Broward officials seeking judgment on constitutionality of ethics code
Broward commissioners are seeking legal input from a judge to determine the constitutionality of a proposed ethics code. In the November 2008 election, voters approved a commission to create an ethics code that would govern elected county officials.
In a last minute presentation Tuesday, county attorney Jeff Newton told Broward commissioners that certain provisions related to lobbying (requiring lobbyists and principals to register and prohibiting lobbying by persons other than commissioners such as family) was unconstitutional and exceeded authority granted to the Ethics commission. Newton told commissioners that restrictions on lobbying were unconstitutional, and that it is a core First Amendment right to lobby the government. Newton said his basis for unconstitutionality is that the bans are based on the identity of the lobbyist, that second, the government may only regulate speech based on empirical evidence that the restrictions are necessary to serve a compelling interest and third, that Newton’s office believes there are less restrictive means of combating corruption or undue influence other than outright lobbying bans.
“The most obvious way is to require County commissioners to recuse themselves from voting in matters involving a government entity they have lobbied, or in matters where the affected parties are represented by the commissioner’s relative or campaign consultant,” said Newton, who also expressed concerns about the commission’s ability to impose the code on staff and advisory boards, saying the charter amendment only authorized the commission.
Newton presented several solutions, and the commission, after a convoluted debate, voted to ask a judge if the reforms being presented are unconstitutional, with hopes of having an answer in time to advertise the August 10 public hearing at the governmental center downtown. (The hearing can also be watched on Comcast Channel 12.) The commission must approve the ethics code at the August meeting, otherwise the code will be sent to the voters in the November 2010 election.
Newton may seek outside legal counsel and was sent back to work out the legal concerns surrounding the convoluted issue.
Corruption on local commissions have led citizens to force officials to enact ethics code. Recently, Deerfield Beach commissioners approved a second, revised code of ethics.
Others watching the commission carefully have concerns about the decision to delay approving the code based on constitutionality. Chip LaMarca, a Lighthouse Point commissioner running for county commission expressed disappointment in the decision.
“It is unfortunate, but not surprising that the Commissioners, would derail these important reforms.” LaMarca said. “The fact that likely thousands of taxpayer dollars – during a recession, nonetheless – will be used to challenge these reforms is a slap in the face to each and every taxpayer in Broward County, and shows the irresponsibility of this commission. At a time when commissioners are mandating budget cuts to our public safety services, they have no problem spending money in order to keep the ‘status quo’ in power. The commission deserves to be held accountable for this blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars. I stand in full support of the Ethics Commission’s recommendations, and I believe it is time to stop the personal enrichment in favor of sweeping reform.”
To see Newton’s legal recommendations and a copy of the code of ethics, click here.
Link to ethics code: http://broward.org/EthicsCommission/Documents/CodeofEthics2010%20-%20Final%20%20Approved.pdf
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