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Gillam

A look at Jacksonville’s ethics laws

by Braxton Gillam, Ethics Commission member

In 1968, the charter for the creation of a consolidated government for the City of Jacksonville was passed. Among the many notable provisions of the original version included the first ethics code governing the conduct of local officials.

In addition, the charter provided that the Civil Service Board would serve as the original Ethics Commission. In a state that is recognized as a leader in establishing ethical standards for public officials, the Jacksonville ethics code was adopted even before its statewide counterpart became law. Jacksonville truly was “First in Florida.”

Unfortunately, in 1972, shortly after Florida’s ethics code was passed, the Jacksonville charter was amended to delete the ethics code provisions. For almost two decades, there was no centralized ethics code or commission.

In 1991, after a number of federal indictments of local officials for corruption, the City Council passed a local ordinance reconstituting the Jacksonville Ethics Commission as a separate board.

This commission was comprised of nine members: six of whom were appointed by the mayor, Council, Board of Education, Fourth Judicial Circuit chief judge, Civil Service Board and state attorney, with a selection each. The remaining three were selected by the six appointees. The commission had no staff and only vague responsibilities to educate and encourage ethical conduct among local officials.

In 1999, the first ethics code for the City was passed into law in Chapter 602.

In 2007, the code was significantly revised to provide for an ethics “hotline,” to allow for the anonymous reporting of corruption in government. Since then, the Jacksonville ethics “hotline” has received several hundred calls, resulting in investigations that have saved tax payers, at a minimum, more than $1 million.

In 2010, the charter was amended to reinsert the requirement of strong ethical codes within our local ordinances, including the creation of a separate independent office of Ethics, Compliance and Oversight (ECO). Its responsibilities include coordination of educational programs and ethics compliance across the numerous aspects of our local government and to provide that the office director be appointed by the citizen Ethics Commission.

Pursuant to charter revisions, Chapter 602 was significantly revised in 2011 to include duties and responsibilities for the newly created ECO director. That included oversight responsibilities for the Ethics Commission, amending the constitution of the commission and detailing the manner that complaints are received or instituted by the commission.

In addition to requiring a separate budget for the ECO office — while directing reports to the commission — the amended code provides for interaction by its director with each division within City government and the constitutionally recognized independent authorities.

The commission continues to consist of nine volunteer members, three of whom are selected by six specially appointed members. The appointing authorities have changed to include: the mayor, Council president, public defender, state attorney, chief judge and sheriff.

In addition, the code now details certain experience that the six specially appointed members must have for eligibility to hold office.

While the actual standards of conduct addressed within Chapter 602 need updating to address our growing understanding of best practices to ensure transparent and open government, a notable advance in our most recent code revisions allows for the commission to self-initiate complaints and investigations of potentially corrupt activities or conduct. Alternatively, the commission can receive sworn written complaints from residents in a manner similar to the procedure provided for complaints to the state Ethics Commission.

While the amended charter and revised code requires funding for the newly created ECO office — staffed by the tireless efforts of Carla Miller — the work of the commission largely remains the product of volunteers.

From law school student interns and former FBI agent investigators to citizen groups like the League of Women Voters, Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County and commission members themselves, citizen involvement is critical to success of the commission’s work.

The commission meets monthly, usually at City Hall in the Don Davis Room. You are invited to attend and encouraged to participate. This, after all, is your government. Meeting dates and times are listed on the City Ethics website at coj.net.

For more information about Jacksonville’s ethics laws and how to volunteer to assist the commission, contact Carla Miller, ECO director at 630-1476 or email ecoethics@coj.net.

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