PLANT CITY — City Commissioner Rick Lott may not have broken any laws when he voted to appoint his friend and business partner to the City Commission, but he seems to have strayed into an ethical gray area.
Political watchdog groups and others say Lott's decision to vote to appoint business partner Billy Keel to a vacant position on the five-member commission last month might create an appearance of impropriety.
"Sometimes with ethics issues it's really a gray area and we've always urged public officials to err on the side of caution," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of political watchdog Integrity Florida. "You just have to be open about what you're doing."
State records show Keel and Lott own equipment supplier Matrix Medical and another company called Oracle Home Health Care, a medical care provider to the homebound.
On Nov. 13, Lott nominated Keel to fill a vacancy created after Commissioner Dan Raulerson resigned to fill the newly created state House District 58 seat.
After a 15-minute discussion about whether another candidate might be better suited, Lott voted with Mayor Michael Sparkman and Vice Mayor Mary Thomas Mathis to appoint Keel to the open slot.
Commissioner William Dodson, who supported former Commissioner and state Rep. Rich Glorioso for the job, voted against Keel's appointment.
The Keel vote raised eyebrows because Lott didn't abstain from voting and didn't disclose beforehand that he and Keel are business partners.
But Lott says the whole issue is being blown out of proportion and that Keel is more than qualified, having a track record of civic involvement that goes back to 1991 when he returned to his hometown after earning a business finance degree from the University of Florida.
Keel, 43, is president of the Plant City Noon Rotary Club and immediate past chairman of the city's Planning Board. He also serves on the city's Pension Board for police and firefighters, the Strawberry Festival board and is a past chairman of the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce.
"First of all my job was to get someone that was the best qualified to fill that position," Lott said. "We had several people that are qualified but Billy is an individual that is very qualified.
"Everyone has a right to their opinion, but I don't think they have all the information," he continued.
City Attorney Ken Buchman says Lott was under no obligation to abstain from voting or publicly disclose his business dealings with Keel.
Sparkman and Keel said the same.
"Three of the four commissioners obviously thought I was qualified," Keel said. "Even the fourth thought I was qualified to serve. I don't think this has anything to do with Rick."
A state law governing elected leaders and ethics says politicians must abstain from voting when the outcome might materially benefit a relative, spouse, business partner or themselves.
Buchman concedes Lott and Keel are business partners but he disputes Keel's appointment to the five-member commission materially benefits either man. Keel's appointment comes with a $7,668 a year commission salary, but Buchman said, "I don't see that as personal gain."
Buchman isn't alone. Political watchdog groups and others say the salary amounts to little more than a stipend.
"I don't see a conflict with getting the remuneration," said Peter Butzin, state chairman of Common Cause Florida, a nonpartisan advocacy organization that strives to hold elected leaders publicly accountable. "I don't think this qualifies for bringing a probable-cause hearing before the state ethics commission."
Commissioners appointed Keel after voters in November backed a referendum to amend the city's charter. The change did away with special elections in favor of appointments to fill commission vacancies, saving the city up to $15,000 in special election costs.
"This was about saving the taxpayers money," Sparkman said.
Additionally, anyone appointed to the vacant spot would have to run in the general election in April to stay in office. Keel, who has made no secret of his desire to serve on the commission, says he's not opposed to running for re-election.
"The only factor here is, what is the best thing for the city of Plant City?" he said.
Still, watchdog groups say if Lott didn't break any laws, he certainly waded into an ethical gray zone.
Scott Paine, an associate professor of political science at the University of Tampa and a former two-term Tampa City Council member, said that when in doubt, politicians should get a written opinion from the city attorney.
"A $7,000 stipend may not be considered a benefit, but clearly it's a question worth asking," he said.
Lott said that "maybe in retrospect" he should have disclosed his business dealings but it was common knowledge among commissioners and many in the community. He describes himself as a silent partner in both businesses while Keel runs the day-to-day operations.
Additionally, he said he spoke with Buchman before the meeting and was told he can go ahead with the vote.
Buchman, reached last week, said no commissioners spoke with him about the voting issue, including Lott.
"They didn't come to me. Had they done it, I would have told them to go ahead with it," he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2454.