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Local ethics experts and Ethics Commission oppose ethics reform bill moving in Tallahassee

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jacksonville’s Ethics Commission is standing in opposition to a state bill that local ethics experts fear will severely limit the effectiveness of local ethics boards and the statewide ethics commission.

The bill would limit who can file complaints against government officials.

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“It virtually eliminates the ability to investigate any complaint of any action,” said Jacksonville Ethics Commissioner Kirby Oberdorfer.

Jacksonville City Councilmember Matt Carlucci (R-Group 4 At-Large) has been raising the alarm about the bill.

He served on the Florida Commission on Ethics for five years.

Carlucci argued the bill would limit the ability of concerned citizens to report apparent financial transparency violations, conflicts of interest, and more by requiring complainants to have “personal knowledge or information” about the alleged violation.

“Usually, those types of violations of the ethics code are not done with other people eye-witnessing the event. It doesn’t happen. So, it’s really a big step backward,” said Carlucci.

Additionally, the bill would require complainants to sign their name to their complaint under oath.

Of the 94 total complaints filed with the Jacksonville Ethics Commission over the past eight years, 55 were either anonymous or informal.

While the signature requirement is already in place for state-level complaints, Carlucci argued applying it on the local level could have a chilling effect.

“Somebody could have their job threatened by making a complaint,” said Carlucci.

The efficacy of ethics commissions has been questioned.

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Last summer, Action News Jax revealed of the 150 complaints filed with Jacksonville’s commission since 2007, not a single one resulted in a finding of probable cause.

Still, Carlucci argued ethics boards have played pivotal roles in exposing major political scandals, including the attempted sale of JEA.

“If you tied the Florida Commission of Ethics’ hands and the local commission on ethics’ hands, how much more bad behavior would be emboldened? And I’m here to say it would be a lot,” said Carlucci.

The controversial provisions in the legislation were unanimously amended onto an otherwise benign bill on the Senate floor on January 31st, which means it was supported by Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike.

The House bill does not include those provisions currently, and Carlucci is hoping that the chamber holds the line.

In a statement, House sponsor State Representative Robert Brackett (R-Vero Beach) told Action News Jax:

“Floridians deserve an efficient process to address alleged ethics violations.  We must empower the Ethics Commission and local governments to efficiently and uniformly process complaints. This legislation strikes a balance requiring complaints be based on credible, reliable information in order to initiate an ethics investigation, standardizing the complaint process to ensure that legitimate complaints are more efficiently addressed.”

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