Jacksonville City Council members discussed Monday how the city investigates reported ethics complaints as two bills are being considered in Tallahassee that would take away much of the “local control” that allows governments to investigate such complaints.
If Senate Bill 7014 and House Bill 1597 move forward, members of the ethics committee would no longer be able to initiate independent investigations. SB 7014 already passed unanimously on Feb. 1, while HB 1597 is still under review.
Jacksonville’s leaders say there is no need for either of the bills, and several City Council members oppose them outright.
They say the bills strip local and state ethics committees of their authority to hold people accountable who might have violated the rules of working with or for the government.
“Even if an individual was guilty of whatever the allegation was it could not be pursued because there would be no personal knowledge of the allegation and that disturbed me as well,” Ethics Commission Chair J.J. Dixon said.
Right now, the ethics commission can initiate an investigation if it receives an anonymous complaint. But if the bills pass, someone will need to have “direct knowledge” of a possible ethics violation and give a sworn statement about what they know, which takes away the protection that comes with an anonymous report.
It would also require the complaint to be based on personal knowledge or information other than hearsay.
This means only the violator or an eyewitness to the violation would be able to report an issue to the ethics commission.
Members also revised a letter to lawmakers, urging them to reject the new amendments.
City Councilman Matt Carlucci, a Republican, released a statement condemning the legislation.
It is beyond disappointing—it’s infuriating—to see the legislative bodies we trusted to protect and serve the public interest now orchestrating efforts to erode the very mechanisms designed to ensure accountability and transparency…I am appalled by this regressive maneuver and the potential it has to undo decades of progress in ethical oversight….We must rally together to oppose this legislation, reaffirming our commitment to ethics, integrity, and the public trust that forms the bedrock of our democracy.”
News4JAX also spoke to Carlucci after the meeting.
“Well without a watchdog around people can break into homes pretty easy and do bad things. In other words, if you do away with or you cripple these ethics commissions, it’s going to do nothing but advance bad behavior in Tallahassee and local governments all around the state,” he said.
Kirby Oberdorfer, Ethics Director, pointed out that in the last eight years, 94 total complaints had been filed with the Ethics Commission with 55 of those being either anonymous or informal. Of those, 12 were considered for self-initiation and 2 of those 12 were self-initiated or looked into by the commission. The two complaints were against two former elected officials following a highly publicized traffic stop that involved unfortunate comments.
“That led to citizens wanting an investigation as to whether there was a misuse of position, which it turned out there was not… so these are the flavor of things that you have looked into in the past that you would no longer be able to look into even at the front door,” Oberdorfer said.
Mayor Donna Deegan, a Democrat, agreed with Carlucci, saying that she doesn’t support changes that would weaken ethics investigations.
“I think it’s important to have more transparency, not less,” Deegan said. “So, I appreciate Matt’s comments and I think that’s been right in line with what Matt has been saying for years and years. And he’s right, I would not like to see us diminish our ethics rules. I’d like to see them strengthened.”
The commission said these amendments are trying to address a problem that doesn’t exist in Jacksonville.
Members released a statement, saying, in part, that “Senate Bill 7014, as amended, will have a chilling effect on anti-corruption efforts at the local government level. We urge the House of Representatives to not rubberstamp these amendments and to help us in the fight against government corruption. Please allow representatives of local ethics commissions to testify or share their expertise before voting on the amendments to SB 7014.”
Read the full statement below: