Ethics restrictions prohibiting local elected officials from accepting anything of value – a cup of coffee, a glass of wine or a meal – from lobbyists, vendors or anyone else with business before them are much too restrictive for Hollywood Commissioner Patty Asseff.
“You know what? You can give a dog water, you know. So I mean this thing about not giving people water, coffee, I mean that’s kind of low,” she said Thursday at the conclusion of an hour-long discussion of ethics in Broward government – something even the organizers conceded could be stretch by titling the program “Political Ethics: An Oxymoron?”
Asseff’s objection was the most colorful, but she wasn’t alone. State and local officials have been chafing under the ban, enacted first for state legislators and later for county commissioners. The rules went into effect 14 months ago for city, town and village elected officials in Broward.
Former state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, also said the nothing-of-value ban was excessive as did some who miss lubricating their schmoozing of elected officials with food or drink.
Kevin Boyd, chairman of Broward Days, which brings business and government leaders together to advocate for the county in Tallahassee, said it’s now more difficult for elected officials to attend functions.
“We just want to interact with our representatives” without what Boyd termed “complications we consider unnecessary.”
Asseff and Bogdanoff said many elected officials can’t buy tickets to everything they’re invited to, and because they can’t accept gifts, they said people in public office go to fewer events in the community.
“The pendulum has swung all the way over to the other end,” Asseff said. Bogdanoff said she’d like to see a loosening so the pendulum could move back to the center. “But it will never happen,” she said, said, because it would be portrayed as something bad and the public would get riled up.
The current rules represent a big change for public officials. Bogdanoff said Adams Street in Tallahassee, where lobbyists used to wine and dine lawmakers, is virtually empty these days compared to the previous era.
Former state Rep. Joel Gustafson, a retired lawyer, former congressional aide, and current chairman of the North Broward Hospital District, said when he was in the Legislature from 1967 to 1972 he was 20 pounds heavier because everyone would go out eating and drinking every night. He said none of that largess ever influenced his vote – but he also said elected officials are more ethical today.
County Commissioner Tim Ryan said it’s possible to function within the current rules. He was concerned about the flat-out ban when he was a state legislator, but said it’s something he’s adjusted to.
Asseff said there isn’t much of value to sitting through eight hours of required ethics training, much of which she said is repetitive. “There are so many other things we could be doing, like serving our communities,” she said.
Bogdanoff said the best ethics rules are common sense. Someone who can’t tell what’s right or wrong based on a feeling of butterflies in their stomach – she likened the feeling to a first kiss – don’t belong in public office.
The Tower Forum, an organization of people in the business and legal communities, had an unusually large crowd of about 120 for the ethics session. Roy Rogers of Lighthouse Point, a former chairman of the state Ethics Commission, said that’s a sign that community leaders are vitally interested in the topic.