Remember that FL constitutional amendment on the ethics of public officials that voters approved last fall? Well…

A state ethics measure that would bar politicians and public employees from using their official positions for personal gain is met with a wall of opposition from developers, cities, counties, sheriffs and more. other government organizations.

More than six million Florida voters backed a state constitutional amendment last fall to prohibit office holders and public servants from using their government positions to afford themselves, their own. company or their family, a “disproportionate advantage”.

The amendment left it to the Florida Ethics Commission – an appointed board – to define what constitutes an inappropriate benefit.

“This (measure) could be the Swiss army knife of ethics enforcement,” wrote former state Senate president Don Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville, in an April column published by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Gaetz is the one who crafted the Ethics Amendment when he was a member of the Florida Constitutional Review Commission.

The ethics amendment received the most votes of all constitutional changes in 2018. It included a six-year ban on politicians from lobbying after they left, as well as other restrictions to prevent public officials from working as lobbyists during their tenure. The Florida Phoenix reported on other aspects of the Amendment in this story.

“This is a watershed moment to be bold or easy,” Gaetz wrote. “I don’t expect the Ethics Commission to have another chance like this for a very long time.”

Early on, Gaetz (who is the father of US Representative Matt Gaetz) said the amendment was not “popular with the political class.”

“In fact, power actors from both parties pressured me to drop the amendment or, if not, demanded that I give them exemptions. Otherwise, they tried to kill him, ”Gaetz wrote.

This opposition has now come to light as the ethics committee tries to define a rule on what constitutes an “inappropriate advantage”. The committee delayed voting on a proposed rule last month, while holding a workshop on July 26 to consider more public reaction.

Among the most vocal criticisms are the state’s influential developers and “special development districts,” which developers use to raise funds to provide roads, drainage systems, utilities and other services in the city. their developments. A well-known example is The Villages, the sprawling retirement community and GOP stronghold in Central Florida, which has 16 such development districts. The Villages oppose the rule of ethics.

The Florida Community Developers Association and the Florida Association of Special Districts opposed the Ethics Commission’s original proposal, calling it “vague” and arguing it would increase regulatory costs.

“As both critics and supporters of (the ethics amendment) fear, the proposed rule – as drafted and because of its vague and arbitrary nature – will create uncertainty for officials and employees and will have a chilling effect, have unintended consequences, significantly increase the regulatory and legal costs to interpret and advocate the proposed rule and the cases arising from it, and cost Florida taxpayers millions of dollars in increased public infrastructure costs ” , the groups said in a joint memorandum.

In an affidavit filed with the developers note, prominent Manatee County developer Pat Neal said special districts play a key role in planned communities. At the start of the process, the district councils, which are considered government entities, are populated with representatives of the developer or the landowner, he said.

Neal, a former state senator and member of the Ethics Commission, said the ethics rule “is not clear as to whether in the early years of the project when it is under development , developer representatives can vote on matters affecting the developer as the primary landowner. “

If they can’t vote on these issues, said Neal, “then special districts will not be a viable option for me to fund public infrastructure for my projects, as it will be difficult, if not impossible, to find supervisors. qualified to participate ”.

The Florida Sheriffs Association questioned the provision of the original proposal that public officials could violate the standard if they “knowingly” take action that results in undue advantage. The sheriff’s group suggested that there should be a “voluntary element” to the standard, such as showing that the individual acted “in a corrupt manner” in gaining the benefit.

The Florida County Association and the Florida League of Cities cited the rule’s impact on small counties and towns.

“The operations of these governments will be disproportionately affected by the proposed rule, as the category of individuals and businesses available to provide services in small towns and counties is naturally smaller and will result in more conflicts with the rule. proposed, “said the two government associations. in a joint letter.

Most critics call on the Ethics Commission to base the new “disproportionate benefit” standard on existing Florida ethical standards and on already settled cases involving inappropriate benefits.

“The proposed rule should strive to incorporate existing case law and the committee’s advisory precedents regarding the ‘abuse’ of power” under existing state law, the cities and counties said. This standard “would reduce the uncertainty about prohibited driving,” they said.

Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, an independent watchdog group, said he is urging the Ethics Commission to adopt its rule of origin. He said this was in line with what Gaetz and other CRC members wanted when they brought forward the ballot measure in 2018.

He said it “doesn’t make sense” that the CRC voted for the new ethical standard only to keep existing, more lenient standards intact.

When he testified in favor of the rule last month, Wilcox said an ethics commissioner asked him if adopting the rule would prevent “the right people” from holding public office.

“My answer was no. That doesn’t concern me because I think when real public servants come into the public service, they understand that they will be held to high ethical standards, ”said Wilcox. “And they are not there to personally benefit from it…. They are there to serve the public.

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