by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
A newspaper article raised some eyebrows but multiple calls to one of the members of the City of Jacksonville’s Ethics Commission caused that member to request a meeting with the City’s General Counsel Office to discuss its public records policy.
“Has anybody seen this?” asked Commission member Pat Sher, picking up an article clipped from the pages of Folio Weekly titled “Stadium Scam.” “I have, and I have gotten calls about this from concerned citizens. The public is concerned about the withholding of public records. We need to make sure the public is getting the information they request. We need to get this story rebutted from the General Counsel’s Office or at least a response.”
The article in the Oct. 7 issue described the publication’s attempts to gain access to “public documents” regarding the renovation of the Gator Bowl before it was occupied by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The publication claims its requests were rebuffed for three years because the City stated it didn’t have the documents that were requested. Those documents were made available in July 2007, according to the article.
This issue was discussed at the nine-member commission’s monthly meeting last night. Members in attendance included Sher, Mary Swart, Kirby Oberdorfer, Mary Alice Phelan, Dr. J. Patrick Plumlee, Braxton Gillam, J. W. Wilkens and Gene Filbert. Commission Chair Jay Williams was absent.
The commission discussed how to approach the information from the article and some worried that it was reacting to issues because of news coverage.
“We can’t just don a cape and swoop in on things just because there is an article written about it,” said Gillam. “We need to be thoughtful and not driven by one publication.”
As the issue was being discussed the commission’s general counsel John Phillips advised that the commission may be venturing outside of its operating area.
“Public records law is regulated by state statute,” said Phillips. “It’s not part of the City’s Ethics Code.”
He suggested the State Attorney’s Office may be better able to handle investigation of violations of the Public Records Act.
Commission member Phelan made a motion to have the City’s Ethics Officer, Carla Miller, conduct a preliminary investigation to determine if the accusations were valid. The commission voted 7-1 in favor of the motion. Sher was the lone dissenting vote.
“I feel we have put you in an untenable position with who you report to,” said Sher.
Miller, along with the commission, reports to Mayor John Peyton.
Sher later proposed a motion to request to have General Counsel Rick Mullaney, or his designee, meet with the Ethics Commission to discuss the accusations made in the Folio Weekly article. The commission voted 5-3 in favor of the motion with Plumlee, Swart, Sher, Oberdorfer, Wilkins voting for, and Gillam, Phelan and Filbert voting against.
In other business:
• The commission agreed to recommend amending its Ethics Code to delete Section 602.703 “Gift Reports” because this section required city employees to report gifts over $100. But city employees aren’t allowed to accept gifts over $100, so the section was deemed unnecessary.
• The commission accepted volunteers Sher, Oberdorfer and Braxton to serve on the subcommittee for election of new member and chair for 2009. Phelan is serving her last term.
• Since the start of the Ethics Hotline in August, 2007, calls have resulted in 29 cases opened and the office has received a total of 143 calls.