New lobby rules could stem from ethics workshop

As an attorney, Kim Rezanka often comes before the county board of commissioners representing various people and companies. But does that make her a lobbyist?

“If I am an attorney working for a client, I am not really a lobbyist,” said Rezanka, who is with the firm of Cantwell and Goldman.

That was the question she put to the Board of County Commissioners at a recent ethics workshop in which the commissioners debated how the board should oversee and regulate lobbying. They also discussed topics as varied as travel reimbursement, caps on contributions to commissioners and where commissioner offices should be located.

A handful of discussed proposals are expected to make it into ordinance form, presumably with swift approval, judging by the back-and-forth that took place at the workshop. The ordinances are an important step, said Commissioner John Tobia, who brought the ethics issue to the forefront earlier this year with a motion that called for the registration of lobbyists who contact commissioners. He said ordinances are more enforceable than mere policies.

Added Scott Knox, county attorney, “A policy is a guideline and has no legal affect like an ordinance. Policies can be waived and often are.”

A proposed lobbyist registration ordinance is expected to define who is or is not a lobbyist. “If hired by a company for the primary purpose of having discussion with the board that is a lobbyist,” Commissioner Rita Pritchett said.

Lobbyists would register and have their names on the county website for any citizen to see. “We would have a time period to register. If they do not comply, there would be a fine to pay,” said Pritchett, who added when it comes to violations, it’s essential to differentiate an accidental oversight from an intent to mislead the public.

Commission Chair Curt Smith said the simpler, the better when it comes to an ordinance.

“This provides quick access to who lobbied a particular issue,” he said.

A proposal to set up a lengthier record of contacts between commissioners and lobbyists was tabled until the county has a better handle on how many registered lobbyists there are. A Tobia recommendation to pay Fort Lauderdale $10,000 for a lobbyist database program was also deemed premature. Same with requiring lobbyists to fill out a financial disclosure form.

“What’s the difference if a lobbyist makes $20,000 or $1,000?” Smith said.

Another proposed ordinance would deal with payments to commissioners for out-of-state travel for government-related reasons. Pritchett proposed that such trips require a majority vote by the board if the costs exceed what the county budget allows.

“We should also add a spending restriction, a dollar threshold,” Commissioner Kristine Isnardi said.

Outgoing County Manager Stockton Whitten said whatever is decided, the board should keep in mind his successor, interim and otherwise. “Try to make life easier – so out-of-state travel should be approved in advance by the county regardless whether it was approved the fiscal year before.”

Still another potential law would increase the prohibition against former commissioners becoming lobbyists from two years of leaving office to as many as six years. “I can support this if we increase to four years,” Smith said.

A companion ordinance will likely bar former commissioners from taking a county job that pays more than the commission salary.

“I do not think it is egregious working as a lifeguard. But if you are making more than what they make as a county commissioner that’s a problem,” Tobia said.

The discussion turned contentious over whether commissioners should have an office within their district. When sworn in, Tobia chose not to keep his predecessor’s office near the 192 causeway connecting the barrier island and mainland Melbourne and set up shop in the county complex in Viera some 20 miles away. The intent, Tobia said, was to auction off potential surplus property for the general fund.

“We own the building but not the parking lot. That is a potential problem for a sale,” Whitten said, referring to the former office location.

Smith indicated the building has been a district office a long time. “You happen to wind up in a district where every commissioner has for the last 25 years been in the district. If the next commissioner wants to move into the district, we’d have to buy back the building,” he said.

The proposal will be tabled for a later discussion.

Staff also expects to put together an ordinance that the county commissioners will not accept any gifts from lobbyists regardless of value. No action will be taken on a proposal to cap campaign contributions. But a proposal to create an advisory committee on ethics might see the light of day.

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