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Don't undermine ethics in Tampa

With a federal corruption probe circling, Tampa officials picked a bizarre time to blow more holes in the city's ethics laws. No good can come from allowing members of city boards to obtain city business. The move invites trouble and subverts the very idea of public service.

The proposal would change the city charter to allow members of appointed boards to obtain city business. City Attorney Jim Palermo wrote that the existing ban placed an "untenable hardship on board members" and made it "difficult, if not impossible, to appoint certain types of individuals."

Those claims are ridiculous. State law already allows tremendous leeway for private citizens to seek public business while serving on government boards. Conflicts, in most cases, can be waived after full disclosure and a vote by City Council.

The real problem is government insiders getting too many contracts, not too few. That message was underscored by the contract scandal unearthed this week at the Tampa Housing Authority (whose members are city-appointed). The way to fill board vacancies is to advertise the jobs, give the panels more authority, or even to consider merging the responsibilities of some two dozen committees into a more manageable number.

Ethics aside, the city charter is the wrong place for such special-interest legislation. The amendment would undermine the requirement that board members disclose their private business interests. It could render impossible an examination of whether board members traded on inside information. It gives public officials the opportunity to manipulate competitive bids. And it relieves City Council, wrongly, of the need to justify insider contracts on a case-by-case basis.

The council should refuse to place the amendment on the March 1999 city ballot. Chumming the water is a technique for bringing sharks to the surface. It is no way to fill positions of public trust.