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Florida’s capital rejects recommended ethics reform

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Apparently, ethics isn’t a big deal in Florida’s capital city.

Mayor of Tally

Mayor John Marks certainly doesn’t appear to be all that serious about it. That’s the consensus expressed by an array of people including local conservative talk-radio host Preston Scott, the left-leaning League of Women Voters and the nonpartisan groupIntegrity Florida.

City commissioners balked at an opportunity this week to create a stand-alone ethics position independent of other city officials. Only Commissioner Gil Ziffer supported the idea.

“It sends a message to the community that they don’t think ethics is an important value to have in government,” Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, told Watchdog.org.

Instead, the commission discussed ways to delegate ethical oversight to an existing appointed officer.

But doing so would reject a recommendation made by a nine-member ethics advisory panel that the commission itself appointed in the aftermath of some questionable business practices.

“It’s crucial that an ethics officer be independent and not have to answer to the people who hire them,” Wilcox said.  

For his part, Marks went on record to say he opposed all 18 recommendations made by the panel in its 21-page report, and further indicated that he was being unfairly targeted.

See the full meeting here

But the ethics panel chairperson, Martha Barnett, a former president of the American Bar Association, rebuked Marks’s assertion.

“With all due respect, Mayor Marks, this was not about you,” she said. “This was about the citizens of this community.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has looked into two separate voting conflicts involving Marks.

One involves an Atlanta-based nonprofit called Alliance for Digital Equality, which paid Marks $2,000 a month as one its board advisers. The other involves Honeywell, a Fortune 100 company that received a $50 million no-bid contract from the city. Marks’s Honeywell vote sealed the deal despite his law firm representing company.

The Florida Bar is investigating whether Marks lied at the Honeywell contract commission meeting when he said on record that he consulted with his firm and was in the clear regarding a possible conflict of interest.

Former mayoral candidate Steve Stewart, who narrowly lost to Marks in 2010, put it this way.

“I don’t think there’s anybody down at City Hall saying, ‘We don’t want this independent ethics position because we’re making loads of money on illegal deals.’ It’s not like that,” Stewart told Watchdog.org.

“What they’re saying is ‘This is going to cause us to answer more questions that we don’t want to answer,’” he said. “Things that are settled behind the scenes would have to come out in the open.”

Stewart said in many ways increased transparency leads to more work for city officials, the type that can bog down decisions that otherwise can be made more quickly.

“But elected officials can also take advantage of that,” he said. “For example, Mayor John Marks can say ‘I don’t really have to call my law firm because who is going to know.’”

Wilcox said he wouldn’t speculate as to why the commission didn’t adopt the ethics panel’s key recommendation. “That’s a question the community needs to put to the city,” he said.

A final up-or-down vote on the ethics proposal will be held Dec. 11.

Contact William Patrick at [email protected] 

Published with permission from Watchdog.org

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