“I had the privilege of becoming Tallahassee’s first ethic officer,” said Julie Meadows-Keefe, noting she started the position in October 2014. “In 2010 the mayor that was serving at the time cast some votes that were called into question.” She added there had been concerns the votes benefited a client of the mayor’s law firm; although, there was no indictment involved ultimately. “A few people — citizen advocates — pursued it with fervor.”
The city commission ultimately approved the creation of a citizens’ Ethics Advisory Panel in September 2012 as a proactive step to examine Tallahassee’s policies, procedures and practices relating to ethics, financial disclosures and transparency of the government. The panel, Meadows-Keefe said, was composed of experts from all walks of life — “a lot of good people,” she added.
The panel met 18 times and created a report and recommendations, which were adopted by the city commission June 26, 2013. A part of those recommendations was the creation of an ethics officer position, to serve as a point of contact for questions. At first, Meadows-Keefe reported to both the city attorney and auditor; that changed after a referendum during the 2014 election when an independent ethics board was created. The seven-member board is comprised of five seats designated for appointment by local entities, including the city commission, chief judge of the Second Judicial Circuit, state attorney for the Second Judicial Circuit, president of Florida State University and president of Florida A & M University. The board decided to keep Meadows-Keefe as the city’s ethics officer and she now reports to it.
Throughout the process, Meadows-Keefe said Tallahassee has geared its methods toward prevention, focusing on solid training, tight policies, situational awareness, open dialogues with the community and enhanced transparency rather than using fear as a motivator. She added she and the board are there to be resources. “If a commissioner has a question about a gift, they can come to us,” she said.
All of the ethics board meetings are available through the city’s YouTube page and website, including Meadows-Keefe’s own job evaluation. “We did it at a public meeting,” she said, adding, “I left to not stifle discussion. We try to do everything on camera, and we also try to get public engagement.”
The key to a good ethics program, according to Meadows-Keefe, is being proactive. “If you’re not, you could face the issue of a referendum,” she said. “You have to be proactive to have a program that citizens think is robust and good.”
Additionally cities need to regularly evaluate their programs. She added, “It has to be continually improving.”
Palm Beach County
“We are very proud of our (ethics) program,” Mark Bannon, executive director of the Palm Beach County, Fla., Commission on Ethics, said. He has been with the COE since its beginnings in 2010, becoming its third executive director in December 2015.
“During the mid- to late-2000s, three county commissioners and two municipal council members were indicted and pled guilty in federal court to ‘honest service fraud.’ All served time in federal prison,” Bannon said, noting that led the county commission to create by ordinance two entities that would address these types of issues. “One was the Office of Inspector General to address contract issues, waste and mismanagement in public entities. The second was the Commission on Ethics, which is responsible for all ethics training, advisory opinions and enforcement of three ordinances: the code of ethics, a lobbyist registration ordinance and a post-employment ordinance.”
The COE is composed of five volunteers who are each appointed by various stakeholders in the community. “None are appointed by or able to be removed by any of the local government entities under their jurisdiction. The commission appoints an executive director, who in turn hires staff as necessary. The executive director must be a member of the Florida Bar.”
Awareness and creating a different culture within the county have been key components for the COE. It also serves as an open resource to county employees. “We get a lot of questions about whether this or that can be done,” Bannon said.
As a resource, the COE puts out a regular newsletter, which contains information on various ethic-related topics, recent news within the county, plus recent advisory opinions — all geared toward building aware and a culture of asking first and acting later. Complying with Florida’s strict transparency laws, the COE makes all of its documentation available through its website, including videos of its training sessions and meetings.
Bannon stressed the need to regularly review codes and ethics programs. As an example, he noted Palm Beach County’s original language did not allow for solicitation, even for nonprofits, which dried up proceeds for them. “There were two things we could do to fix it: prohibit (nonprofit solicitations) or make them transparent through the law,” he said, adding since such donations are out in the open there is no influence.
He advised, “Give it a year and review. Sometimes you have to fix some of the language.”