Ethics proposal could address Vizcaya 'voting conflicts'
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
Civic volunteers who serve on the boards of the Vizcayans, a support organization for the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, and the county trust that governs Vizcaya are likely to soon have some new rules to follow.
A county ethics proposal, which could take effect within a few months, would prevent trust members who also serve on the Vizcayans board from voting on trust matters that relate to the Vizcayans.
By design, the Vizcayans, a private group in charge of fundraising for the county-owned Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, and the trust, created to provide more effective administration and fundraising for Vizcaya, are to work closely to advance the museum's mission.
This calls for some members to sit on each other's boards.
But the proposed ethics legislation could take away their right to vote on many issues.
A report released two weeks ago by the county's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust offers recommendations to strengthen the county's ethics code.
Under "voting conflicts," the task force is recommending that county and municipal advisory boards and quasi-judicial boards follow the same standards as elected officials.
The section on "voting conflicts" is one of numerous proposals presented in the 42-page report on Ethics, Integrity and Accountability Task Force.
Board members who may have a "special relationship with the applicant or stand to benefit financially" from an item would not be allowed to vote on that specific item or give an opinion on the matter, said Robert Meyers, executive director of the ethics commission.
Mr. Meyers issued an opinion last year to the public trust clarifying that serving on both the boards did not pose a conflict of interest.
But if the ethics proposal gains county commission approval, that could change.
"For Vizcayans, what the new standard would do is that if you sat in Vizcayans and the trust and something came to the trust that had to do with Viscayans, you could not vote in the matter," Mr, Meyers said.
News that Vizcayans got a line of credit backed by the museum's endowment fund came as a surprise to some members of the Vizcaya Trust. Unlike other members who serve on both the trust and fundraising organization, these members found out about the action after the decision was made.
Those Vizcayans members who sit on the trust board knew about the line of credit but the others in a trust meeting held Aug. 7 to discuss the issue said they were never informed.
"I think that was completely wrong," said trust board member Marili Cancio at the meeting.
"There are concerns about why some members knew and others didn't because some are on the two boards," said trust board Vice Chair Jose Villalobos at the meeting. "Since it is what it is, it will happen that some board members will know things others won't."
Avoiding such conflicts of interest and claims of biases are examples of why Mr. Meyers said his office is recommending such measures.
People who volunteer their time to sit on boards are playing a "critical" part in the decision-making process and this separation could help erase thoughts of biases from the general public, he said.
"If you have a voting conflict, you should not participate in the discussion," he said.
Mr. Meyers concedes implementing this legislation could also create several challenges for boards.
While boards generally release their agendas in advance, it's common for new items to surface during board meetings.
If the new proposal should pass, board directors would have to use their best judgment or defer matters under such situations, he said, but he added he hopes those are minimal.
"With respect to the Vizcayans and trust this change does not end the relationship," he said. "It (the proposal) doesn't say if you sit in one you cannot sit in the other, but you would have a voting conflict."
For instance, the Vizcayans' members who sit on the public trust wouldn't be allowed to vote on "contract matters or financial benefits" that relate to the trust, he said.
John Squitero, member of the Vizcayans board who sits on the public trust, said the proposed law would have a minimal effect on the relationship between the two entities.
"There are many issues where the Vizcayans' and trust's interests are aligned," he said. "Occasionally, there are some issues that have raised conflicts; technically we are in one now," referring to the entities' disagreement over the endowment-backed loan.
He said he thinks the Vizcayans would not be "upset" if the legislation were to pass, although he acknowledges it would depend on the subject matter in discussion.
He added the proposal could be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the fundraising organization to inform other members, because he first heard of it at the Aug. 7 trust meeting.
Mr. Meyers said if the proposal becomes law, the ethics commission would adjust its mandatory training for incoming board members to include a thorough explanation on the board. It can also issue legal opinions on the issue to individual entities, "but ultimately they are responsible and have to follow the rules," he said.
The county's ethics trust is now briefing the 13 county commissioners on the report and its many recommendations.
Those proposals that get commissioner sponsorship are to be discussed in public meetings. Commissioners then get final say on which get adopted.