Miami, county could clash over ethics code updates
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
While the City of Miami is working to loosen up its code of ethics, Miami-Dade County has plans to adopt stricter standards, which could create an unanticipated conflict.
Miami's legal team has been busy drafting changes to its code of ethics. The changes follow complaints that strict provisions on board membership are steering stakeholders away from serving on boards, city officials say.
On the other hand, for months the Ethics, Integrity and Accountability Task Force has inspected the county's code looking to strengthen some rules.
The bottom line is that the county's code of ethics applies to the city, meaning Miami can adapt more stringent rules than the county — which it currently has — but not less strict, county officials say.
The county's task force is proposing stricter rules for matters such as voting conflicts, business transactions with the county and stiffer penalties for ethics code violators, said Robert Meyers, executive director of the Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.
The ethics commission's job is to bolster public trust in the administration of government by informing the public and private sectors about the laws and seeking strict compliance.
He said the department is working with county commissioners to sponsor some of the recommendations that could reach the county commission next month for a vote, around the same time the city's legal team hopes to submit its code overhaul for city commissioners to review.
Also under task force review is a provision that allows county employees who leave to head non-profit organizations to engage in business with the county, while those who join other types of entities are banned from lobbying the county for two years.
Mr. Meyers said the task force is recommending that the two-year ban apply across the board including to non-profit groups.
City Attorney Julie Bru said the code has been under analysis for some time as some "unnecessary bureaucratic regulations" in the code create a chilling effect.
"The ordinance is very draconian and simplistic; it casts a wide net that has a chilling effect on the city's ability to recruit and retain skilled and enthusiastic members of the community to serve on boards," she said.
Talk of the code's excessive restrictions has intensified after several Downtown Development Authority board members were identified as having potential conflicts of interest.
Miami's code restricts exiting elected officials, employees and board members from conducting business with any city department for two years.
Miami-Dade is less strict on board members.
"The county's standard for boards is that you and your family can't do business with that board but could do business with other county departments," Mr. Meyers said.
One potential change is to — like the county's current code — allow board members to conduct business with other city entities except the board on which they serve and kill the two-year ban for members who step down.
Two downtown authority board members, one who resigned last month, were under review for their ties with the city.
Attorney Jay Solowsky is a former board member who resigned last month to represent the downtown authority in a lawsuit it's facing that threatens the existence of the agency.
Under Miami's current ethics code, Mr. Solowsky needed to wait two years to work for the city.
Last week, the city commission had to approve a conflict of interest waiver allowing the city to hire Mr. Solowsky as outside counsel.
Current board member Nitin Motwani, managing director of Miami Worldcenter — a project that plans to revitalize nine blocks of the Park West neighborhood with hotels and entertainment venues — also appears to have a conflict, city officials say.
Miami commissioners were also expected to vote on whether to waive Mr. Motwani's conflict of interest, but the item was tabled to the next meeting.
Mr. Motwani confirmed in a later interview he plans to seek a formal review of his case by the county's Commission on Ethics and Pubic Trust, an independent agency with advisory and quasi-judicial powers.
Ms. Bru said the legal department is drafting changes to the code for the city commission to review by February or March.
"We want to achieve that perfect balance to conduct business in an accountable environment and also attract committed individuals," she said.
Regarding the city's plans, Mr. Meyers, of Miami-Dade's ethics commission, said as long as the changes are small and don't interfere with the county's code they are allowed.
But county standards trump the city's.
"If county standards change, the city is bounded by county standards," Mr. Meyers said.