Local ethics issues
We highlight three examples of recent ethics concerns in Naples.
1. Major PAC money from developers, realtors in City election
A well-funded political action committee is supporting incumbents Bill Barnett, Reg Buxton, Michelle McLeod and Ellen Seigel in the 2020 election to City Council.
This PAC was formed in February and within 2 weeks had received contributions of $76,000 from 18 individuals, almost all of them listed as builders, developers or realtors. Top of the list was a founding gift of $10,000 from David Hoffmann. Mr. Hoffmann’s company has amassed a commercial real estate and tourist empire in Naples and has stated (news article here) he wants to turn Naples into a “Disneyland for adults”, not necessarily what most residents would consider “small town charm and character.”
The PAC filed its official papers with the City on February 13, 2020, stating that its purpose was to support 4 candidates: Bill Barnett, Reg Buxton, Michelle McLeod and Ellen Seigel.
These incumbents have voted repeatedly to grant developers zoning exceptions worth millions of dollars.
MOST CONCERNING is that even while campaigning for incumbents, the PAC's website, emails and campaign mailings all state that the PAC is “unaffiliated with any candidate”.
This is an example of how influence is quietly spread and special favors become expected.
The 4 incumbents being supported by this big money PAC have all voted most of the time to approve deviations from our zoning code allowing taller, denser commercial development and greater lot coverage, benefiting PAC affiliates. The generous PAC supporters and their representatives may anticipate favorable treatment from their candidates in future zoning applications coming before City Council.
An improved ethics code would ensure transparency. It would include local lobbyist identification and reporting, allowing everyone to see how this process works. It would require full disclosure by City Councilor of their contacts with lobbyists prior to their consideration of zoning and development matters.
Good ethics policies allow voters, taxpayers and neighbors to have greater confidence that such decisions are being made on the merits and not to benefit special interests.
2. 2016 City Councilor Bill Barnett ethics allegation
In 2016, City Councilor Sam Saad charged Councilor Bill Barnett with “huge undisclosed conflict of interest with one of the City’s largest law firms for years” and called into question the votes Barnett took during his prior terms as mayor. The alleged conflict involved the fulltime employment of Barnett's daughter by the Cheffey Passidomo firm, the most frequent advocate for developers during that time, as well as Barnett’s use of the firm for his personal legal work.
No ethics investigation was ever undertaken. Mr. Barnett denied there was a problem, but his daughter left the firm.
An improved local ethics code would have allowed prompt, confidential assessment of this alleged conflict of interest. If the allegation had been sustained, counseling could have been provided to correct the situation. Lobbying by local attorneys for applicants before the city, and full disclosure by Council members of the content of such conversations, would help assure everyone that Council decisions on difficult issues were arrived at for the benefit of everyone, not special interests.
Here is the available coverage from the Naples Daily News:
3. 2017 – 2018 City Councilor Sam Saad ethics case
In 2017, City Councilor Linda Penniman filed an ethics complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics against fellow Council member Sam Saad, alleging Saad violated a state ethics law by voting to approve a commercial redevelopment that might have benefited him or his business partner.
The case stayed in the headlines until it was dismissed in early 2018, when Mr. Saad stated that he had not violated the spirit or letter of the law. Ms. Penniman noted that the State had accepted Mr. Saad’s testimony that he had not intended to violate the state’s ethics laws but that the Florida Commission had not even called a single one of the witnesses that she had provided in support of her complaint.
The facts as reported in various Naples Daily News articles suggest an ongoing relationship between Mr. Saad and his business partner who then profited from a real estate deal in River Park that was affected by a vote from Mr. Saad. (images right and links below)
In a February 2018 editorial after the case was dismissed, the Naples Daily News wrote that:
"… we’ve come to expect the state Ethics Commission to dismiss or not sanction those involved in most all complaints it receives about public officials across Florida…"
"[A] local ethics panel to review complaints … with a smaller caseload could more expeditiously review these locally, based on our community standards and expectations."
An improved local ethics code would have avoided multiple headlines and allowed prompt, confidential assessment of this alleged conflict of interest. If the allegation had been sustained, counseling could have been provided to correct the situation. Lobbying by local attorneys for applicants before the city, and full disclosure by Council members of the content of such conversations, would help assure everyone that Council decisions on difficult issues were arrived at for the benefit of everyone, not special interests.
Here is the available coverage from the Naples Daily News:
Saad pushed for projects in area overseen by partner , November 4, 2016
Councilman’s firm did work for group before, after vote , December 17, 2016
Naples councilwoman files ethics complaint vs. peer Saad , April 3, 2017
Emails: Saad sought meeting with agent before vote , October 13, 2017
Florida ethics panel to vote on Saad complaint , January 16, 2018
Ethics panel tosses case vs. Naples councilman , January 19, 2018