Ethics Group Hopes to Expand; but There's Been Talk of Reining It in Due to Focus on outside Topics

Article excerpt

Byline: TIA MITCHELL

The Jacksonville Ethics Commission wants more power and independence, and the City Council has the power to grant it.

Council President Richard Clark would like to make sure that it doesn't. He believes the commission can function without its own staff and has been bothered by the panel's decision to delve into topics he thinks are outside of its mission.

If the council drags its feet, however, a Jacksonville lawyer with a history of pushing successful citizen-led initiatives said he would be willing to put the issue on the ballot.

Clark said he is wary of city Ethics Officer Carla Miller and the Ethics Commission's efforts to broaden their powers and reach within Jacksonville's government. He said the ethics office is falling into the same pitfall as other new city departments: wanting to expand too quickly.

He cited the Inspector General Pam Markham's office as another example. The mayor appointed Markham to the position about three years ago and authorized her to hire a staff. Since then, the department has grown to nine employees.

"They get in and decide that they need to grow and build a bigger, more expensive, more people bureaucracy," Clark said.

COMMISSION DUTIES

Miller was the city's unpaid ethics officer until Mayor John Peyton decided to make her position a paid part-time one in 2007 - in response to the same procurement and ethics issues that caused him to create Markham's position. Miller charges by the hour but can make up to $75,000 a year.

She reports to both the mayor and City Council and attends nearly all Ethics Commission meetings, where she provides updates on ethics issues on a local and national level and asks the panel to weigh in on cases under investigation.

The Ethics Commission consists of nine volunteer citizens and is considered an advisory board to the City Council. The mayor, council president, state attorney, chief Circuit Court judge, School Board and Civil Service boards receive one appointment each, and the remaining three are selected by the body.

An aide who has duties with other city departments provides staff support for Miller and the commission, such as e-mailing meeting notices and filing minutes.

Miller and the Ethics Commission had hoped the recent and final recommendations of the city's Charter Revision Commission would say that changes were needed to make the body more independent. The charter commission recommended that an ethics code be reinserted into the charter and the ethics board be given jurisdiction over the entire consolidated government.

But it did not support the Ethics Commission's request for subpoena power or a dedicated budget to hire its own staff.

The charter commission also didn't support Miller's last-minute effort to get the word "independent" inserted in the proposed new ethics board language.

It is up to the council to decide what, if any, recommendations will be implemented. Clark has not scheduled meetings for members to discuss the recommendations they received March 9.

He has talked about reining in the Ethics Commission, saying he felt the group has dipped into subjects outside of its mission to guard city and state ethics laws.

For example, he believes commission members improperly weighed in on the mayor's proposed Trail Ridge landfill contract extension last year. …