Thursday, February 26, 2015

CITY "footing bill for gala tickets" -- St. Augustine Record confirms our reporting -- city official freeloading, disappearing "benefit" for years

This is so wrong on so many levels -- kudos to Sheldon Gardner and the Record for investigating pigs at the trough.
Shame on them!
We need a City ethics code.

St. Augustine footing bill for gala tickets
Posted: February 26, 2015 - 8:43pm


The city of St. Augustine is paying more than $3,300 to cover the cost of several city leaders, officials from Spain and others to attend the Menendez Noche de Gala.

City Manager John Regan said he expects staff members and elected officials to represent the city at the Saturday event and other city events, which has been city policy.

He said the Noche de Gala is key for displaying the city’s focus on the sister city relationship, cultural heritage and historic preservation and making important connections, some of which have benefited the city’s preservation efforts.

The tickets are $195 per person. The city’s code says free tickets or gifts should not be accepted on terms more favorable than given to the public and some members of the public have criticized the use of the free tickets.

But the city is paying full cost for the tickets, and officials are there to represent the city, so it’s not a gift, officials said.

Leaders also are encouraged to attend other key city events, some at the city’s expense, such as the annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast, Regan said. The city also pays for participation in professional associations.

“Our policy has been to encourage our elected officials and our senior staff to take on as part of their job responsibilities the representation of the city,” Regan said. “It’s not mandatory. But it is something that I was always encouraged to do and I’ve encouraged my staff to do and our elected officials.”

Regan has been with the city since the late 90s.

Budget for gala was $5,730

The city budgeted about $5,730 to cover the potential cost for city commissioners, staff and others to attend the Noche de Gala, said City Comptroller Mark Litzinger. A check for $3,315 has been written to the Casa Monica to cover the cost of those actually attending.

The check covers the cost of some city department heads and their spouses as well as city commissioners and Spanish officials. Among those expected to attend with their spouses, and to be paid for by the city, are Regan, Litzinger, City Clerk Alison Ratkovic, Vice-Mayor Roxanne Horvath and commissioner Leanna Freeman. Regan said when he has gone in the past, the city has paid.

Dana Ste. Claire, the 450th department director, will also attend, and his ticket is paid for by the city. St Augustine has also paid admission for several Spanish officials, including the mayor of Aviles, because they are invited to attend.

Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline is not going, but the city has paid for her ticket in the past, she said. Mayor Nancy Shaver is attending but is paying for her own ticket, and Commissioner Todd Neville said he is going and has paid for his own ticket.

Putting on the event

The Noche de Gala, held at the Lightner Museum, is produced by the Casa Monica Hotel but is an official 450th Commemoration event, according to the agreement between the city and Casa Monica. The event celebrates the birthday of Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who founded St. Augustine in 1565.

The event promotes the city’s commitment to historic preservation and the Lightner Museum, as well as the cultural exchange program, Regan said.

The city’s former department of heritage tourism and historic preservation managed the effort until several years ago, Regan said. After that, the city turned production over to the Casa Monica.

The event highlights the Lightner Museum, which is housed at the City Hall building at 75 King St. The event displays the city’s commitment to historic preservation.

A procession to the event, with re-enactors, leads to the gala.

The Noche de Gala promotes the cultural exchange program with Aviles, Spain, a sister city of St. Augustine, Regan said.

The city has financial obligations to maintain the Lightner Museum, and some partnerships that have come from the gala have helped fund rehabilitation projects, Regan said.

Profits from the event go to a restricted fund overseen by the city used for Lightner rehabilitation, he said. But the city has not seen a profit since the event has been managed by the hotel.

Official business

St. Augustine’s code references gifts, and a couple of people voiced concerns about the tickets during public comment at a recent City Commission meeting.

According to the code, “No commissioner or other officer or employee of the city shall accept any frank, free ticket, pass or service, directly or indirectly, from any person, firm or corporation upon terms more favorable than are granted to the public generally; provided, that such prohibition of free service shall not apply to policemen or firemen in uniform or wearing their official badges where same is authorized by ordinance.”

City Attorney Isabelle Lopez said the code has not been interpreted to apply to something like the Noche de Gala.

“I can tell you that since I’ve been here that has not been interpreted to mean that departments cannot defray the cost of employees to attend, whether it’s seminars or galas or anything else as long as it’s budgeted for and approved by the City Commission in their budget,” Lopez said at the meeting.

