Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Deerfield Beach Ethics Committee public input meeting

The Deerfield Beach Ethics Committee had its public input meeting this evening. There were 6 members of the public there.

I attended all but one of the Ethics Committee meetings. Most of the members were professional and thorough in their consideration of each of the items in the current Ethics Code. They didn’t always agree with each other, (in fact they seldom all agreed) but gave each other a fair hearing and carefully considered opinions other than their own. (David Cohen, only half in jest, told them they should give lessons to the current commissioners about how to conduct a meeting and behave.)

This committee was tasked with reviewing and changing the existing ethics code. Given that some of the members were appointed by our commissioners who do not want any ethics code at all, they did a pretty good job. The code was a good code to start and they only watered it down a little bit. They agreed that the current provisions were necessary in an ethics code.

One item they changed that I disagree with was a change that at first I thought was OK. When they first discussed the gifts section and decided to put a dollar figure on the allowed amount a commissioner could receive as a gift from a lobbyist or some such, I thought that wasn’t a bad idea. What could the harm be in allowing $10 or $20 worth of gifts? Nobody could be bribed for that amount.

But, after thinking about it, and putting myself in the place of a commissioner I now believe that it would be much better and actually easier to handle if they stayed with the no gifts allowed of any amount. No gifts, no cups of coffee, no iced tea, no free food, no free buffet, no nuthin’.

None of our commissioners are so poor that they have to have someone else buy them a soda or lunch. A soda or lunch that would not be offered if they were not in a place of influence - would not be offered if they were you or me.

However I don’t see this committee changing the gifts provision back; the pressure from the commissioners to allow them to get some freebies is too great. The amount the committee chose is $50 a year. Not so much, but still open to misunderstanding and the appearance of impropriety.

BUT, if they are to be allowed to receive gifts from people who want to do business with the city, or are doing business with the city, or someday may do business with the city, at the very least, they should have to report the gift. That way, the commissioner would have a record, so he/she won’t go over the $50, and the public will have information about who is getting what from whom.

Norm Ostrau, director of FAU’s Public Ethics Academy, and a consultant to this committee said, “The theory of having people report what they’ve gotten is a good thing. That shows ultimately whether or not there is a conflict of interest potentially.” He also said, referring to the lack of ethical behavior of elected officials, “What you’re finding is a huge problem in the system. It’s a big problem…gifts from companies to elected officials can lead to perceptions of influence peddling, especially when they’re seeking work or approval from elected officials”.

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