Let's raise the bar on ethics in county hall's upper echelon
By Michael Lewis
Once upon a time, Miami-Dade residents got very angry with ethics-challenged commissioners. Their path to upgrade ethics: change the county charter.
That's what's happening now. But we're not referring to today. We're looking back to 1996, when lapses triggered a charter change to form an ethics commission.
If that ethics unit has flown under your radar, you're not alone. It has, to put it kindly, low visibility.
While the public questions county hall behavior, an ethics team quietly soldiers on, handling issues that seldom touch government's higher ranks.
The documents that created the ethics team say commissioners put the question to voters because integrity was widely questioned and the ethics unit would be set up "to restore public confidence in government."
Obviously, confidence has yet to be restored. Thus, a conflicting bevy of charter amendments is today proposed inside and outside of county hall.
While no one can fault members of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust for growing concern about ethics and erosion of public trust, the team's makeup offers hints.
That's doubly relevant, first because ethics remains a vital concern and second because a replacement is being sought for the only director the trust has ever had.
Highly visible are dueling efforts to amend the charter, with the county commission placing six measures on the May 24 ballot and billionaire car dealer Norman Braman, fresh from two successful recall efforts, threatening more recalls if the commission doesn't retract its slate of changes and substitute his.
Less visible is the imminent departure of Robert Meyers as ethics trust executive director. He'd resigned effective April 30 but on March 21 agreed to stay to help a successor. At that meeting, trust members set criteria for the next director.
To be considered, they want a Florida lawyer with at least eight years' experience before a state bar. Deadline to apply is May 13.
Now, legal perspective on ethics is logical, but at least four of the five trust members also must be attorneys. The trust also has a counsel plus the executive director, another lawyer. Lone non-attorney Dawn Addy, head of FIU's Center for Labor Research and Studies, must be lonely.
You've got to wonder why almost everyone rating ethics must be a lawyer. Judging from recent scandals as attorneys dipped deeply into clients' cash, laundered money and ran Ponzi schemes, holding approval of the bar has been no bar to downright criminal behavior.
Conversely, lawyers hold no monopoly on ethical behavior and understanding. If Mr. Braman is right about what's right, it's not because he's a lawyer. Maybe we need more auto dealers and fewer lawyers deciding what's proper.
This is not a plea to kill the lawyers.
But while the trust's attorneys debated the fine points of ethics in cases few ever heard of, all of us questioned how commissioners could be paid very well to run groups that the commission indirectly and sometimes directly funded.
Why wasn't the ethics commission weighing in, either to tell us it passed muster or that it's wrong, wrong, wrong if not downright illegal, whether or not the commissioners had voted on their own groups' funding?
Residents deserve an ethics commission out sniffing for business - digging into the obvious - rather than waiting for formal complaints like a court.
No doubt the ethics team's attorneys thoughtfully weigh such questions as whether "a company which provides specifications that will be included in a County Request for Price Quotation may also bid on that Request" - in March, they said it was OK. We're glad someone is thinking about it.
But as the trust selects its new head - only attorneys need apply - we hope they'll target a bulldog who will tear out after the public's business far ahead of legal briefs.
To quote the 1996 language that created the ethics trust and echo what Mr. Braman, commissioners themselves and thoughtful observers well know, we need "to restore public confidence in government."
Lawyers have no monopoly on the ability to do that.
But since by law our ethical wellbeing is handed to the law fraternity almost exclusively, is it too much to ask that they give priority to a bulldog willing to sniff out the biggest cases - the kind the public will see make a difference?
Let's raise the bar.