The Tallahassee City Commission voted 3-1 Wednesday to side with the city attorney against a legal interpretation that would have expanded the reach of the municipality’s independent ethics board.
The issue came before the Commission as a result of a request in September from a member of the ethics board for a legal opinion on whether the board’s jurisdiction expands to board members and employees of the City of Tallahassee Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and the Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency (Blueprint).
Two differing legal opinions were provided on the issue in December: one from the ethics board’s legal counsel, John Laurance Reid, another from City Attorney Cassandra Jackson. The board asked the City Commission to settle the dispute.
Reid’s opinion concluded that because city commissioners serve on the CRA and Blueprint boards because of their city government positions, their actions on those boards fall under the jurisdiction of the ethics board.
However, Jackson’s opinion disagreed, arguing the CRA and Blueprint are independent legal entities separate from the city, and the jurisdiction of the ethics board is limited to officers and employees of the city of Tallahassee and members, officers, and employees of city of Tallahassee boards, commissions, and committees. Instead, she argued CRA and Blueprint fall under the jurisdiction of the State Ethics Commission, and a referendum would be required to place commissioners and city employees who work with those agencies under the ethics board’s jurisdiction.
In the Commission’s vote, Commissioners Jack Porter, Curtis Richardson and Dianne Williams-Cox backed Jackson’s interpretation, while Mayor John Dailey was the only one to endorse Reid’s. Commissioner Jeremey Matlow abstained from the vote because an anonymous complaint against him made to the ethics board is still open.
Porter said she is interested in expanding the board’s jurisdiction, but agreed with Jackson’s opinion. She said her vote does not mean she is against expanding it using the right legal channels.
“I definitely don’t want this to become an issue that is framed as you support ethics or you don’t,” Porter said.
Dailey publicly backed Reid’s findings before the meeting took place. A letter he wrote to the ethics board chair supporting Reid’s interpretation was sent to dozens of local media personnel on Jan. 13. He also published a copy of his letter on Twitter.
In response to their request, I sent the following letter to the Chairman of the Tallahassee Independent Ethics Board making clear my position that I will not support the creation of any loopholes or exemptions allowing the City Commission to not follow our Ethics Code. pic.twitter.com/ENxXIvnebV
— Mayor John E. Dailey (@MayorOfTLH) January 14, 2022
“When we, as members of the City Commission, sit on Blueprint and the CRA, we do so only because we are elected members of the Tallahassee City Commission,” Dailey’s letter said. “To suggest that we would somehow be exempt from following the Tallahassee Ethics Code simply because we removed our City Commission hat and donned our Blueprint or CRA hat not only defies common sense and the public’s expectation that we hold ourselves to the highest ethical standard, but it would also violate the precedent already set by the Tallahassee Independent Ethics Board.”
Dailey elaborated on that precedent in the letter and during the meeting. He pointed out that an ethics complaint was submitted against him in June 2020 due to actions he took as a CRA board member that were eventually thrown out and Dailey’s attorney’s fees were paid by the city. He said no consideration was made for whether the board had jurisdiction when that complaint was being considered.
“The city attorney’s office was silent. The manager’s office was silent. The inspector general’s office was silent. In my mind, the precedent has been set,” he said.
Commissioner Richardson disagreed.
“We respect your opinion, but yours is just that, an opinion,” Richardson said. “It is not based on law or legalities.”
Richardson also said if the mayor objected to the ethics board’s jurisdiction at the time, it likely would have gone to the State Ethics Commission.
Later in the meeting, the Commission voted 3-2 to deny a motion by Matlow and seconded by Porter to ask Jackson to conduct further analysis on the legal processes required to put the CRA and Blueprint boards under the ethics board’s jurisdiction.
Matlow said he wanted to explore expanding the jurisdiction by local referendum. Jackson said the Commission, in theory, can pass an ordinance expanding the jurisdiction that would then have to go to a resident referendum to be approved.
Williams-Cox said she believed that the process of expanding it was already known.
“I understand the spirit of where you (Matlow) are, but the city attorney already told us what it would take,” she said.