By Charles Elmore
Half or more of the governing council members in some southern Palm Beach County coastal towns say they are considering resignation before Dec. 31 because they worry a new state financial disclosure law amounts to, as resigning Ocean Ridge Commissioner Ken Kaleel put it, a “Nosy Neighbor statute.”
It puts local governments in a massive hustle mode to keep functioning, whether that means appointments, special elections, rethinking of resignation plans or other solutions to keep the chairs filled.
Municipal leaders are attending workshops and meetings to figure out if they want to file the more rigorous Form 6 that discloses net worth and other details for the public to access. Records requested by The Coastal Star shed light on at least some aspects: Nearly 95% of officials in Palm Beach County filed required disclosures of the current form, but among those who did not, fewer than 10% who were assessed fines in the last five years actually paid them as of early October.
That’s an unpaid pile of more than $236,000 in fines, including 11 past-due bills sent to collection efforts, according to data from the Florida Commission on Ethics.
In time, some fines do get paid. They include $1,500 collected from former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie in 2021.
Then again, in addition to ethics concerns, she was criminally charged with failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in alleged income from a commercial landowner.
She eventually pleaded guilty to lesser, misdemeanor counts of misuse of public office and failure to disclose a voting conflict.
For many, the issue in past years has been failure to file the less-nosy Form 1 that applies to a number of municipal officials, as opposed to the tougher Form 6 mayors and town council members face in 2024.
“The requirement to complete Form 6, whether contemplated by the legislators or not, will limit the effectiveness of local government,” said Bill Thrasher, who served for 17 years as town manager in Gulf Stream and now works part-time as the town manager in Briny Breezes. “In some cases, it may stop local governance altogether.”
In Manalapan, the mayor and three of the town’s six commissioners said on Oct. 24 that they would be resigning before the end of the year so they would not have to meet the new financial disclosure requirements.
Briny Breezes has been wrestling with whether it will be left with a quorum.
In other places, few people appear deterred.
In Delray Beach, the new filing requirements have not stopped 10 candidates from opening up campaign accounts for mayor and two other commission seats that will be decided in March. Ditto for Boca Raton, where at least four people are running for two City Council seats.
In Highland Beach, three incumbent commissioners who are up for reelection said they plan to run again.
To keep things in perspective, most people who are required to file financial disclosures comply. In Palm Beach County in 2022, 94.8% did so, according to the Ethics Commission. That compared to 98.1% statewide.
What of willful disregard?
OK, but what about those deemed to have demonstrated a willful failure to file?
Removing someone from office is rare, but it has happened. Then-Gov. Rick Scott signed a 2016 order to remove Daniel Fils-Aime Sr. as a member of the CareerSource South Florida Region 23 Board in Miami-Dade County, for example.
In recent years, the Ethics Commission recommended removal from office in at least four cases around the state involving failure to file, but records show no action by Gov. Ron DeSantis. His office did not respond to a request for comment.
SB 774, signed into state law in May, requires mayors and commission members to disclose their net worth, assets and liabilities worth more than $1,000, the aggregate value of art and jewelry and other goods, and in some cases clients.
The required Form 1 for most municipal officials asks for sources of income, liabilities and business investments, with less emphasis on specific dollar amounts.
It may get a bit uncomfortable, but some say they are staying.
South Palm Beach Mayor Bonnie Fischer said, “It is what it is. If we have to do it, we have to do it. I don’t think there’s any way out of it. I’m not resigning. That won’t make me resign.”
Vice Mayor Bill LeRoy agreed, despite concerns about the law.
“This is a unique town and I’m in a unique position here, because I am retired,” he said. “I own very little. I’m not afraid of it. I don’t think it’s necessary. You don’t need anything to scare people when running for public office. It’s hard enough to find people as it is, and we don’t need something like this to make it even more difficult.”
The Form 6 filing deadline for those holding office as of Dec. 31, 2023, is July 1, 2024, state officials say.
