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Press: Jacksonville Times Union

Ethics office budget stirs city turmoil

Confusion over an increase has raised eyebrows and questions.

By DAVID HUNT, The Times-Union

In Mayor John Peyton's proposed budget, it looked like the city ethics office stood to receive a 70 percent boost.

Photo: BRUCE LIPSKY/The Times-Union

Looks can be deceiving, said Ethics Officer Carla Miller, who explained that the increase amounted to about $3,000.

The ethics office budget request for next year, including her salary, is $99,000.

The approved figure for this year was $58,000, but an amendment to begin paying Miller increased that to $96,000.

Finance Committee Chairman Michael Corrigan agreed this is where the confusion began.

Still, the percentage had raised eyebrows, triggering a back-and-forth that included a nasty letter and questions of whether the ethics office was wasting time providing the same services as other city lawyers.

Miller, a former federal prosecutor, had volunteered as an ethics officer since 1999. Late last year, amid probes into shady city contracts and questionably legal City Council meetings, she was voted into a paid position at $85 an hour, up to $75,000 annually.

Before Thursday's finance committee meeting, State Attorney Harry Shorstein sent a letter saying, "Fund the office with the same vigor ... when city officials were under" investigation.

Councilman Jack Webb, who motioned to hold off funding the office before the committee could get answers, said he supports the ethics office but his role as a public official is to dig into the budget.

"The state attorney writes us a scathing letter when we do the right thing," Corrigan added. "It doesn't make sense."

Miller said she's trying to build an "ethical culture," a way of encouraging City Hall to police itself while the public regains confidence in city officials.

In June, a Virginia polling organization, the Tarrance Group, found 35 percent of Jacksonville voters approved of City Council. That was a drop from a similar University of North Florida poll listing a 54 percent approval rating.

Miller said the challenge lies in getting employees to step forward.

"It's not something airy-fairy like, 'ooh, we're getting an ethical culture,' " she said. "It's not something cute. ... It's the heart."

A cornerstone of Miller's office is the city's ethics hot line, (904) 630-1015, which was established about a year ago.

Miller said she's taken 130 calls, many of them coming in recently as she trains more and more City Hall employees about the ethics code. While some calls are general complaints - anger about the recent solid waste and stormwater fees led a couple of people to dial in - the hot line has prompted 18 ethics investigations.

The hot line was part of reform triggered in part by the Times-Union exposing city deals with ProLogic Consulting and GreenBean Corporate Organizing Solutions. Both companies had connections to Peyton, who later said it was "inexcusable" that either was hired. Another Times-Union investigation exposed potential violations in the state's public meetings laws as City Council members talked business outside the public forum.

"We've got a leader in that department," Peyton said this week. "I think she brings good value."

[email protected], (904) 359-4025

"We've got a leader in that department. I think she brings good value." MAYOR JOHN PEYTON


Ethics officer:Carla Miller lists some accomplishments and goals. A-8


After nearly a decade of volunteering as the city's ethics officer, Carla Miller was put onto the city payroll late last year. Her $99,000 proposed ethics office budget caused a ruffle as City Council's Finance Committee examined whether she was duplicating services of the Office of General Counsel.

Miller cites as accomplishments:
  • Fielding 130 calls on an ethics hot line.
  • Initiating 18 investigations, closing five of them and leading to minor adjustments to the Mayor's Hispanic American Advisory Board and city Animal Control.
  • Training more than 1,000 city employees about government ethics while encouraging them to report problems.
Goals for the coming year include:
  • Refining guidelines to build City Hall into what Miller calls an "ethical culture" that can better police itself.
  • Continuing to train employees about what to look for and to use the hot line.
  • - Following up on city audits that indicated ethics breeches to ensure the problems have been solved.