the measure will have on the work they do. To get clarification, the commission will meet Thursday to discuss the situation.

“We are kind of just waiting on more insight and instructions on what this means for us as a commission at this point,” Dixon said.

The meeting is open to the public, and there will be a public comment portion of the meeting for people to voice their opinions. The meeting will be at 5 p.m. at the Lynwood Roberts Room in City Hall.

If Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the legislation into law, it would eliminate powers given to the Jacksonville Ethics Commission over the years, Dixon said.

In July 2010, City Council unanimously passed a law that gave the Ethics Commission the ability to self-initiate complaints after the implementation of due process safeguards. In 2014, the City Council placed the issue of the authority of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission on the ballot for citizens to consider, and it passed. 

Dixon said her commission will continue to fight on this issue and educate lawmakers about the negative effects. She hopes ethics commissions around the state can get legislators to change the law during a future legislative session.

author image Reporter, WJCT News 89.9 email Steven Ponson has six years of experience covering news in Jacksonville and Northeast Florida. Prior to arriving on the First Coast, Steven also worked in radio in Orlando. He attended the University of Central Florida where he earned a degree in radio and television. Steven has been a reporter, producer, anchor and board operator. Outside of work, Steven loves to watch sports, cook delicious cajun food (as any good Louisiana native does) and spend time outdoors.

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