Late-filing penalties start at $25 a day, after a grace period that ends Sept. 2, 2024, to a maximum of $1,500. The commission can impose a greater fine, up to $20,000, if a third party files an ethics complaint and it is found to have merit.
Since Jan. 1, 2018, 312 office-holders in Palm Beach County have been fined for not filing, according to Florida Commission on Ethics records.
Records show 20 of those fines were fully paid over about half a decade.
Fines were waived in at least 25 cases. Two fines were written off for people who died. The majority are listed as “active” or under appeal.
‘Service requires sacrifice’
Some city and town elected officials have already suggested all of this is too rich for their blood, especially in towns where the salary may amount to modest or zero dollars.
“Every meeting I’ve been to I’ve had questions about resignations, and from my unofficial tally I think you’re going to see 20% of the county’s elected officials resign before the end of the year,” Town Attorney Glen Torcivia told South Palm Beach’s council Oct. 10, mentioning several smaller municipalities. “I hope 20% is not too conservative.”
Kaleel, the Ocean Ridge commissioner who says he is resigning, calls the law a “Nosy Neighbor” affair because it primarily benefits busybodies, while elected officials determined to reap ill-gotten gains often can find a way to hide them.
“Somebody that’s bad is going to be bad, and they can hide it in a number of ways — gold bars, cash in closets — we’ve already found that out,” Kaleel said.
Proponents of the law say it is helpful and a step in the right direction. Plenty of money and economic activity can flow through towns regardless of size, through contracts or project approvals. Indeed, many towns sit on coastal land highly prized by developers.
Supporters call attention to the fact that the same Form 6 disclosure rules currently apply to state legislators, the governor and even many local officials, and life has not come to a standstill.
“Please note that for years county commissioners, school board members, sheriffs and others on the local level have been required to file the Form 6, and this has not been a deterrent to the government attracting and retaining qualified individuals to serve in these positions,” Caroline Klancke said.
She is executive director of the Florida Ethics Institute in Tallahassee, a nonprofit organization that says it was founded to protect and advance the cause of ethics.
Some see it connected to a bigger picture of Tallahassee imposing its will on cities and towns.
In Briny Breezes and previous stops, Thrasher’s career has featured plenty of pushback against what he regarded as state efforts to take power from local governments.
“For years, local governments have seen the pre-emptive efforts of the state in weakening and chipping away at home rule,” he said.
Lantana Mayor Karen Lythgoe says she doesn’t know what other council members will do, but she has no problem providing the financial information.
“Public service requires sacrifice and I’m willing to make it,” Lythgoe said. “There’s no private data you have to provide, no Social Security number, no taxpayer ID number, no bank account numbers, nothing that could be used to steal your identity. They want to know what you have and what you owe.”
She continued, “I have no trouble saying this is my net worth and what my liabilities are, but everybody’s going to make up their own mind. I’m not quite grasping what people are trying to hide. I guess some people are touchy about their net worth. Maybe because I don’t have any I’m not so concerned.”
Is it really a deterrent?
At least one Lantana council member, Kem Mason, said he is still thinking about whether to fill out the form.
“I don’t have a lot of details except what I picked up from the Florida League of Cities meeting and I’ve read somewhat about it,” Mason said. “My concern is that our personal information is going to be out there for everybody to have. I don’t even understand why the governor and all the other officials all the way down to the sheriff have to do it themselves. It’s nonsensical to me.”
As he sees it, “If somebody’s going to be unethical, or do any kind of criminal act, they’re going to do it. They’re not going to put it down on paper. They’re not going to admit to it if they have that inclination in the first place. So, where’s the logic there? If there is any kind of unethical goings-on, wouldn’t a discovery in a court room bring all that out?”
Mason said the new law is “a smokescreen for the public to make them feel better about themselves that their officials are ethical people but in reality, it really doesn’t do anything.”
Larry Barszewski, Brian Biggane, Steve Plunkett, Rich Pollack and Mary Thurwachter contributed to this story.