Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Record Editorial on Ethics Commission Opinions

An otherwise good St. Augustine Record editorial oddly omits foot dragging by City Attorney RONALD WAYNE BROWN in 2014 in response to my request that Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) Chair LEN WEEKS and other HARB members file disclosure. Instead of an ethics opinion, he asked Ms. LOPEZ, his understudy, to call for "some protection." BROWN was a maladroit good-ole-boy who said whatever Mayor JOE BOLES wanted him to say, a clown and a farce as City Attorney for the most part. Too many local government attorneys hereabouts "count to three" rather than give sagacious legal advice. The Record "spin" omits this fact, and the City's continuing hostility to ethics and open records laws.

Editorial: St. Augustine's setting ethics precedents... before the fact
Posted: December 9, 2015 - 10:17pm | Updated: December 10, 2015 - 12:00am

The city of St. Augustine is two-for-two in recent months in “stumping the ethics commission,” if we might employ a game show metaphor.

The Florida Ethics Commission’s role is basically two-fold in practice. It receives more requests for ethics opinion “clarifications” than “investigations.” These are two separate procedures.

In September, Mayor Nancy Shaver asked for an opinion as to whether she might have a conflict of interest prior to a vote (which never happened) on whether commissioners would sanction and bankroll a defamation lawsuit against Michael Gold and his Historic City News.

The opinion is generally given by staff lawyers who look for precedents and match them with the opinion requests. If they find that the issue is precedent-setting, the issue goes to the board itself. That happened in the case of the Shaver request.

It also happened in a separate case in October.

City Attorney Isabelle Lopez asked for another clarification: whether members of the Historic Architectural Review Board members might be required to fill out financial disclosure statements similar to those already mandatory for political candidates and most appointed advisory boards — locally including Planning and Zoning, the St. Augustine Adjustment & Appeals, Community Redevelopment Agency boards and others.

Lopez described the language employed in the existing statute as both “squirrely” and “disjunctive” — demonstrating that she is, simultaneously, a human being and an attorney.

The same scenario played out. The attorneys could not answer the question with precedent and forwarded the issue to the commission itself. They rightly decided that, yes, the HARB board was required to disclose finances.

The issues were similar in another way in that in both cases the requests for clarification were initiated by the party affected — in these cases, Shaver and HARB.

Two thoughts here on the HARB ruling. Kudos to HARB members for seeking the decision themselves — and to adhering quickly and completely to the ethics commission ruling.

And the commission was correct in its ruling. They probably tanked the language of the law because it IS squirrely and disjunctive. A thinking person could not have beaten a straight answer out of the offending paragraph with ball-peen hammer.

The truth is that HARB members hold a great amount of sway over the historical integrity of our city. You really can’t put a price on that. But their decisions can quite literally make or break the dreams and/or finances of an owner seeking their approval.

It’s much more than just demolitions. But in that regard alone, there are dozens of social and financial intersections that could create conflict in any of their decisions. It’s a small town with a tight core of contractors specializing in historic restoration and preservation.

The financial disclosures are clearly a needed step for HARB members. The forms themselves are, to a large degree, non-specific in terms of how much you’re worth, keying more on where it’s coming from. There’s a simple form in which gifts are specified. That’s about it.

It’ a good thing all around. And it does seem laudable that the questions are being raised by this city — seeking guidance before the fact. Asking for permission rather than a pardon.

It’s both proactive and transparent.


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