Tallahassee ethics amendment cleared for ballot

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A Leon Circuit Court Judge ruled Friday that the Tallahassee City Commission “shall place” a proposed charter amendment creating an ethics code and a refund program for campaign contributions on the November ballot.

After Chief Judge Charles Francis issued his ruling a majority of city commissioners said they would vote in favor of doing so at a specially called meeting Wednesday.

Citizens for Ethics Reform, a coalition including the Florida League of Women Voters and local tea party leaders which organized the initiative after commissioners rejected recommendations of a city-created ethics advisory panel, applauded the decision.

“We are relieved that the judge has confirmed our ethics reform petition is legally sound, and we are excited that the voters will have an opportunity to decide for themselves this November whether to approve the measure,” said Marilynn Wills, Co-Chair of Citizens for Ethics Reform. “State law requires that the city commission now place the petition on the ballot, and we expect them to do so at their meeting on Wednesday.”

The Tallahassee Democrat reports Mayor John Marks, Mayor-elect Andrew Gillum and Commissioners Gil Ziffer and Scott Maddox all said they plan to vote to put the matter before voters. Earlier this month, the city asked the court to review the proposed amendment and ballot language.

Citizens for Ethics Reform protested the move, the group’s attorney, Sandy D’Alemberte said the city had no “legal basis for blocking the people of Tallahassee from cleaning up their own city.”

The ballot initiative requires enactment of an ethics code and creates a seven-member board with the power to investigate complaints and level civil penalties against officials who violate it.

The amendment includes an innovative public campaign financing provision; a refund program for campaign contributions. Contributors to city campaigns could receive up to $25 back from the city per election cycle for their contributions to city candidates.

The initiative caps campaign contributions at $250.

Earlier this month, commissioners delayed a vote on whether to place the proposed amendment on the ballot citing concerns it did not conform to Florida law.  City Attorney Lew Shelly argued that the ballot language would mislead the public and would provoke an emotional response from voters.

“This court finds that this proposed amendment to the charter of the city of Tallahassee is not confusing, deceptive, inflammatory or misleading and that it does in clear and unambiguous language fairly inform the voter of the chief purpose of the amendment,” Francis wrote. “And therefore, neither the summary nor the title violate . . . Florida statutes.”