making local government more ethical

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Folio Weekly - rock and a harden place

Date posted: 2008-11-04

At a special meeting held Friday, the Jacksonville Ethics Commission responded to a challenge to the city’s ethics code by reminding one of the city’s most powerful lobbyists and land use attorneys that failure to comply with new stricter reporting requirements might mean facing a municipal code violation with up to 10 days in jail and a $25 fine.Commissioners voted to send lobbyist and attorney Paul Harden a letter reminding him of the new stricter reporting requirements, and in a conciliatory move, invited him to address commissioners at their next regularly scheduled meeting on April 28. At the behest of General Counsel’s practice group chief Jon Phillips, commissioners also agreed to allow Phillips and city’s Ethics Officer Carla Miller to try to arrange a private meeting with Harden to discuss his problems with the reporting requirements.

Since January, the city has sent three letters to city lobbyists informing them that city code had been amended to require more specific information on who lobbyists are working for when lobbying the city, and giving an April 7 deadline for compliance. The city is also now requiring that lobbyists update their client and issues lists with any changes. Most lobbyists (about 50) have provided detailed lists of their individual clients, Miller said. The list of lobbyists and their clients is also now posted online at

Someone reading city code might think that lobbyists were already required to provide a list of clients, but until the City Council made the reporting requirements clearer in January, the majority of lobbyists simply wrote, “various clients and issues” on the portion of the registration form where they were asked to disclose clients and issues. The Ethics Officer Miller says that truncated information was useless to the public and didn’t provide the transparency that city disclosure laws aim to provide.

Harden left no doubt, though, that he considers that information privileged. In the April 7 letter to Miller, Harden said he’d registered the same way annually since March 1985 — 23 years — and that he believes his current registration, which expires in July 2008, complies with city code. His current registration uses the standard line, “various issues and clients.” And he let it be known he wasn’t planning to provide any more information – and that he plans to keep lobbying.”

“So there is no misunderstanding, I do intend to continue to practice law as I have done for many years, including representation of clients in legislative and executive matters within the City of Jacksonville. I represent to you as a member of the Florida Bar and an Officer of the Court, I believe I am in compliance with both the clear language and interpretations of the Municipal Code on the these matters,” Harden wrote

Phillips cautioned commissioners that he found the city code “vague” and said he didn’t know if he would want to defend it in a lawsuit filed by Harden, and suggested if one wanted to know who’d hired Harden it was easy to ask various companies who they’d hired. Despite that advice, commissioners agreed their job was to uphold the code. While commissioners didn’t threaten to throw Harden in jail or to ban him from lobbying, they didn’t cave to Harden’s dismissive letter.

“This is much about the spirit about what is going on here as the exact letter of the law,” said commissioner John Patrick Plumlee, a City Council appointee to the commission and associate professor of political science and public administration at UNF. “And I think everybody here sees that the spirit is that this person says, ‘I don’t have to do this. and try to make me. And if you do, I’m going to give you a hard time about it and everybody is going to run and hide.’ If you don’t respond to this sort of thing early on then what are you here for?”