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Bowen: Pasco anti-corruption movement kicks off in Dade City

An anti-corruption movement is starting in Dade City, but its proponents don't envision an ending until governments for all six cities and Pasco County are on board.

"We can all stand against corruption,'' said Elise Mysles of Land O'Lakes, the leader of the recently organized Represent Pasco citizens group. "It doesn't matter which side of the fence you are on. Anti-corruption is an American value we can all stand behind.''

In this instance, the nonpartisan group focused on Dade City, not because it's considered particularly dirty, but because it already was doing a 10-year review of its city charter.

Last week, the seven-member charter review commission finalized its report to the City Commission, which included a unanimous recommendation to include an ethics standard for elected officials and hired employees. Within six months of the charter change, the commission must adopt a local code of ethics with enforcement provisions.

Separate from the charter amendments, the committee also recommended that the City Commission adopt a local ordinance capping campaign contributions in city elections to $250. That is the tool adopted by the city of Cocoa Beach, one of the models for the anti-corruption movement in Florida.

It should be noted that Dade City's seven-member charter committee isn't a bunch of stiffs. Members include Steve Hickman, president and CEO of the First National Bank of Pasco; Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper and high school educator and coach Jim Ward.

The 7-0 vote "makes it a little more difficult for them to ignore some of these recommendations,'' said the panel's facilitator, Marilyn Crotty, director of the John Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government at the University of Central Florida.

And Tepper noted the collaborative work by the committee, which has been meeting since the summer.

"It's not like somebody was a bully or was doing somebody's bidding,'' she said.

The group is scheduled to present its recommendations to the City Commission on Dec. 5. If the commission concurs, the proposed charter amendments will go to city voters in April 2018.

Incidentally, some of the other recommendations include requiring a four-fifths vote to terminate the city manager and a caveat that a commissioner must forfeit his or her office if convicted of a misdemeanor "involving dishonesty or false statement.'' Currently, it takes a felony conviction to get booted from office.

You have to credit this group's thinking. They don't want the city manager's career subjected to political whims, and they don't want thieves and liars sitting in public office.

Represent Pasco is seeking others to follow Dade City's lead in considering the adoption of provisions of the national movement known as the American Anti-Corruption Act. It's not a new pitch. Two years ago, amid Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran's push for a charter form of government in Pasco County, activist Clay Colson of Land O'Lakes asked Pasco's charter advisory committee to consider the ethics and campaign finance reforms adopted by voters in the city of Tallahassee.

Yes, I know. It's hard to look upon Tallahassee as a pillar of good government when its Community Redevelopment Agency is part of an FBI investigation and the city manager just took a leave of absence because there is a state ethics probe of his alleged taking of college football tickets from a lobbyist.

But now you know why it is imperative to put ethical standards down in writing and include punitive measures for violating them.

That was one of the problems in Port Richey last decade amid a grand jury probe of the then-mayor running roughshod over the building department to try to get permits for his buddies.

The grand jury recommended that the city add a punitive clause to its charter since it already prohibited elected council members from butting into day-to-day operations of the city, but included no way to sanction those who did so.

Not surprisingly, the grand jury recommendation fell on deaf ears at Port Richey City Hall.

That shouldn't be allowed to happen in Dade City. And if the commission follows its advisory panel's advice, it won't.

Among the committee's ideas is a city-financed public education campaign to explain the proposed amendments to the electorate.

Ward, a member of the charter committee, said he believed the proposed amendments would help spur voter turnout in next year's municipal election. And, his logic mirrored the sentiment of Represent Pasco.

"I think there's people out there a little bit concerned,'' said Ward, "and they want to have a say in their city.''