Troubled Pinellas board would face ethics training in House bill
The Florida House is forging full speed ahead with a plan to impose higher ethics laws on most city and town elected officials and to thousands of political appointees to local boards, including the Pinellas outfit that's the target of a grand jury investigation following a series of reports in the Tampa Bay Times.
The controversy that has engulfed the Pinellas Construction Licensing Board is likely to provide more impetus for the House proposals, part of House Speaker Richard Corcoran's policy agenda. Under the House proposal, most elected city officials would have to file the more detailed Form 6 statement of financial interests, which requires a reporting of assets and liabilities, property owned and the sources and amounts of income.
That's the form that legislators, county commissioners and constitutional officers must file, and the change has been a priority of the Commission on Ethics. As written, subject to change, the bill would require the use of Form 6 in every city that collects more than $5 million a year in taxes. A number of former legislators have been cited in recent years for violations of the ethics code for Form 6 omissions.
The House bill also creates Florida's first statewide local lobbyist registration system. Everyone who's paid to lobby local government would have to pay annual fees. Also under the House bill, every appointee of every board of a special district would be required to take an annual four-hour ethics course on conflicts of interest and other issues.
"We often hear people say, 'Ignorance of the law is no excuse,'" said Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, chairman of the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee. "The other side of that coin is proper information about the law so they're not ignorant."
Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, the only Pinellas lawmaker on Metz's committee, received assurances from Metz that the ethics training would apply to the Pinellas licensing board because it was created as a special district under a 1974 state law. Asked if the board needs some schooling on ethics, Ahern said: "I think so. Absolutely."
St. Petersburg building official Rick Dunn, the licensing board's interim chairman, also likes the idea. "I would support the requirement for the four-hour class," Dunn said, noting that contractors and other private citizens who serve on boards often aren't familiar with laws that govern elected and appointed officials.
Florida has about 1,840 special districts overseeing community development, fire protection, health care, mosquito control and transportation. The House's proposals would have to pass the full House and Senate and Gov. Rick Scott's signature to become law.
-- With reporting by Mark Puente, Tampa Bay Times