City Commission advances charter change to make inspector general “independent.”

Voters likely will be able to vote on a change to Tallahassee's charter that would make the inspector general more independent from his bosses on the City Commission and allow the office to handle whistleblower complaints involving commissioners and their staff.

At their April 24 meeting, city commissioners approved the proposed charter change in a rare 4-1 vote. A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday. If ultimately approved by commissioners, it would go before voters in the fall.

The change would make it harder for the City Commission to fire the inspector general, a move intended to prevent political interference in his work. However, it wouldn't make him completely invulnerable.

Currently, the City Commission can fire the inspector general, one of the top four appointed city officials, with a simple 3-2 vote. Under the charter amendment, a two-thirds majority, or effectively a 4-1 or unanimous vote, would be required.

Dennis Sutton, the city's comptroller who also became inspector general in 2020 when that office was created, offered the charter change April 10 during debate on a similar proposal from the Charter Audit Committee. He explained this during the last meeting of the Commission.

“It would … make the removal of the inspector general or decisions or conclusions that the inspector general makes in connection with investigations of complaints much more difficult,” Sutton said of his proposal. “And I believe this would give all inspectors general the additional independence they need to hear complaints related to elected officials and their staff.”

Under Sutton's proposal and draft language before the commission, the inspector general position would replace the comptroller in the charter, the city's governing constitution. However, the office would continue to have both audit and investigation departments as before.

The inspector general would serve a five-year term, with commissioners deciding whether to renew her contract six months before each interval. If no action is taken, the Inspector General will automatically be reappointed.

The IG could only be removed by a majority vote on specific allegations, which include dereliction of duty, discrimination and ethical misconduct. He would be automatically removed from office if he were convicted or otherwise found guilty of a crime.

In March, the 10-member CRC voted to place a charter change on the ballot that would allow the city's independent ethics board — rather than the inspector general — to handle whistleblower complaints involving city commissioners, the IG and their staff.

The Ethics Committee had been requesting this authority for more than two years, citing a long-standing “loophole” in the law. The city attorney said last year that a charter change and a referendum would be needed.

Mayor: “Massive change in job description”

During the April 24 Commission meeting, Ernie Paine, who as a member of the CRC advanced the Ethics Committee's proposal, expressed his support for both Sutton and the Ethics Committee's proposals. However, he told commissioners he had a reservation.

“This alternative is a step in the right direction,” said Paine, a former member of the Ethics Committee and current member of the nonprofit organization Citizens for Ethics Reform. “However, any move toward independence will be meaningless to the inspector general if he continues to rely on the city’s legal counsel for legal counsel.”

City Attorney Amy Toman said her office has sole responsibility for the city's legal affairs. She also said the ordinance requires the hiring of outside counsel in cases where a conflict of interest could arise between city commissioners and the city attorney acting on their wishes.

Mayor John Dailey rejected both proposals, saying they came at the end of the charter review process and that the CRC initially only voted for his version by one vote. The CRC voted unanimously again later in the meeting, although Dailey called it “ceremonial.”

“This is a massive change in the job description,” Dailey said. “And I think the community needs to spend a lot more time than just the last meeting and this meeting on this discussion moving forward.”

Commissioner Jeremy Matlow disagreed, saying the proposal had been discussed for more than two years. He said that by a vote of just 3-2, the City Commission “could eliminate the inspector general if he started investigating something that could embarrass a commissioner… could embarrass any of us up here.”

Matlow moved the motion and Commissioner Jack Porter seconded him to send both proposals to a vote. But Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox submitted a replacement motion for Sutton's proposal and received a second from Commissioner Curtis Richardson. That won 4-1, with Dailey disagreeing.

Williams-Cox noted that the CRC and the recent charter review process were not yet “in sight” when the commission created the Office of Inspector General four years ago.

“It’s our chance to try to make this happen now,” she said.

The wording of the draft does not explicitly mention the appointment of external legal advisors. Nor does it provide for a specific mechanism for handling whistleblower complaints involving the Inspector General. A similar gap exists with the Ethics Committee and all complaints that could theoretically affect it.

Voters will also approve a charter amendment that would double the city commissioner's salary

The inspector general charter amendment is one of five that will be on the ballot in the Nov. 5 general election. It's unlikely to get as much attention as another — doubling city commissioners' salaries — that the commissioners put on the ballot in a recent 3-2 vote.

Under this proposal, city commissioners' annual salary would increase from about $45,000 to $90,000, the amount city commissioners make in Leon County. Their salary would be based on county commissioners' salaries, which are adjusted each year based on the state's formula. There would be no change to the salary of the mayor, who earns the same as county commissioners.

The other charter changes would move two-person city elections from the August primary to the November election, require a review of the city charter every 10 years and expand the ethics board's jurisdiction to include city commissioners who serve on Blueprint or other governing bodies.

Contact Jeff Burlew at [email protected] or 850-599-2180.

Anna Harden

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