TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida's ethics arbiters claimed their "independence" Friday in response to a legislative directive that put more restrictions on their operations, from out-of-state travel spending to the hiring and firing of staff.
The Florida Commission on Ethics agreed in a toned-down resolution to "respectfully" decline the latest "delegation of authority" directive that imposes House and Senate oversight on operations at the legislative-branch agency.
Commission Chairman Matt Carlucci also said the "delegation of authority" from the Legislature --- a practice started in 1998 and reaffirmed whenever there are new House and Senate leaders --- should be discontinued.
"I personally do not believe the speaker and the president have standing to issue these delegations in the first place because of the commission's independence as spelled out in the (Florida) Constitution," said Carlucci, one of five gubernatorial appointees on the nine-member commission.
The House speaker and Senate president each get two appointments.
Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, responded that the speaker "refuses to give up oversight and accountability of any agency regardless of how noble its mission."
Meanwhile, a Senate spokeswoman pointed to a letter Senate President Joe Negron sent Thursday in which he expressed a willingness to meet with commissioners.
In the letter, Negron, R-Stuart, also noted that the Senate's position in the directive was to ensure staff positions are in accordance with state law.
"As appointing authorities, the House and the Senate remain accountable to the public for ensuring the commission operates in a fiscally responsible manner," Negron wrote. "The provisions in the memo related to purchases, leases, travel, sick leave pool, etc. are intended to provide the same direction provided to all offices that are a part of the legislative branch."
A March 21 memo from Negron and Corcoran to Commission Executive Director Virlindia Doss spelled out the latest rules.
As part of the new rules, the commission would have to get House and Senate approval in matters regarding "hiring, termination, promotion, pay increases, bonuses of commission employees," out-of-state travel of commission employees, certain purchases of more than $1,000, vacation time of more than a week, and any "lease or change in commission office space."
Doss said the "delegation" rules have tempered commission actions in the past, and the latest proposal could impact future operations.
Commissioner Kimberly Rezanka, another gubernatorial appointee, said the resolution approved Friday wasn't "strong enough."
But for several other commissioners, who felt an outright rejection of the "delegation of authority" was being too rash, the resolution was an acceptable compromise.
"My concerns and my discomfort in sitting here today is the speed in which we're proceeding in this process," Commissioner Jason Berger said.
Berger was among commissioners saying they should hear out the House and Senate, due in part to Negron's willingness to discuss the directive and to the fact the Legislature's priority right now is completing the budget before the regular legislative session ends May 5.
"I suspect meaningful conversations would likely not be able to happen prior to the end of session," added Commissioner Matthew Carson, an appointee of the House speaker.
Mark Herron, a former commission chairman, told the panel the legislative requirements could impact investigative abilities of the agency to perform its duties. But he also cautioned commissioners about unintended consequences, as the Legislature sets the overall budget for the commission.
Ben Wilcox, former executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Florida, said the commission has a right to push back on the unnecessary intrusion of inner workings.
"You would think that the Legislature, which has been interested in a number of ethics reforms in recent years, would want this agency to be perceived as an independent, strong, effective ethics watchdog," Wilcox said.