BROOKSVILLE — Only rarely are local officials scrutinized by the state ethics board, but earlier this month, the board reviewed the actions of two former Brooksville mayors and determined that concerns about law violations were unfounded.
The Florida Commission on Ethics looked into a complaint that Natalie Kahler, former Brooksville city council member and mayor, broke a law that prohibits public officials from lobbying their former agencies for money for two years. In June, Kahler was named executive director of the Brooksville Main Street Program, which is partially funded by the city.
In an unrelated case, the board ruled on whether former mayor and current council member Robert Battista broke state nepotism rules when the City Council discussed giving the city clerk a $10,000 raise. Jennifer Battista, his wife, is the city clerk.
In Kahler’s case, local businesswoman Lori Sowers raised the ethics question. Kahler resigned from the council in 2018 to run for the Hernando County Commission, but she was unsuccessful. She planned to run again in 2020, but dropped that plan when the Brooksville Main Street job came open.
Sowers, a local accountant, has been among those questioning the finances of the Main Street program and its parent the Brooksville Vision Foundation. In her complaint, Sowers said Kahler actively sought funding for the Main Street program from the city and county tourism offices.
The ethics commission advocate recommended no finding of cause. She cited a previous decision involving a person who served an agency and a new employer that had a common mission.
"The two entities -- the City Council and the Foundation operating as Main Street -- have a shared, unified interest in benefiting the city of Brooksville, '' wrote advocate Elizabeth Miller, in recommending that Kahler be cleared on the complaint. The commission agreed.
“I’m glad to have it over with," Kahler said. "Not that it was stressful, but it took a lot of time for the attorney.''
After the complaint was filed, Kahler stepped away from directly addressing the council on various issues. That created more challenges with communication between the city and Main Street, Kahler said.
"They’ve been complaining about communicating, and I couldn’t communicate with them,'' she said.
In the Battista case, Jennifer Battista had been a city employee on and off for 20 years when the city manager named her city clerk last year. Robert Battista said at the time he wanted to make sure he was not violating any rules. The council plays no role in selecting a city clerk, the ethics commission said, and cleared him of any concerns.
This year, during budget discussions, other council members suggested a $10,000 increase in Jennifer Battista’s salary. Robert Battista again raised a concern that, even if he recused himself from voting on her raise, he might have to leave the council.
The city attorney asked for a ruling, which was acted on by the ethics commission on December 6.
The City Council’s decision to increase the clerk’s salary would not create a nepotism problem for Robert Battista as long as the increase was within the bounds of the existing job description, the commission ruled.
Battista, who has served as both a city and a county attorney monitoring ethics issues for elected officials, said he was glad to have a formal ruling.