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Time for a strong disclosure ordinance

July 15, 2016
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Cape Coral officials are quick - and correct - to tout two key facts about our city: The Cape is the largest and most populous municipality between Tampa and Miami, and it is again one of the fastest growing.

With large-scale projects glimmering on the horizon, including Bimini Basin, Seven Islands and more, Cape Coral is poised to become not only Lee County's most prominent city, but a regional player as well.

City staff is gearing up for these potential game changers by developing the planning "infrastructure" to move such propositions forward into public-private partnership proposals that have the potential for viability.

For example, new land-use regulations and proposed zoning changes for Bimini are working their way through the approval process, again to create the base upon which the city can build a development platform sound enough to attract major players.

We would like to see City Council add another cornerstone to that foundation.

It is time - some would say past time - for the city to grab Lee County's playbook to foster transparency throughout the concept-to-construction process.

Since the late '90s, Lee County has enhanced state ethics and disclosure laws by enacting some form of "lobbying ordinance" to assure a level playing field for projects coming before the Lee County Board of County Commissioners.

The most recent ordinance, in effect since July 1, 2003, requires a number of disclosures that also make sense for the Cape, which is on the same development cusp as was the county.

The county ordinance requires a number of things:

Lobbyists, in general, are defined as "any person, firm, entity 'paid or unpaid'" who seeks to "encourage the passage, defeat or modification" of any item to be presented to a vote before the commission, a county decision-making body or a county employee who can make a recommendation. Paid lobbyists must register and file quarterly disclosure forms.

The ordinance applies to all communications, written or oral, to a commission member, board member or county employee including those in the county manager's office, the county attorney's office, all department directors and all employees within the purchasing division and contracts office.

The ordinance requires uniform logs detailing the date; whether the contact was by phone or visit; the name of the person making the contact and whether he or she was representing another person or entity and the topic discussed. There also is room for comments. The logs are filed quarterly to the Clerk of Courts with an office copy retained.

The ordinance provides enough exceptions to allow the county to conduct its day-to-day operations but not for a whole lot else.

The ordinance has some teeth: The penalty, for a willful violation, is a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500 and 60 days in jail.

Whether anyone has been "bitten" is a different story but enforcement could be addressed by City Council through consideration of a provision that treats "repeats" differently from any "non-willful" first offense.

We like the county ordinance: it's simple and straightforward. Still, there are some minor modifications and areas of special emphasis we recommend for inclusion in a city disclosure ordinance:

- There should be an explicit no-exception for union representatives speaking in that capacity to individual council members or others who are required to log.

- Each quarter, certain public officials, including members of city council, must report any gifts valued at $100 or more with the state. (Gifts of any value by lobbyists or vendors are wholly prohibited.) For ease of access to residents, council policy should require that these Commission on Ethics gift forms be posted on the city website. The city already posts required annual financial disclosure forms so the procedure is already in place.

- A pre-vote disclosure process, via a written form or by on-the-record verbal notice, should be included. If a member of council or staff has been "lobbied" as per the definition in the ordinance, that should be disclosed from the dais.

- Income/business disclosure. In theory, city officials already disclose sources of income and business partnerships on their state financial disclosure forms. If a proposal that benefits a business or individual comes before council for a vote, council members should be required to disclose any business, financial or personal relationship. This does not preclude a vote unless it meets the state recusal standard of direct benefit.

- The use of any city computer, cell phone or device for personal communications should be expressly prohibited. The use of a personal device to discuss city matters should be prohibited. Current policies have created a public records nightmare for city staff - and the public - as "personal" communications apparently take hours to cull from city devices.

Cape officials say our community is poised on the precipice of realized potential.

It is up to City Council - this City Council - to assure that the leap upwards is safeguarded with transparency.

The county bridged the way with a strong lobbying ordinance intended to provide both public assurance and protection years ago.

The city of Cape Coral now needs to do the same.

When conducting the public's business, there should be nothing to hide.

- Breeze editorial



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