A few hours before she takes her place at the dais and asks commissioners to strike down the Deerfield Beach ethics code, Mayor Peggy Noland rolled a shopping cart through the aisles of Winn-Dixie and spoke with Juice about why the code has to go. In short, because it's a real hassle.
Granted, the mayor came around to more defensible arguments (and we'll get to those), but still it was clear that for Noland, the ethics code takes the fun out of running the city. For instance, her first complaint was how the code made it necessary for her and the other commissioners to turn down an invitation to a dinner at a League of Cities conference in Orlando. "All the other commissioners in Broward County were able to go," she said of the dinner, which was hosted by a company that does business with the city's water department.
She described all the hoops commissioners jumped through during a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with the city's lobbyist. As she plucked a pork chop from the shelf, Noland explained how onerous it was for companies bidding for a city project to disclose political contributions and for city officials to monitor what gifts they accept from people who may be lobbying.
"It has to be an ethics law that protects the residents and that protects us," said Noland. "With double jeopardy... holy smokes! You're afraid to turn around and say something. Can I buy you lunch? Can someone buy me a cup of coffee? It definitely has to be tweaked."
But she's planning something more invasive than a "tweak," and Noland's move comes on the heels of JB's on the Beach -- her former employer -- being tripped up by the ethics code in its bid to occupy the restaurant space on the city's pier.
That particular contract, which Noland and a majority of commissioners were prepared to give JB's, has gone back to bid after the restaurant neglected to disclose its having given $500 campaign contributions to Noland and Commissioner Joe Miller.
Noland denies that the JB's episode prompted her to propose repealing the code, but she admitted being frustrated by the perception of selling votes. "Just because people give you a contribution when you run for office does not guarantee a vote," she said.
Of course, with JB's, it's not just the contribution but also Noland's having worked at the restaurant -- and her son's having worked on the restaurant. But to the mayor's eye, this made her even more qualified to cast a vote. "Yes, I used to work there part-time," says Noland. "So I know how they train, how clean it is in there, the pride they take in their business. That's how I look at it."
And from that perspective, clearly, the other bids didn't have much of a chance to get her vote, which is exactly the kind of culture that creates insider deals that don't account for the public interest.
To be fair, Noland is correct in saying that the code was passed by another commission, with two acting commissioners, and that the March elections had given the current administration the right to craft its own ethics policy. Noland wants an ethics code by the city attorney, Andy Maurodis. She also points out that the state ethical guidelines were enough to get indictments against Mayor Al Capellini and Commissioner Steve Gonot, who are still awaiting trial.
Noland vows that if the ethics code is repealed, she'll immediately begin forging a new one. "I would like to see the commission form a committee -- each commissioner choose one person to serve on that committee and that work with the gentleman from FAU." (She's speaking of Norman Ostrau, director of the Public Ethics Academy.)
"I'd like him to meet with these people and come up with something we can work with."
But it's anyone's guess how long that would take and how many cows would get out of the barn in the meantime. Plus, whatever inconveniences the current ethics code may bring, you can argue that it's still a small price to pay for the sake of restoring the city's faith in its government.
I just spoke with a commissioner on the opposite side of this issue, Bill Ganz. I'll have that post up before the meeting begins at 7, so don't forget to check back.