The term "ethics reform" in government is a misnomer. Ethics don't need reforming, but human behavior sometimes does.
The Florida Legislature has been occupying its time this session with so-called ethics reform. Palm Beach and Broward County Commissioners and voters tackled the issue in years past, establishing such things as an inspector general position and implementing strict gift bans.
Most people think the laws will make elected officials more accountable, but perhaps citizens should look at reform efforts with a more critical eye and ask whether unintended consequences will hurt the cause of good government.
By assuming the worst of elected leaders, and causing them to question whether they can even accept a free cup of coffee without violating a statute, are we setting standards for the political class we would never set for ourselves?
In requiring a mandatory course on ethics, are we demeaning the intelligence of those in office, and causing good people to question whether they should get involved in politics?
In search of objective answers for such questions, I sat down with John P. Hart, a man who knows politics inside and out, but today does not hold elective office.
He's a former North Lauderdale City Councilman who served three terms as mayor, and a former Broward County Commissioner whose eight-year tenure included two years as Commission chair. Hart spent 1980 to 1996 as an elected leader without a hint of impropriety or scandal. He now heads Dialogues in Democracy, an organization designed to foster civility and high-level debate in politics.
"It only takes a few corrupt politicians for people to believe they are all corrupt," says Hart, who has a high-level of respect for most people in the political sphere. "We should begin with the premise that people offering themselves up as public servants will do their best not to compromise the public trust."
Hart, however, notes that while most politicians enter office with the best of intentions, and maintain that attitude while serving, the temptations are many. An inspector general probably serves a useful purpose, he thinks, as does the Legislature's effort to stop the revolving door between politician and lobbyist.
As for gifts, he says politicians should never be permitted to accept anything of real value, "but not being allowed to accept a cup of coffee goes too far,"
The gift ban can apply to tickets to civic functions, such as fundraisers for non-profit organizations. With politicians now having to purchase tickets, which can cost hundreds of dollars, their attendance at such events has dropped off. This reduces their contact with the public. It also can damage the cachet of an event, and possibly hurt the fund-raising effort.
As Hart sees it, there's a qualitative difference between a politician attending a fund-raiser gratis for the Humane Society or Boys and Girls Club, and attending a gala hosted by a big corporation whose motives might not be benign.
Do long-established financial disclosure requirements deter people from entering politics?
Hart believes they pose an issue for some, and says spouses are as likely to object to financial disclosure as the officeholder or candidate. He believes financial disclosure is necessary in spotting conflicts and penalizing wrongdoers, but questions whether the reporting requirements need to be as detailed as they are.
Hart is most critical of a decades-old "reform" he believes hurts the cause of good government, and that's the prohibition on local elected officials discussing in private issues that might come up for a vote "Congress doesn't have such a restriction, and the Florida Legislature has exempted itself from the requirement," Hart notes. "If it's such a good idea, why doesn't the Legislature require it for itself?"
The restriction limits the flow of information necessary for good decision-making, Hart says. "Commissioners need to understand better what their colleagues are thinking by speaking directly to them, rather than hearing it as a translation that comes through a third party."
As for requiring politicians to take a course on ethics, Hart says: "Ethics are inherent," and won't be acquired by taking a course.
Hart makes good points, and I agree with most of them. The Greek philosopher Plato cautioned, "Moderation and reasonableness in all things."
It strikes me that in an effort to impose good government, we at times have practiced "excess and unreasonableness," and as a consequence are deterring some good people from seeking pubic office.
Kingsley Guy's column appears every other Sunday. Email him at Harborlite3@bellsouth.net.