Want to put a dollar amount on a sacred trust? Try zero

Published October 13, 2005

Why, why, why, do people in public office believe they are entitled to accept any gift from any person?

Sorry to sound like Jeremiah here. But holding public office is a sacred trust. It is a position of power over the citizens. You take and spend the public's money. You pass laws that control people's lives.

A person in public office shouldn't be able to take a dime from anybody. Doing it ought to be a felony. An elected official who does it should be removed from office and thrown in prison.

Too harsh for your taste? Then don't run. But, please, do not run for office and then bleat about how the rules need to be changed to be even more in your favor.

This comes up all the time at every level of government, but the example at hand is the Tampa City Council. The council the other day voted 5-1 to get rid of the existing $100 limit on gifts that council members can take from the public.

It is a mystery why it is legal in the first place to drop a C-note on a City Council member. But state law allows that kind of thing, this being Florida and all.

Yet $100 was not sufficient. The Tampa solons decided the thing to do was to have no limit at all.

Would you like to hear the given reason?

Because somebody might invite Tampa's elected leaders to attend the Super Bowl as representatives of the city. Tampa will host the Super Bowl in 2009.

They must be trying to get a running start.

Interestingly enough, Mayor Pam Iorio started this. She suggested changing the city's ethics policy to allow elected officials to accept gifts and tickets worth more than $100 if they were for "community events," and being there was an official duty.

Given the inch, the City Council went for the mile, and decided to throw out the limit on gifts altogether. The final vote on this idea is scheduled for the council's Nov. 3 meeting.

The public will be allowed to comment at that meeting. "Let's take the pulse of the people, and we'll make a decision after that," said council member Shawn Harrison. Maybe the public will show up with pitchforks and torches.

No limit! You would think this would be an especially touchy subject in a city where a former department head was sentenced to five years in federal prison just a few months ago for taking stuff.

Have they already forgotten the words of U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara? He spoke of "the culture that permeates Tampa government, where you do me a favor and I'll do you a favor, even though it violates the public trust."

Here's a suggestion about this Super Bowl business. This suggestion goes for the Tampa Sports Authority taking free tickets to Bucs games, too. It goes for all "community events" and "official duties."

Let the taxpayers pay for it.

That's right. If it's important enough for Pam Iorio or the City Council or any public official to be there, then it's important enough for the taxpayers to pay for it.

The mayor should be forced to bill the taxpayers if she wants to go to the Super Bowl. County Commissioner Jim Norman should have to stick it to the taxpayers if he wants to sit up there in the box during Bucs games.

They should have to justify it.

You know who I admire, in a weird kind of way? Those members of the Pinellas County Commission who billed the taxpayers for going to a convention in Hawaii earlier this year.

They took plenty of grief for it, from me included. But all of them who went decided it was worth the public's money, stuck to their guns and did it.

That's still a heck of a lot better than finding out that Developer X or Favor-Seeker Y paid for it.

The rule should be: No personal gifts allowed, period. If the Girl Scouts give you a bird feeder, you smile and explain that it is really a gift to the city and will go into a nice little display case. Same for the PTA. Same for the guy who wants to build a shopping mall.

No limit! Jehoshaphat. Criminy. Is this why they sought the sacred trust - so they could go to the Super Bowl? So they could take gifts?