Miami seeks tweaks in ethics code proposal
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
Revisions to Miami's ethics code that would make it easier for city employees and board members to do business with the city failed to gain commissioners' approval last week.
Commissioners instead directed the city attorney to tweak the measure to more closely mirror the county's code.
The code's changes — unanimously approved on first consideration in March without discussion — drew questions in their second review by the city commission last Thursday.
City Attorney Julie Bru attributed need to overhaul the code to it being "draconian and simplistic." Further, she said, it casts a wide net, especially on individuals who seek to serve on city boards.
To retain skilled employees and advisory board members, the city is hoping to eliminate blanket restrictions that prohibit individuals from doing business with the city — except with the department they work for or the board on which they serve.
Those prohibitions remain in place two years after the person leaves a board or stops working for the city.
The proposed ordinance states that city employees who meet established criteria would also be eligible to apply for affordable homeownership programs.
For example, the drafted changes would allow an employee from the public works department to seek a housing loan from the community development department for affordable housing.
Miami-Dade Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert Meyers was concerned that because the county commission is soon to vote on changes to its own code, the two could clash down the road as the city's ethics code cannot be less strict than the county's code.
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.
Proposals to change the city's ethics code follows complaints that strict provisions on board membership are steering stakeholders away from serving, city officials say.
Commissioner Tomás Regalado said the city, like the county, should require employees or board members who are interested in doing business with the city to request a legal opinion from the ethics commission.
Ms. Bru did not include the requirement in the proposed code.
She said the individual is ultimately responsible for making sure he is entering into a transaction that does not violate the code.
"We can only do so much to try to make people act or behave ethically," she said.
She said the purpose was to streamline the process and make it easier for employees, board members and their families to do business with the city if under the law no conflict of interest exists.
Skipping the opinion step, Ms. Bru said, would reduce the number of individuals who have to go to the county's ethics commission for an opinion or to the city's legal department for a waiver.
Mr. Meyers said if all necessary information for review of a case is complete, the ethics commission can issue an opinion requested within 48 hours.
Commissioner Marc Sarnoff was concerned that the code defines someone's ownership in a company based on a 10%, direct or indirect, stake in the business.
But he brought up a scenario that could be a potential loophole. He said someone could own 9% of a company and on the side receive hefty bonuses.
Mr. Meyers responded that in such a case the ethics commission looks at the company's ownership and financial information to check for such loopholes.
On the county side, for months the Ethics, Integrity and Accountability Task Force has inspected the county's code looking to strengthen some rules.
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.
Miami Commission Chair Joe Sanchez asked the city to work with the county's ethics commission on refining the code's changes to give it more teeth.
"We want an ordinance that protects the city from conflict of interest," he said.
The county's code of ethics applies to the city, meaning Miami can adopt more stringent rules than the county but not less strict.
The code returns to the city commission for final review in May.