Not too many weeks ago, the Jacksonville City Council confirmed Carla Miller to be head ethics officer for three more years.
Miller will be in the role during a pivotal time in Jacksonville history: an exploration of JEA privatization, with a potential sale in the offing that could net the city $3 to $6 billion … and could make those involved in engineering the deal considerably richer as well.
Additionally, there are those who wonder if termed out politicians and lobbyists will be in a position to profit after the fact.
In that context, a meeting of the legislative subcommittee of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission Wednesday afternoon was notable: a discussion of revising the city’s ethics code, which has some provisions going back 40 years … a lifetime in the world of influence peddling and campaign finance.
The timing couldn’t have been better. The JEA Board will workshop the concept. The Jacksonville City Council will have its own special committee on the topic. And, though it’s early in the game, the Florida Times-Union already is pushing for an exploration of the sale.
With all of these different actors, and a process that will be sprawling if it proceeds, an examination of ethics code revisions was in order.
“The biggest issue in the city right now is the potential sale of JEA,” Miller said. “Is our code adequate?”
With city elections looming, there are temptations for blurrings of lines, in this “unique time period where people who are termed out, looking for new things to do … a clump of people coming in … and a multi-billion dollar decision.”
Chair Mary Bland Love noted that the committee has some “self-teaching” to do on code.
“This JEA thing is a way to [see] if the code [suits] a multibillion dollar decision,” Love said, noting the JEA and Council workshops, and other community groups gauging the concept.
“Our lobbying code provisions are inadequate generally, and particularly inadequate in terms of [the JEA decision],” Miller said, citing “revolving door” issues with people promised jobs after employment.
“Do we let that occur?” Miller asked.
“Political action committees will be very active in the next year,” Miller predicted, with the election and JEA messaging, and discrepancies between financial disclosures at the state and local level.
527 issues — direct mail, especially funded by “dark money“: also a significant issue, especially given how these communiques come from third party committees and the money is untraceable.
As is the $100 gift limit, easily circumvented via a contribution to a political action committee.
“There are no restrictions,” Miller said, when a donor decides to cut a check.
Unregistered lobbyists: another issue Miller identified, along with other occlusions of transparency. Some lobbyists exploit loopholes, saying they weren’t being paid on a given day.
“We’re really lacking in the lobbying area … not up to the standards of other cities,” Miller remarked.
Subcommittee members were cautious of a focus on the JEA sale; Miller noted these issues related to influence peddling recur with big ticket issues.
“The stakes are very high,” Miller said. “If we’re going to do this kind of stuff, let’s do it now while it will make a difference on a multi-billion dollar contract.”
“If we’re not going to make [rules] effective on stuff like this,” Miller continued, “what’s the point?”
This process would take months, between going through the ethics commission process, then the six-week legislative cycle.
The subcommittee will consider these issues again in a few weeks.