City of Tallahassee fights ethics proposal

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The natives are getting restless in Tallahassee. Friday the city attorney filed a declaratory action in Leon Circuit Court seeking to block a citizen-inspired ethics initiative from the November ballot. And that may just be another log on the fire which has some Tallahasseans burning.

“Progressives and conservatives alike have come together to give our community a chance to vote on ethics reform,” said Catherine Baer, of Citizens for Ethics Reform, the group which sponsored the initiative. “Now, the city is spending your tax dollars on a lawsuit to stop the people from having their say. It’s outrageous.”

Lew Shelley asked the court to review the proposed charter amendment and ballot language and decide whether the language meets state guidelines. The initiative would create an ethics and anti-corruption policy, require enactment of an ethics code, establish an ethics board with broad powers, place a lower cap on campaign contributions and create a campaign-finance refund program.

Shelley argues in the filing that the ballot summary and title include inconsistent and confusing language and that no cost estimate is given for the new ethics office, ethics staff or the campaign finance program.

“(The challenge) does not provide a legal basis for blocking the people of Tallahassee from cleaning up their own city,” said Sandy D’Alemberte, the group’s attorney and former president of the American Bar Association and Dean of the Florida State University College of Law.

The matter needs to be settled by the end of the month. Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho set the deadline in order to prepare ballots for the Nov. 4 general election.

The petition campaign to get the proposal on the ballot gathered 2,678 signatures when just 9,334 were needed. A city commission vote is required to place the initiative on the ballot. It meets Wednesday and again on Aug.27 but it is unclear whether the court will rule in time.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the City try to freeze out ethics reform to protect the status quo,” said Marilynn Wills, a co-chair of Citizens for Ethics Reform.

The group is a coalition which formed after the City Commission refused to adopt a proposal creating an independent ethics officer. It is made up of members of the League of Women Voters of Tallahassee, Common Cause Florida, Integrity Florida and the Tea Party.