CITY ETHICS; Whom Will You Serve?

Article excerpt

The City Council is considering city ethics changes that could be a big boost for public trust in local government - or just big talk with little do.

What council members decide will say plenty about whether they have the citizens' best interests in mind or some other brand.

Jacksonville has many good public servants. But positive public perception of local government has tumbled in recent years because of a parade of embarrassments, such as questionable no-bid contracts, conflicts of interest and Sunshine Law problems.

Stronger ethics aren't about creating a hairpin system of "gotcha" for elected officials. It's about setting high standards of conduct, education, training and enforcement for thousands of city officials at all levels.

And it's about building public confidence that taxpayer resources will be managed properly, problems will be warded off before they start and officials who choose to cross ethical lines will face consequences.

The current city ethics structure doesn't cover the bulk of the consolidated government, is fraught with built-in conflicts for the ethics officials who must potentially investigate complaints involving people who can fire them, and lacks the independence and resources needed to be an effective watchdog over the public's interests.

A BETTER WAY

City Councilwoman Glorious Johnson had the right idea some months ago when she proposed legislation to create an independent ethics commission with more clout.

She also urged bringing all of city government - independent authorities, constitutional officers and the School Board - under the same ethics standards, enforcement, education and training guidelines, which had been proposed by the Charter Revision Commission.

Proposals from the Jacksonville Ethics Commission bolstered the legislation, providing for the ability of the commission to obtain documents and testimony in relation to potential violations of city ethics rules and issue civil fines for offenses not likely to be addressed by the state attorney.

The legislation also took in a commission proposal that the city ethics officer report to the commission, an important stroke for independence.

The legislation offered a reasonable blueprint for an upgraded city ethics structure with some related details - such as the appointment of ethics commissioners and due process procedures regarding complaints and fines - to be worked out as part of a future ordinance.

A council subcommittee approved the legislation, as did the council's Rules Committee. Bravo to them. But the city Finance Committee stripped the bill of key provisions and added others that could even weaken the ethics structure the city has now.

COUNCIL AT CROSSROADS

Finance is expected to take another crack at the proposal next week.

Meanwhile, legal questions have arisen about whether the city can expand the core city government's ethics commission and ethics guidelines to the School Board, constitutional officers and the city's independent authorities: the Jacksonville Port Authority, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, the JEA and the Jacksonville Aviation Authority.

Just as reinforcement, City Council members have legislation before them that would ask state lawmakers to authorize those groups to be covered by the same ethics regulations as the main city government.

It's great that the independent authorities have their own ethics programs of one kind or another, but that's a far cry from being subject to a broader accountability by an independent ethics commission. …