The state has laws about gift acceptance and disclosure by certain public officials. Lopez and Litzinger said the tickets are not gifts because they are paid at full cost by the city and because officials are there representing the city.

Only certain city officials are required to file reports, including the city attorney. The city does not have regulations that add to the state’s disclosure requirements, Lopez said.

No one from the city attorney’s office is expected to attend this year, although four tickets were budgeted for the department. Tickets were also budgeted for the Public Works Department. Martha Graham, public works director, said she does not plan to attend.

However, the city has paid for Graham and her husband to attend in the past. She started with the city in 2008.

The city’s unwritten policy has been for city leaders, including department directors, to go and represent the city at the Noche de Gala, Lopez said. The gala tickets are budgeted and approved in public every year.

Other events include the annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast and the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march and others, including those on weekends and evenings, Lopez said. And employees have been expected to attend and represent the city. Many events have no fee.

At the gala, “We’re supposed to be there as official ambassadors of the city,” Lopez said.

When city officials bring their spouses to the gala, spouses are also expected to act as a host, Lopez said.

City leaders who are there can greet delegates from Aviles and answer questions about the city, she said.

The city covers the cost of the city official’s spouse to attend.

The city also pays for officials to attend other events, including the annual mayor’s holiday lighting at the Plaza de la Constitucion, which raises money for the homeless, and the Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast, Regan said.

A complex matter

Determining whether an official receives a gift that needs to be reported can be complex.

The Florida Commission on Ethics released an advisory opinion in 2005 saying that “City officials who are reporting individuals have not accepted either a prohibited or a reportable gift” (under Florida statute) “where they to attend events in a suite at a motor sports speedway under admissions purchased by the city from a nonprofit economic development corporation which leases the suite from the speedways’ under,” according to the opinion.

The question was whether commissioners or other city officials would be accepting a prohibited or reportable gift under Florida statute by attending events in the suite leased to a nonprofit, when the city manager paid for their admission using city funds or where they pay admission from their own personal funds. However, the opinion noted that the funds were from sponsorship fees and city officials private, non-city funds. It also said that if a spouse went at no additional cost to a reporting city official, that would need to be reported as a gift.

In 2008 the Florida Commission on Ethics found probable cause that Jacksonville officials broke state ethics laws by not disclosing free Jaguars football tickets and other items worth more than $100, according to the Times-Union. Family and friends used the tickets, and a story found more than $193,000 in taxpayer dollars was spent over four years on entertainment, alcohol and food at city-owned venues. No punishment was doled out.

The ethics panel found that Jacksonville’s gift laws were confusing. The code said gifts from the city did not have to be reported. But the city began requiring officials to report the tickets as gifts.

Jacksonville has its own ethics department and codes.

“In Jacksonville we would consider tickets given to city employees or officials gifts,” said Carla Miller, director of ethics for the city of Jacksonville. “And that they should be reported if they are required to do so with the state ethics commission.”

Miller said she believes there is not a public purpose exception to receiving a gift. She said Jacksonville holds the jazz festival as city event, and when a reporting city official attends they report it to the ethics commission.

Her advice is to get an advisory opinion on the issue from the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Mark Moriarty, chair elect of the City, County and Local Government Law section of The Florida Bar, said the spirit of the gifts laws is to prevent influencing votes.

Based on a quick recap of St. Augustine’s practice, he said it does not appear gifts laws would be implicated. He noted city has budgeted for it, co-sponsored it and it’s a longstanding event, and the city is paying full price for the tickets.

“It doesn’t sound like there’s any gifting going on,” Moriarty said.

City officials say the expense is part of their work, and the gift laws say “a ‘gift’ does not include salary, benefits, services, fees, gifts, commissions, or expenses associated primarily with one’s employment, business, or service as an officer or director of a corporation or organization,” among other things.

Lopez said Jacksonville has additional criteria, and attorneys have varying opinions about the matter. She also said there is no harm in asking for an ethics commission opinion, but does not intend to do so unless directed by the city.

“I guess it all comes down to, ‘Is it given to you as a fun freebie? Or are you there in an official capacity performing official work? That probably is the determination you have to come up with ... “ she said.

Part of the job

Some city officials who are attending said they see it as part of their job.

