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Editorial | Codes of ethics, disclosure policies, foster public trust

By Staff | Dec 28, 2023

Though we’ve yet to reach the tail’s tip of ’23, the new year isn’t ringing in happy news for some municipal officials in Florida.

As of Jan. 1, those elected to serve on town and city councils will join virtually every other office holder in the state already required to fill out a detailed disclosure form intended to foster financial transparency.

Some say they will quit rather than submit their “Form 6” instead of the current less-detailed Form 1. Fort Myers Beach Town Council member Bill Veach resigned Tuesday.

We get the angst. The provision making the disclosures retroactive is especially problematic for some.

HB 37, Financial Disclosures for Local Officers, was sponsored in the House by Rep. Spencer Roach, R-District 76. According to its summary, “‘full and public disclosure of financial interests’ means the reporting individual must disclose his or her net worth and the value of each asset and liability in excess of $1,000. The disclosure must be accompanied by either a copy of the filer’s most recent federal income tax return or a sworn statement that identifies each separate source and amount of income that exceeds $1,000.”

That’s a lot more than must be disclosed now, at least on the local level, where the reporting benchmark for assets and liabilities is currently $10,000.

It is, however, what the state requires of those who represent us on the county level, including commissioners, school board members and constitutional officers as well as those we elect to state office.

The governor, lieutenant governor; all cabinet members, legislators, state attorneys, public defenders, clerks of circuit courts, sheriffs, tax collectors, property appraisers, supervisors of elections, county commissioners and elected superintendents of schools are among those who are required to file Form 6 as part of the state’s Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees.

Their filed financial disclosure forms are readily available and may be found on the Florida Commission on Ethics home page at ethics.state.fl.us.

Although the expanded reporting law goes into effect Jan. 1, municipal officials have until July 1 to file their first Form 6, with a grace period until Sept. 1 at which time an automatic daily ding of $25 will begin to accrue until the disclosure is filed or the fine reaches $1,500. Other penalties for failure to report or report accurately — including suspension or removal from office and civil fines, now doubled to $20,000 — are possible.

The disclosure legislation had bipartisan support, passing in the House with 113 yeas and only 2 nays while in the Senate, tied bill SB 774, Ethics Requirements for Public Officials, passed 35-5. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law on May 11.

We thank Rep. Roach for his sponsorship and we agree making disclosure uniform on all levels makes sense for both those serving and those they purport to represent.

We would ask Cape Coral officials, mired much of this year in a handful of public-perceived transparency quagmires, to take a page from a similar book.

Back in 2016, with numerous projects pending in our city, we urged the Cape Coral City Council to foster transparency throughout the concept-to-construction process by enacting a Code of Conduct “lobbying ordinance” similar to Lee County’s which requires commissioners and many staffers to disclose meetings and other contacts with those providing one-on-one input on voting matters.

Since the late ’90s, Lee County has enhanced state ethics and disclosure laws by requiring disclosure for projects and issues coming before the Lee County Board of County Commissioners, including those that do not meet the threshold of the state’s lobbying rules standard.

There was support from at least one then-sitting member of the Cape Coral City Council but the idea died aborning, with municipal staff looking to exempt itself from such rules and other council members tepid at best.

In 2020, with more projects — and more transparency-related controversies — afoot, we again urged Council to adopt an ordinance similar to the one that has been in effect in unincorporated Lee County since July 1, 2003.

It made sense then.

It makes sense now.

The county ordinance requires a number of things:

Lobbyists, in general, are defined as “any person, firm, entity ‘paid or unpaid'” who seeks to “encourage the passage, defeat or modification” of any item to be presented to a vote before the commission, a county decision-making body or a county employee who can make a recommendation.”

The ordinance applies to all communications, written or oral, to a commission member, board member or county employee including those in the county manager’s office, the county attorney’s office, all department directors and all employees within the purchasing division and contracts office.

It requires uniform logs detailing the date; whether the contact was by phone or visit; the name of the person making the contact and whether he or she was representing another person or entity and the topic discussed. There also is room for comments.

The logs are filed quarterly to the Clerk of Courts with an office copy retained and they are easily accessible to the public on the Clerk’s website, Leeclerk.org.

Paid lobbyists must register and file quarterly disclosure forms, which also may be found there.

The Lee County ordinance provides enough exceptions to allow the county to conduct its day-to-day operations, but not for a whole lot else.

Cape officials say our community — one of the state’s fastest growing — is on the cusp of boundless potential.

We agree.

It is up to City Council — this City Council — to assure that the leap upwards is safeguarded with transparency.

That’s more than disclosing an income tax form or more personal financial details, as troublesome as that might seem to those who now must file Form 6.

A strong lobbyist ordinance such as the county’s opens the figurative door between the process and the public.

The county did that to provide both public assurance and protection years ago.

The city of Cape Coral needs to do the same: It’s long overdue in a city where residents are again — yet again — demanding disclosure.

When conducting the public’s business, there should be nothing to hide.

Breeze editorial