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Editorial: [The Times-Union]

This Editorial ran in June after the passing of a comprehensive package of ethics reform bills in the Jacksonville City Coucil.

Ethics: This progress was historic

Posted:June 19, 2011

Jacksonville residents have this self-image that we have a progressive government. But consolidation was more than 40 years ago.

In creating a strong culture of ethics in city government, Jacksonville has been left behind - until now.

With the unanimous passage of new ethics legislation Tuesday, Jacksonville's city government has the foundation, for the first time, of an independent ethics office.

It came only with great persistence from the Ethics Commission and its part-time director, Carla Miller. In fact, she put in so many hours into this venture that she used them up; she has been working as a volunteer lately,

Many others deserve a bow. There was an unlikely coalition of community groups that took an active interest: The NAACP, the tea party, the Concerned Taxpayers, the League of Women Voters, Jacksonville Community Council Inc. and the Young Democrats.

When City Council committee meetings were held on the ethics bills, the active citizens were well represented.

Citizen groups pushed back against attempts to undercut the commission's independence. This was not going to be a weak commission for show. This was going to fulfill its duties as a responsible watchdog for the people.

The final bills represented 98 percent of what the commission had recommended, Miller said.

Her motto for these efforts is: "Pick battles big enough to matter and small enough to win."

Frankly, this battle looked too big to win. But this time, history was made.

Here are a few key elements of the bills:

The intent

The new Ethics Code begins with this goal:

"Ethics is more than the avoidance of criminal behavior. It is a commitment for public servants to take individual responsibility in creating a government that has the trust and respect of its citizens. There needs to be a proactive approach in strengthening the emphasis on ethics and in guiding city officers and employees in upholding them."

The members

Appointments are made in a traditional way. Appointments are made by these six: mayor, council president, state attorney, public defender, chief judge and sheriff. The commission itself will appoint three members. All appointments will be confirmed by City Council.

There are defined standards for the members. Examples: An attorney, an accountant, a former judge, a higher education faculty member, a former law enforcement officer experienced in investigating public corruption or a former board member of an independent authority.

The ethics officer

There is a long list of duties that involve more education and prevention than most realize.

Complaints remain anonymous. As Miller said recently, many city employees fear retaliation.

Independent Powers

The commission may investigate sworn written complaints. Or, by a supermajority vote of six of the nine members, it can initiate an investigation on its own.

Due process is included. And if a complaint is found to be frivolous, the commission may order the complaining party to pay costs and attorneys fees.

Conflicts and gifts

The code states it is unlawful for officers or employees of the city or an independent agency to intentionally use their official positions to secure by coercion or threat a special privilege or exemption ... or to secure confidential information for any purpose other than official responsibilities.

Watch out if a city employee asks, "Do you know who I am?"

The code restricts city employees from accepting any one gift greater than $100 or a total of gifts in any calendar year of more than $250 from a lobbyist or someone doing business with the city.

The code, though impressive, is still just a start. It can stand to be beefed up in the lobbyist provisions. And there continue to be public records and sunshine issues that crop up with new technology.

The ethics code is a historic moment for Jacksonville.

Congratulations to everyone who took part.

You should be proud.

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