Horvath said she is going with her husband, both paid for by the city, and she believes strongly that it is part of her work representing the city.

Because the gala is a city function and officials attending are representing the city, she does not think there would be a requirement to disclose the ticket.

Horvath said she does not have a problem with the way things are handled.

“I think it’s fine the way it is,” Horvath said.

She said she is in favor of the city supporting commissioners to go, and said she and her husband have paid their own way in the past when she was not a commissioner.

Commissioner Leanna Freeman said the city is paying for her admission and her husband’s, and she is going because it is work-related.

“I’m going because I’m a commissioner ...” she said. “I think we should be there.”

Freeman also said the expense has to be put in perspective with the entire city budget, which is more than $56 million. And she has paid for others to attend.

“You have to look at the cost in relationship to our overall budget, our compensation and our responsibilities,” Freeman wrote in an email. “Our community has always placed great value on historic preservation, including the beautiful Lightner building, and cultural heritage. The gala promotes a continuation of these core values in our government.”

Several people could have gone but are not going for various reasons or decided to pay for themselves.

Former Mayor George Gardner said when he was in office the city followed the same policy.

“That was the case when I was mayor and I think it’s appropriate especially when we have a delegation led by the mayor of Aviles here for the Noche de Gala.”

Neville, who began his first term on the commission in November, said he and his wife are going, but he paid for his own tickets.

During commissioner orientation he was told there were certain events the city would cover the cost of because he would be representing the city, he said. But he said he would rather not accept.

Neville said as a certified public accountant, it seemed cleaner to him to pay for himself so that no one would interpret any of his later decisions as a commissioner as being swayed.

That was a personal decision, and he said he does not have a problem with the policy.

“I think it should be up to the city manager,” Neville said.

Gala attendees courtesy of the city of St. Augustine

• City Manager John Regan and wife

• Vice mayor Roxanne Horvath and husband

• Commissioner Leanna Freeman and husband

• Mark Litzinger, city comptroller, and his wife

• Dana Ste. Claire, director of the 450th Commemoration Department

• Alison Ratkovic, city clerk, and husband

• Pilar Varela Diaz, mayor of Aviles

• Javier Pagalday, deputy consul general of Spain in Miami

• Roman Antonio Alvarez Gonzalez, city council member for culture in Aviles

• Maria Del Carmen Vega Fernandez, city council member in Aviles

n Santos Yague Zapico, San Pelayo ship researcher

• Francisco Javier Garcia-Pumarino Cespedes, naval engineer and designer

Cost per ticket: $195

Total amount budgeted for Noche de Gala 2014/2015: $5,730

Total amount of check written for people planning on attending: $3,315

DANA STE. CLAIRE getting free $195 ticket


1 comment:

Warren Celli said...

Ed Slavin said; "This is so wrong on so many levels -- kudos to Sheldon Gardner and the Record for investigating pigs at the trough.
Shame on them!
We need a City ethics code.

Yes Ed, it is soooooo wrong on soooooo many levels.

It is a pity that you keep the focus on the highest pretend level — the gangster pig petty theft level — when the real story is in the lower deep down dirtiest reality level — the gangster pig gang rape and murder level. The level where the gangster pigs usurped the now scam 'Rule Of Law' to hijack the city with their endless stream of willfully and intentionally created Unconstitutional bogus Jim Crow Law. Bogus Jim Crow Law that is selectively enforced by a goon squad Judas police force. The same scam 'Rule Of Law' made in collusion with DAVID BERNARD SHOAR who now subverts justice for Michelle O'Connell.

The corporate media (Wreckit included) works overtime to convince you that many citizens that get killed by cops wanted to die. They call it “Suicide by Cop”.

But they never cover; “Slow Death By Crooked Judas Cop”, like that practiced here in Saint Hijackedstine, where the victim of intentionally created Unconstitutional self serving protectionist law is continually harassed, arrested, jailed, denied their God given and Constitutionally guaranteed right to equal opportunity and as a result they die an early death.

Let's pretend,
And let's ignore,
That those who died,
And are with us no more,
Were not abused by hijacked law,
And Judas cops that feed its maw...

We don't need a City ethics code — gangster pigs have no ethics. We need a City Charter change to a Direct Democracy electorate that would rid us of the gangster pigs.