Unlike other counties, Alachua hasn't toughened its ethics policies


Published: Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 7:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 7:24 p.m.

Several Florida counties have strengthened their ethics policies beyond the standards of the state's longstanding laws — but Alachua County isn't one of them.

A recent study by Integrity Florida, an ethics advocacy nonprofit, and the LeRoy Collins Institute, a Florida State University think tank, surveyed 45 of the state's 67 counties and determined many have implemented ethics reforms. Meanwhile, the state hasn't revisited its ethics laws since the 1970s.

Alachua County government hasn't enacted stricter ordinances because it doesn't have a corruption problem, County Attorney David Wagner said. In his 20 years at the county, he said, there haven't been aggressive discussions about amplifying state ethics laws.

"I think it's just the nature of the community," he said. "People are law-abiding here, especially people in government."

Some counties have strengthened their policies in response to corruption within their governments, but Alachua County hasn't had scandals that might motivate local reforms, he said.

Palm Beach County, which had three county commissioners resign after they were convicted of felonies related to their public service, has since adopted key reforms, according to the study.

Former Alachua County Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut paid a $750 penalty in 2004 after the Florida Commission on Ethics ruled she had violated state law by accepting tickets to a University of Florida fundraiser from developer Clark Butler.

But Wagner doesn't recall any egregious incidents that spurred efforts to tighten policies beyond state standards.

Commissioner Lee Pinkoson agreed that corruption hasn't been a substantial problem for the county.

"I've always been impressed with the integrity of the people here," he said. "It seems like mostly the people that serve are trying to make the community better, and they're not doing it for reasons where they can improve themselves ... for self-gain."

Counties throughout the state — some nearby — have enacted ethics reforms. Nearly half of the counties surveyed in the study have specified a point person to handle ethics concerns, while just 12 of the 45 responding counties have adopted a more stringent ethics code than the state's.

St. Johns County was one of those with an ethics code that differs from the state's, while Marion and Clay counties were among the two dozen local governments that restrict lobbyists' gifts to county employees and representatives.

Marion also designated two ethics officials and, along with Putnam and Levy counties, counts among the 27 local governments that offer ethics training to elected officials.

Alachua County upholds state ethics laws, which Wagner said he considers solid and in little need of strengthening. He said he sees enforcement as the real problem.

Florida received a failing grade from the State Integrity Investigation in the ethics enforcement agencies category.

Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, said the state ethics commission needs the ability to initiate investigations — a power 30 states have granted their commissions. Now, it can review potential violations only if a resident files a written complaint.

But people can be deterred from doing so because of the legal bills they might face if their complaints are incorrect and deemed malicious, Krassner said.

"The Florida Commission on Ethics does a great job with its current mission and the tools that it has to work with, but it's time to expand their toolkit," he said. "We have ethics laws on the books but no ethics law enforcement officers on the beat."

Alachua County has initiated little ethics reform, but the County Attorney's Office has an open-door policy with commissioners and employees. If an employee wants to know if he or she can accept a gift or a commissioner has a question about voting conflicts, they can talk to the office staff, Wagner said. The county also requests opinions from the state ethics commission in some cases.

Former Commissioner Paula DeLaney, for example, requested the ethics commission's opinion in 2005 on whether she had a conflict of interest regarding a vote on widening Southwest 24th Avenue because she owned land that could be impacted by road rulings. The commission decided there wasn't a conflict.

Wagner also includes an ethics overview in his presentation for incoming commissioners' orientation.

One area in which Alachua County has enacted restrictions tougher than the state's is campaign finance, he said. County candidates must submit financial reports more often than the state requires and have lower individual contribution limits — $250 instead of $500 for the primary and general elections.

It wasn't done in response to an incident but to address concerns about the influence of money in campaigns, Wagner said.

But where Alachua County stands out as a model for local governments is in its transparency efforts, Krassner said. Commissioners' emails — both received and sent — are available for public view on its website, and he attributes the government's success in reducing its risk of corruption to that policy.

"The Alachua County government email transparency program is one of the most impressive government transparency innovations that I've seen anywhere in the country," he said.

By making its emails publicly available, the county has given the public a tool with which to hold officials accountable.

"There's a direct connection between ethics and open government," Krassner said. "The more public access, the lower the corruption risk for a government."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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