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Orlando Sentinel: Report: Counties kick arse at ethics reform

Thursday, November 29, 2012

With Florida legislative leaders promising another sweeping round of ethics reform, a research group has taken a snapshot of counties’ efforts to clean up their own collective acts.

The results: Not too shabby.

Florida State University’s LeRoy Collins Institute and the government watchdog group Integrity Florida surveyed 45 of Florida’s 67 counties on ethics, lobbying and campaign-finance and contracting policies. The findings show a majority of the counties provided ethics training for elected officials, regulate procurement practices, and restrict gifts from lobbyists.

The report doesn’t try to examine what effect the policies have had at the local level, and many of the policies have been put in place within the last year or two.

Some counties with high-profile ethics lapses like Broward — or those with reform advocates like Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs — have gone above and beyond, and lead the nation in their efforts to curb corruption of politicians.

“This is what counties in Florida have been doing that really makes us proud in some sense, that we are really leading the nation in some of these county efforts,” said FSU political science professor Carol Weissert, director of the Institute.

In several cases, larger counties have gone beyond the state’s ethics requirements. Broward, Lake, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach and Seminole counties were among 12 of the 45 respondents that have adopted their own unique ethics codes.

Counties leading the way in reform include Broward and Palm Beach, where multiple county and city elected officials have been convicted of corruption charges in recent years.

“In many of these instances, the reforms did follow corruption,” Weissert said. ”But what we’re seeing now … is counties where they’re not having corruption, but they’re trying to make these changes.”

Where the counties are less stringent than the state: prohibiting voting conflicts by elected officers, and requiring lobbyists to report their pay.

Orange and Seminole were two of only five counties that have adopted ordinances prohibiting voting conflicts by elected officials. Last week, the Florida Legislature adopted new ethics rules prohibiting lawmakers from voting on bills where they or their families have a financial interest.

Only 10 counties in the survey — including Broward, Orange, Lake and Palm Beach – even require lobbyists to register.

And only one county — Leon, home of the state capital city — has a requirement similar to the state’s 2005 mandate that lobbyists disclose what they’re paid to ply their trade.

“The efforts have been done primarily by the big counties because they have the staff,” Weissert said. “To expect the small counties to have check-offs on this might be unreasonable.  But I think it is a goal for all counties to think about.”

But the researchers Thursday stopped short of suggesting the coming reforms should include requiring local governments to meet higher ethical standards.

“There ought to be a conversation about how much regulation is too much, and how much is just right,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida.

“Every Florida county is different. Florida is different than other states.  This document is intended to be a benchmarking tool for lessons learned.”

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