LAUDERDALE DELAYS ETHICS LAW VOTE - COMMISSIONERS TO SEEK LEGAL OPINION FIRST


South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL) - June 25, 2007

Author: Brittany Wallman Staff Writer


An ethics law that would make it illegal for a commissioner to raise money for charity from someone doing business with the city is on hold indefinitely.

A majority of commissioners agreed to wait before voting on the proposed law so that the state attorney general can be asked to determine whether it's legal and enforceable.

Mayor Jim Naugle, who is pushing for the law, voted against tabling it, in the 4-1 vote on June 5.

The law, which has been in the works since the fall, would lay out strict rules against city elected officials soliciting donations for third-party causes from people such as developers or lobbyists who have applications before the city or who have business contracts with the city. The rule would apply to commissioners as long as they're in office, even if they solicit the money as a private citizen and don't use their title.

Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson opposes the law because she thinks it's a violation of her civil rights. She asked for the postponement to seek an opinion from the state attorney general.

The proposed law states: "No member of the city commission shall knowingly solicit or accept any donation for any third party from any person or entity that is doing business with the city."

"It limits me as Cindi Hutchinson , a citizen," she said. "... I definitely find this ordinance offensive when it affects me as a citizen, when it affects me in my personal capacity, to do work on behalf of charities."

Commissioners already put in place a rule, approved in March, banning elected officials from using city resources, including employees or stationery or postage, to solicit donations. Hutchinson voted against it.

But the proposed law would go much further, banning the solicitations altogether, including commissioners soliciting political contributions for another politician's campaign. Violators would pay fines: $100 the first time; $500 the second; $1,000 the third.

It still would allow appeals for contributions that are made "to the general public" if done without using official title or position, or city resources.

Naugle has the strongest support for ethics reform from Commissioners Christine Teel and Charlotte Rodstrom, though they differ on some details.

Naugle proposed the ethics clampdown in the fall after learning that Commissioner Carlton Moore, now the vice mayor, had approached three men in the audience at the Oct. 17 commission meeting and asked them to contribute to a children's Halloween party at Lincoln Park. Moore identified the men at the time in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Two had insurance contracts with the city up for votes that evening, and the third was the city's insurance consultant. He said he didn't "put the two together" - the solicitation and the vote. One of the men complained to the mayor later.

When Hutchinson used City Hall as a dropoff for shoes for the homeless late last year, Teel complained that the city's resources and reputation shouldn't be used for such efforts.

Later, after commissioners discussed the issue and announced an intent to stop it, Hutchinson sent a letter out on city stationery, using city postage, asking developers, a lobbyist and others for money to help the Fort Lauderdale Woman's Club on a building repair.

"I look forward to your favorable response," she wrote. Hutchinson staunchly defended the letters at the time, saying she's not benefiting personally.

Sometimes, charities or nonprofit organizations raise money by having a ceremony that honors an elected official and charging for tickets, and attracting a who's who of businesspeople who depend on government approvals for their livelihood. For example, Hutchinson was named "Downtowner of the Year" by the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce in April, and tickets to the event ran from $50 to $1,500 for a "grand sponsor."

The Riverwalk Trust had a fundraiser in April honoring Naugle "for his leadership role in downtown Fort Lauderdale," with sponsorship options beginning at $75 and topping off at $10,000. His name also was used to raise money for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Sister Cities in March. Those tickets were $150, or up to $10,000. Naugle said it was done without his express approval and that if the law passed, he'd ask such groups not to use his name.

At Teel's urging, a second law was drafted requiring lobbyists to report any such solicitations made to them by Fort Lauderdale's elected officials. That law was also put on hold by commissioners this month; they asked Hutchinson to get an attorney general's opinion on it as well.