To the Editor: Clean-up good ol’ boy practices and wink-and-nudge government

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Senator Don Gaetz

Dear Neighbor,

In September when a group of Okaloosa County elected officials met with over 200 citizens in an “Accountability Okaloosa” town hall meeting, one of the topics on many minds was tightening financial controls and improving fiscal stewardship at the county level.

The elephant in the room was the Tourist Development Council scandal replete with theft on a grand scale, suicide, and auditors’ reports citing lack of oversight by the county commission and predicting future problems unless there was change.

Significant change came at the voting booth. A county commissioner and clerk of courts chose to leave office instead of facing voters. Elections sent a second commissioner packing. Still, the moral of the Okaloosa county mismanagement scandal is that good government has to be based on more than what politicians do when no one’s looking. Good government requires a solid code of ethics and clear, tough, transparent oversight policies.

A long stride toward local government accountability was made today in the Florida Senate with the passage of SB 1372, which I’m privileged to sponsor. The bill, negatively inspired by the Okaloosa experience, is a clean-up of ol’ boy practices and wink-and-nudge government. It doesn’t go as far as I would prefer but, as Jeb Bush said about education, when it comes to ethics, “Reform is never finished. Success is never final.”

SB 1372 has a wide sweep, bringing more open government sunshine and better fiscal behavior to school districts, charter schools, colleges and universities, public hospitals, regional transportation authorities, state boards and commissions, public/private partnerships like Enterprise Florida, water management districts, tourist development boards and, yes, county and city governments.

Responding to the excuses of some officials who shrug that, while unfortunate, sloppy management isn’t against the law, the legislation defines “abuse” as “misuse of authority or position for personal gain” and “fraud” as “intentional misstatements or omissions…to deceive users of financial statements.” “Waste” means “using or expending resources unreasonably, carelessly, extravagantly, or for no useful purpose.” All are illegal under this bill and local and state government bodies are required to establish controls designed to prevent, detect and reveal them.

The bill slams shut a side door that had allowed local officials to set up artificial entities to indirectly do business with the government boards on which they serve.

For the first time, persons attempting to influence contracts or funding arrangements with school boards, local governments or special districts have to register as lobbyists and publicly disclose who they represent and who they are lobbying.

All local governments must post their proposed or amended budgets on their websites for 45 days and keep final budgets posted for at least two years.

Under previous legislation, which I sponsored and which became law, excessive “golden parachute” termination pay and bonuses unrelated to performance were outlawed. That law, as well, was inspired by Okaloosa county government multi-million dollar abuses practiced by a former sheriff and tax collector. SB 1372 puts teeth in that existing statute by rewarding whistleblowers, requiring that illegal compensation be recovered from those who received it (it wasn’t in the Okaloosa cases) and punishing officials who knowingly approve unlawful compensation.

This year’s bill goes further and prohibits taxpayer funds or Medicaid funds from being used for excessive pay-outs to public hospital administrators.

What aroused the ire of Okaloosa taxpayers in the wake of the TDC scandal was the reluctance of then-commissioners to remedy the 82 failings the state Auditor General cited in the county government’s financial policies. SB 1372 requires local governments to hold public meetings to enact corrective actions or explain publically why the actions won’t be taken.

The bill also mandates that outside auditors for local governments be selected by a committee that doesn’t include the officials whose management is to be audited.

Extending the landmark state ethics reforms which I authored and which were passed in 2013, SB 1372 prohibits members and officers of public/private partnership from lobbying the boards they’ve served on for a period of two years after leaving office.

The vast majority of women and men who serve in local and state government positions are people of integrity and good intentions. However, all of us understand from the uncontrolled abuses of Okaloosa County government, that good intentions and blind trust aren’t nearly enough.

One of the successes of “Accountability Okaloosa” is learning good lessons from bad examples. SB 1372 now heads to the House of Representatives, where Representative Larry Metz is sponsoring a companion measure. I look forward to passage there and approval by the Governor.

If you have opinions, criticisms or suggestions about this legislation or any issue before the Legislature, please write, email or call me. Your guidance makes me a better senator.
Respectfully,

Don Gaetz

Northwest Florida

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