State: Returning funds not a ‘cure’

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Mayor, councilwoman says report ‘blown out’ of context

By Jeff Bryan

When it was discovered soliciting funds could be considered unethical, city officials said they immediately “corrected” the problem by returning those monies.

While the monies have been returned the ethical question may not be completely settled, according to a document obtained in a public records request.

In an email to the Florida Commission on Ethics, City Attorney Andrew Hand wrote “at least one reporting individual requested donations from vendors doing business with the city.”

Florida State Statute 112.3148(3) prohibits a reporting individual from soliciting any gift from a vendor doing business with the reporting individual’s agency where such gift is for the personal benefit of the reporting individual or another reporting individual.

“Return of the donations to the vendors is not curative, but may serve in mitigation,” wrote John M. Knight, an attorney with the Florida Commission on Ethics, in response to Hand’s inquiry.

There are some areas in the ethics law, you can’t un-ring the bell, said a spokeswoman with the Commission on Ethics. An example, she said, is if a person required to file a financial disclosure form doesn’t file it in a timely manner, they cannot go back.

“What you can do is file it on time,” she explained. “Filing your disclosure would mitigate a complaint, it doesn’t cure it. If there is a law violation, there’s a law violation. You can do whatever you’re able to do to mitigate the harm.”

It is not within the Council’s purview to file a complaint with the Commission on Ethics. Citizens can do so and have up to five years from the conduct alleged to file the necessary paperwork, according to a spokesperson with the state agency.

If a citizen did choose to file a complaint, then city officials would be represented by Hand. If local officials were found to have not violated any ethical guidelines, the city could seek reimbursement of attorney’s fees.

“It’s fairly high standard,” the spokeswoman said. “If a person ultimately prevails, if a complaint is dismissed, they can seek fees against the person who filed them. But it is a fairly high standard to get the fees.

“There has to be malicious intent of the official by filling the complaint, with knowledge it contains false allegations or is done so with reckless disregard.”

The “invitation-only” celebration was for Dawn Bowne and Mandy Roberts, both long-time city staff members who had been promoted to city administrator and city clerk, respectively. The reports about the celebration were “blown completely out of context,” Mayor Green told the public and his colleagues at the July 19 Council workshop.

“If you have concerns, I’m always available,” he said. “Some of it can never be revealed. They’re honest and good people and meant no harm to anyone.”

When contacted via phone July 20, the mayor hung up and a return phone call went unanswered. The Riverland News sought additional information about the party from Mayor Green via email.

“The event was attended by many individuals that I was not acquainted with,” he wrote. “This is due to the fact I was not the subject of the affair.”

While addressing concerns about the solicitation of monies for an invitation-only event, Mayor Green said his policy is not to accept gifts. The first-term mayor signed a letter, which was emailed to a number of vendors, area businesses and individuals seeking contributions. The first-term mayor has said no staff member wrote the letter and will not say if anyone assisted him in writing it.

“It’s much easier to explain why you don’t take a gift than to explain why you did,” he said. “You don’t solicit gifts. That’s my policy.”

Mistakes were made, Councilman Rick Hancock said.

“We have to rebuild trust and confidence,” he said.

The perception of what the city did is the issue, Councilman Chuck Dillon said.

“When we do something, it is how it’s perceived,” he lamented. “It’s the perception of what we’re doing.”

Added Councilman Larry Winkler: “I don’t want to take donations from any contractor we do business with. Any past or current vendors, we just need to have it in there.”

The reports were blown out of proportion, Councilwoman Valerie Hanchar said about the city soliciting monies.

“There have been times, when citizens have come and donated and worked with the city, where they bought vests for the police department, K-9s purchased for our city,” she explained. “When we used to do the fireworks, the Christmas lights: We asked for donations for it. I think you’re cutting your nose off to spite your face.”

Dillon disagreed.

“I’m tired of us asking for the money,” he said. “If we don’t have the money, we shouldn’t do it. I’m still ticked about (the city) taking money from the thrift store for tires for the fire department. It just grates on me; that’s just the way I was raised. I think we can take care of ourselves.”

These mistakes were discovered and corrected, Hancock said.

“I don’t care about pointing fingers,” he added. “We’re putting it into practice. That’s where it starts in my opinion.”