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Tallahassee: Voter-backed ethics reform proposal fast-tracked, but with no guarantees

By   /   August 21, 2014  /   No Comments

By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

Courtesy of the city of Tallahassee

ETHICS: The Tallahassee city government is blocking an ethics initiative from appearing on the November ballot. But a judge will effectively cast the deciding vote in an 11-hour ruling next week.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The expression “You can’t fight City Hall,” has so far held true for thousands of Tallahassee residents who want ethics reform.

Come Aug. 29, they’ll have their day in court.

At a city commissioners’ meeting Wednesday evening, city attorney Lewis Shelley announced a dispute between the city and a group representing the 20,657 ballot petition signatories is being fast-tracked in Leon County circuit court.

Shelley sued last Friday to block the measure from appearing at the polls in November, calling the proposed ethics language “unclear” and “misleading.”

“The action I took is not based on an attempt to deprive anyone who signed the petition a right to vote,” Shelley said at the public hearing, the last official meeting before an Aug. 26 ballot deadline.

Interestingly, the subject was not scheduled as part of the board’s official agenda, but two representatives from Citizens for Ethics Reform, a bipartisan coalition of government accountability groups — and target of the city’s lawsuit — spoke during time allotted for public comment.

“We believe the public deserves an opportunity to have a say in whether the ethics policy of the city of Tallahassee should be stronger,” said Marilynn Wills, the group’s co-chair.

In an interview, Wills told Watchdog.org, “We didn’t just dream it up,” referring to the ethics ballot language.

CER co-chair Sandy D’Alemberte proposed the city board should wave its right to appeal if the circuit court judge rules in favor of the ballot language.

“Citizens ought to have a chance to amend the city charter,” he said.

Notably, fewer than 10,000 signatures are legally required to place an initiative on the ballot.

D’Alemberte, a former chairman of the Florida Ethics Commission, later respectfully said to Mayor John Marks, “I feel like you’ve had your feelings hurt in public service, but don’t let that get in the way of what’s going on here.”

Marks was once recommended for public censure and a $30,000 fine over voting conflicts of interest. The alleged ethics violations were ultimately dropped for lack of evidence.

City officials gave no assurances Wednesday. Still, reform advocates aren’t sitting on their hands.

In a Thursday email, CER leaders asked the commission for a spot on the Aug. 27 meeting agenda, two days before the court ruling. The email appeal also asks for the commission to vote to place the ethics proposal on the ballot should the judge approve.

Ion Sancho, Leon County supervisor of elections,  says that under the circumstances the ethics initiative can still be added to the ballot within a few days of the ruling.

Wills, a former alternate member of a city-approved ethics advisory panel, said the commission is resisting the reforms because members don’t think they need them.

“That’s a mindset we’re trying to get beyond,” she told Watchdog.org.

See the full proposed ballot amendment here: http://citizensforethicsreform.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/CfER_Petition.pdf

See the full meeting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XARAqS00aI0#t=3899

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William Patrick is a reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at wpatrick@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @WillPatrick77.

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