Onetime supporter says ethics board devolved into ‘lapdog, not a watchdog’

By Yaël Ossowski | September 10th, 2015 | Watchdog.org

The effort to reform politics in the city of Tallahassee in the form
of an appointed board was not only undermined by mistakes but also
devolved into a disappointment and failure of democracy, say principal
supporters of the plan.

“The people of Tallahassee are disgruntled, both left and right,” said Catherine Baer, head of Citizens for Ethics Reform,
the coalition formed to pass the ethics board in the city. She called
the board “a lapdog, not a watchdog, which is obviously not what we
envisioned.”

“Almost 70 percent of citizens said they wanted an independent ethics
committee, and now we’re pretty disenchanted,” Baer told Watchdog.org.

The Tallahassee Ethics Board was started after a November 2014 ballot referendum drafted by Represent.us.
The Massachusetts-based group hoped the example of Tallahassee would
created a grassroots movement to drive money out politics in cities
across the nation. The group’s second effort
to create an ethics board, this time in Lansing, Michigan, failed
before it got off the ground, when its central goals were ruled
unconstitutional two months ago.

The Tallahassee initiative was hailed by supporters from both the tea
party contingent and traditional left-wing groups as the biggest
anti-corruption measure in decades, they tell Watchdog.org.

But cracks emerged almost immediately, say two of the board’s key supporters, Baer and Preston Scott.

“The ethics board wandered well off the intent of providing an
independent oversight of the city senior staff and commissioners,” Scott
told Watchdog.org.

Scott is a local radio show host on 100.7 WFLA who has spent plenty
of airtime on the topic of the ethics board and election reforms. He
claims mainstream media around Tallahassee have been mostly silent on
the controversy.

“I’ve got very little trust in the ethics board and it will likely be
facing a lawsuit for actually going against the referendum passed last
November,” he said.

“One mistake made was allowing the city of Tallahassee staff and
commissioners to appoint a member of the ethics board,” said Scott. “The
board is made up of several appointments — one of them belonging to the
city. That is an obvious conflict of interest.”

He pointed out that the ethics committee has retained attorney Jerry
Currington of the Ausley McMullen law firm as its general counsel. But
Currington’s law firm has over $800,000 in litigation contracts with the
city, according to Tallahassee Reports and Baer.

“His law firm has a half-million dollar contract with the city of
Tallahassee, which I consider a problem,” Baer told Watchdog.org.
“That’s a conflict. He’d have to recuse himself if any city business
came up.”

Baer is dismayed at the rate at which the board is ready to pay
Currington for his services, on top of his firm’s business with the city
government.

“They hired a $267 an hour general counsel,” she said. “Where’s the transparency in this?”

Watchdog.org could not immediately verify Baer’s numbers.

What’s more, Scott says this conflict – hiring as their chief legal
advisor the attorney who represents politicians the board is supposed to
oversee – negates the very existence of the board.

“In this case, city officials (appointed and elected) placed on the
Ethics Board someone who could and would subvert the entire process,”
added Scott.

Ironically, Ausley McMullen also serves as general counsel to the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper, which has thus far not covered the ethics scandal in its own backyard.

Scott’s concerns echo previous criticisms from left-leaning groups who sought passage of the Anti-Corruption initiative, including Peter Butzin of Common Cause Florida.

“It was all done behind closed doors,” Butzin told Tallahassee Reports in July. “We don’t even know who made the decision.”

Baer hails from the local tea party faction and Butzin heads up
Common Cause, a well-known left-wing organization. That both sides are
disappointed with the ethics board and the passing of the local
anti-corruption initiative crafted by Represent.us should give pause to
other cities contemplating such as move, says Baer.

“The ethics board, when they were put in place, didn’t know what they
were doing, even though we tried to make it as diverse as possible,”
Baer told Watchdog.org. “We’re very concerned about this and will
continue to be.”

But Represent.us, which wrote the original initiative, continues to defend the ideas behind it.

“The right-left coalition that led the campaign continues to fight to
ensure proper implementation of the charter amendment and there’s
ongoing work needed to raise the ethical bar and hold city officials
accountable,” said Dan Krassner, political director of Represent.us.

Yaël Ossowski is a Canadian-American journalist and writer living in Vienna. He is founder and editor of Devolution Review, deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center, and senior development officer for Students For Liberty. He was previously a national investigative reporter at Watchdog.org. He has a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE) from the CEVRO Institute in Prague and a Bachelor's in Political Science from Concordia University, Montreal. Born in Québec and raised in the southern United States, he currently lives in Vienna, Austria, and his writings have appeared in newspapers, magazines, and online outlets across the world in multiple languages.
Website https://yael.ca
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