Sunday, August 11, 2019
Guilty pleas alone will not purge city of corruption | Opinion Samuel R. Staley (Tallahassee Democrat)
Former mayor and city commissioner Scott Maddox pled guilty to charges of public corruption this week. Many had hoped this courtroom event will put this sordid episode to rest. In fact, the guilty pleas look like the beginning. The implications for local policy reverberate far beyond a federal courtroom.
The beginning or the end?: How to begin to erase the black mark left by the dirty dealings of Scott Maddox | Our opinion
For the past eight years, the DeVoe Moore Center has been conducting research into the city’s regulatory and permitting processes. Among the published results are peer-reviewed policy reports that show a disturbing lack of accountability in the permitting, approval, and decision making process. For example:
● A 2015 study found that incomplete data meant just 27 shopping center projects could be evaluated for their regulatory impact, even though 57 had been approved. On average, a shopping center took 2.6 years navigate the approval process.
● A 2016 study of 29 telecommunications tower permit applications found the average permit required 40 weeks, but ranged from seven days to 688 days.
● The center’s 2019 study on Cascades Park and Trail found that all four segments in the study went significantly over budget. Delays added 693 days to Cascade Park’s completion date.
While these delays and added costs can be chalked up to government inefficiency, a far more troubling effect is the way they open up opportunities for corruption. If no one knows how long a project will take to get approvals, who is responsible for securing the approvals, or getting meaningful guidance on navigating the process, transparency and accountability suffer. Corruption is almost inevitable.
The guilty pleas are less important than a policymaking and implementation culture that allows participants to game the regulatory system, rely on personal relationships to get things done, and bend the decision making process for personal gain. Maddox, Paige Carter-Smith, and possibly J.T. Barnett are just a few of many others who became entangled in the murky world of public spending on local public projects.
Most will never be convicted even though their behavior undermined public confidence and distorted policymaking. Maddox and Carter-Smith’s guilty pleas may be the tip of an iceberg built on cronyism and what some call “soft” corruption — the intentional use of relationships to access public privilege for personal gain.
Local governments open their doors to corruption when they expand their mandate beyond their core mission of providing essential services, fail to include accountability measures for the projects they undertake, and ignore the importance of adopting and adhering to meaningful performance metrics.
The only way the city can get out from under the specter of a failing public culture is to grapple with this reality head-on.
The task is daunting, but achievable. Transparency will be a cornerstone of this effort, but it will not be enough. Developing systems of real accountability tied to meaningful performance measures with consequences will be two other pillars for restoring public trust and improving government performance.
Let’s make the guilty pleas a stepping stone toward a more transparent, accountable and effective government, not gloss over an inefficient, obtuse and byzantine process.
Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. He has been studying local government and urban policy for more than 30 years.