Ethics Board chair says she had no conflict of interest

Jeff Burlew
Democrat senior writer

Lila Jaber, chair of the city of Tallahassee’s Ethics Board, defended herself against conflict-of-interest accusations during Wednesday’s meeting of the panel.

Jaber’s law firm, Gunster, worked for the city for several months in 2014 as part of a territorial change involving the city Electric Utility and Talquin Electric before the Public Service Commission. The matter was completed during a PSC meeting Nov. 25.

Though the firm’s work for the city ended in early December, before Jaber applied to serve on the board later that month and her appointment by city commissioners in mid-January, she has faced criticism because she didn’t mention the work on her Ethics Board application under “potential conflicts of interest.”

Jaber said she didn’t work on the case and that the firm’s work for the city ended in 2014.

“Thus, at the time of my application, there was no business relationship or other potential conflict of interest to be disclosed,” she said.

Jaber, the city’s appointee to the Ethics Board, pledged that neither she nor her firm would represent the city while she serves on the Ethics Board. And she said the board, which began meeting in February, should consider putting in place a business-disclosure process for members.

The meeting was marked by some discord — public speakers asked the Ethics Board to reopen its search for an ethics officer, who is in charge of running the board’s day-to-day activities.

And there was a sign that ongoing disharmony between the Ethics Board and Citizens for Ethics Reform, which sponsored last year’s charter amendment creating the independent panel, might grow to a courtroom fight. Tallahassee attorney Tim Jansen accompanied the group during the meeting, though he said he was asked only to attend and hadn’t been retained. Ben Wilcox, a member of the citizens group, said no lawsuit was planned.

City officials hired attorney Julie Meadows-Keefe as the ethics officer last September, ahead of the November voter referendum. Before her initial hiring last year, Meadows-Keefe went through a competitive hiring process. But she did not have to go through another one last month before the Ethics Board voted 4-2 to keep her on board.

The lack of a hiring process — and the fact that Meadows-Keefe was handpicked by top appointed officials — has led to lingering concerns over whether she can truly be independent of City Hall.

Catherine Baer, a co-chair of Citizens for Ethics Reform, urged the board to reopen the search and use a formal hiring process.

“That was the appropriate way to do it,” Baer said. “That was the ethical way to do it.”

Preston Scott, host of “The Morning Show” on WFLA, also called on the board to revisit the hiring, which prompted a testy exchange with Vice Chair Richard Herring. Scott said the Ethics Board hired a city employee who was picked by the very people she’s supposed to investigate, top city officials.

“That does not qualify as independent, I don’t believe,” he said.

Scott asserted Meadows-Keefe should not have been in the room during the vote and that the discussion should have been held “privately.” He clarified at one point to say Meadows-Keefe should not have been sitting next to Jaber at the time of the vote.

Herring fired back by saying Scott was suggesting the board operate outside the Sunshine Law, adding he was going to “discount (his) comments” because of that. Later, another speaker, Carl Moore, came to Scott’s defense, saying Herring missed the spirit of what Scott was saying.

“I was just very disappointed in that interaction,” said Moore, a professor at Florida A&M University.

The board did conduct regular business during the meeting, signing off on an ethics-complaint form and discussing ways to communicate with anonymous complainants. Members also reviewed the complaint process and had a brief discussion about how to address a vacancy on the board.

The board, under the amended charter, is supposed to have seven members, with five appointed by the city, Florida State and Florida A&M universities, the State Attorney’s Office and the chief circuit judge. The other two members are appointed by the rest of the Ethics Board.

But former Chief Judge Charles Francis declined to make an appointment, and earlier this month, Chief Judge Jonathan Sjostrom also declined, citing an opinion from the Florida Supreme Court’s ethics advisory committee. Jerry Currington, attorney for the Ethics Board, said he would research options for appointing the still-vacant seventh member.