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After audit, Tarpon Springs looks into ethics code, fraud reporting

TARPON SPRINGS — To set expectations and outline what's "right," city officials are creating an ethics policy.

In addition to being a local code of ethics, the policy would establish procedures for reporting fraud through a hotline for whistle-blowers.

The recent discussion comes after an internal audit earlier this year recommended the policies, city officials said. The city used a new auditing firm, which included an expert in forensic accounting and fraud examination.

"It's better to have a written policy that deals with matters such as ethics and whistle-blowing," Mayor David Archie said. "I think more so than the thought that there's something wrong, it's just a matter of being proactive."

A draft of the policy says that city employees, volunteers and officials are "responsible for demonstrating the highest standards of trust, honesty and integrity in order to maintain public confidence."

The proposed code also reiterates state rules on gifts, conflict of interest, abuse of power and city-owned assets. Drafted procedures for providing information on fraud, waste or abuse would protect employees and contractors against retaliation.

A proposed hotline for whistle-blowers' complaints would be operated by an outside agency, with a toll-free number, fax number and website, said city finance director Arie Walker. Initial startup fees would amount to about $2,000 with a $2,000 yearly maintenance cost.

"If you were to do one thing that will save the city money, it's a good thing to do and it's a minimal cost," Walker told commissioners last month.

Walker estimated the city would receive about one complaint each year.

Tarpon Springs city commissioners will likely take up the idea again Tuesday. The city is still exploring whether it can legally promise anonymity to callers, how the hotline works and how the city can investigate complaints internally without running into conflicts of interest.

It's somewhat unusual for a city as small as Tarpon Springs to explore such a hotline, city officials said. Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa — all considerably larger — have similar ways to report complaints.

Few other Florida municipalities have rules similar to those Tarpon Springs is contemplating, according to Florida League of Cities legislative counsel Kraig Conn. The state ethics code and whistle-blowing statute cover issues extensively, he said, so usually cities write their own supplemental laws to impose more stringent regulations that can be enforced on a local level.

It all depends, Conn said, on how cities prioritize their ethics and whether they choose to address issues through local standards.

In 2004, the city of Dunedin adopted an ethics code that focuses on civility and respect. "There are no moral policemen," said Dunedin Vice Mayor Ron Barnette, the code's creator. "It's going to hold up a mirror to ourselves and say, well, who are we as employees of the city, and particularly leaders of the city? How do we treat one another? How do we want to be represented?"

The code serves as a light reminder of public duties.

"Sometimes telling the public and explaining in a forthright way the principles that you adhere to, it's very important that they see that," Barnette said. "They'll hold you up to those standards — and they should."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or swang@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

After audit, Tarpon Springs looks into ethics code, fraud reporting 10/31/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 6:52pm]
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