Hillsborough looks at ban on lobbyists' gifts

One idea would give officials $625 a month to pay for public and charity events.

Published January 5, 2006

TAMPA - With state legislators no longer accepting gifts from lobbyists, Hillsborough commissioners today will join the Tampa City Council in debating whether to follow suit.

The commission is scheduled to discuss instituting a similar ban on gifts when it meets for the first time since the holidays. One proposal would ban commissioners and other high-ranking county officials from accepting gifts of any value from registered lobbyists.

Instead, they would receive a stipend of $625 per month each to pay for participation or attendance at public and charity events expected of them in their roles as elected officials. The new perk would cost taxpayers up to $52,500 a year.

The topic, a focus of spirited discussions in the past, could spur a clash at the board meeting. Commissioner Kathy Castor, who has previously pushed with mixed success tightening of the county's lobbying ordinance, said the proposal doesn't go far enough.

A Democrat running for Congress, Castor would like the ban extended to all people or organizations who attempt to sway government action, regardless of whether it takes place in a government building, privately or over the phone. She said the current ordinance does not truly cover all the people who try to influence board decisions.

In a news release Wednesday, she makes reference to a "tide of ethics reforms" sweeping the nation. She then cites as evidence of needed reform several Washington scandals largely involving Republicans.

"No matter their party affiliation, no party or person is immune from this," Castor said. "There are plenty of Democrats who have suffered scandals. Those are just the people in the headlines today."

The overwhelmingly Republican state Legislature voted last month to ban themselves and other state officials from accepting gifts of any value from lobbyists. The Tampa City Council then subsequently took up a similar proposal but has yet to resolve the matter.

Hillsborough public affairs officer Edith Stewart said County Commission Chairman Jim Norman asked her to look at what the Legislature did and come up with a proposal for discussion. Stewart emphasized the proposal she is putting forward was not specifically requested by Norman, but is her attempt to mimic what the Legislature did within the county's lobbying ordinance.

Norman was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

The commissioners will talk about the idea today, but in order for any new standard to be adopted it would have to be written as an ordinance, aired at a public hearing, and then approved in a commission vote. Castor has previously pushed successfully for greater disclosure of who lobbies commissioners and unsuccessfully for greater limits on the value of gifts they accept. The latter came after a St. Petersburg Times story disclosed the cost of free football tickets some commissioners accept for a luxury suite at Raymond James Stadium.

The tickets are provided by the Tampa Sports Authority, which runs the stadium. Because the authority is considered a part of government, it is not classified as a lobbyist under the county ordinance.