Detert’s proposed anti-lobbying ordinance for senior county employees fails to win the support of her fellow county commissioners

Ordinance characterized as response to top staff leaving county government to work for Town of Longboat Key

Commission Chair Nancy Detert looks out over the audience on Aug. 29. File photo

The Sarasota County Commission agenda item had fewer than a dozen words: “(Public hearing) To consider Ordinance No. 2018-060, relating to post-employment lobbying restrictions.”

It proved to be an initiative proposed by Chair Nancy Detert, primarily to keep more senior employees from leaving county employment to take positions with neighboring local governments.

After three of her colleagues expressed concerns — with then-Commissioner Paul Caragiulo making most of the points — Detert withdrew the proposal from consideration.

Commissioners suggested they table the matter until, as Caragiulo said, “the next time Harmer poaches somebody …”

The basis for her requesting that the Office of the County Attorney draft the proposed ordinance at the heart of the discussion, Detert made clear, was the decision of then-County Administrator Tom Harmer to decamp to the Town of Longboat Key late last year to serve as its new manager.

The same month Harmer announced his plans — July 2017 — County Chief Engineer and Public Works Director Isaac Brownman left for the Town of Longboat Key to serve as its new public works director.

Over a period of months following Harmer’s decision, three more county employees retired or resigned and then took positions with Longboat’s town government: Allen Parsons, the long-range planning manager; Tate Taylor, manager of the Planning Services Division; and Carolyn Brown, director of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department. Parsons left in October 2017; Taylor, in March; and Brown, in October of this year.

As he saw it, Caragiulo said, former employees of county government who had taken positions with the Town of Longboat Key still were serving Sarasota County residents. It is the responsibility of the county commissioners, he added, to work together with town leaders, “when we are representing all the same people.”

Former Commissioner Paul Caragiulo. File photo

Detert had characterized the proposed ordinance as a measure to deter lobbying. During the board’s regular meeting on Nov. 7, she said, “I had asked staff to prepare [the regulations]. I think it’s important.”

She had criticized County Administrator Jonathan Lewis on Oct. 23 over the fact that she had discussed the issue with staff of the Office of the County Attorney months earlier; yet, the item had yet to make it to an agenda.

On Nov. 7, Detert referenced a statement in a memo from the Office of the County Attorney, dated Sept. 20: “The Florida Ethics Code imposes on former elected officials a two-year prohibition on lobbying their former government.”

“And I certainly think our … top administrators should be under the same lobbying ban,” she told her colleagues. “I think we’ve lost some very valuable employees who have been recruited because of their knowledge, and so we’re kind of training people and they’re leaving.”

She added of the ordinance, “It also takes away an incentive to steal our top people. So I hope everyone will support the idea.”

Details of the proposal

As proposed, the ordinance said the following:

  • “No County Managerial Employee shall personally represent another person or entity for compensation before the Board of County Commissioners or any of its divisions, departments, agencies, or boards for a period of two years following vacation of office, resignation of employment, or termination of employment, as applicable, except for the purposes of collective bargaining. This prohibition shall apply to matters in which the County Managerial Employee had personal material involvement while employed by Sarasota County.
  • “For purposes of this Article, ‘County Managerial Employee’ shall include the holder of any of the following positions: County Attorney, County Administrator, Deputy County Administrator, Assistant County Administrator, and Director.
  • “This Article shall not apply to County Managerial Employees whose vacation of office, resignation of employment, or termination of employment, as applicable, occurred prior to the effective date of this Article.”

Under the heading of “Enforcement and Penalties,” the ordinance said, “Violators of this Article are subject to prosecution as provided in Section 125.69, Florida

Statutes, and penalties not to exceed $500 and imprisonment not to exceed 60 days.”

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo

The Sept. 20 memo from the Office of the County Attorney noted that some municipal ordinances, such as one implemented in Miami, “generally prohibit all officers and employees from lobbying any board or agency of the city for two years after leaving city service.” For another example, the memo continued, “Orange County limits the full two-year prohibition to the individuals required to file financial disclosures under Section 112.3145 [of the Florida Statutes], and places a one-year limitation on others who ‘substantially contributed’ to procurement related to their lobbying.”

The memo added, “There are approximately forty-five reporting employees under Section 112.3145 currently working for Sarasota County, most of which are listed because they have direct procurement authority.”

“It’s very straightforward and clear,” Detert told her colleagues. When she asked if anyone had questions, no one responded. Then she asked for a motion. After about 5 seconds ticked by, Detert looked at her colleagues, seated on both sides of her, and then said, “Nobody likes it?”

Words of caution

The first commissioner to express reservations about the proposed ordinance was Alan Maio. “I don’t want it to be an impediment to our recruiting,” he said, “especially at a very senior level. We’re not about to change county administrators or county attorneys, but I don’t want this to just stand out, and a potential applicant not want to even consider us because of that [ordinance],” Maio explained.

Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

Nonetheless, he continued, “I understand very clearly the heartburn that we don’t want to be the training ground for senior [employees].”

“This is done by almost every county,” Detert told him. “I think it stops other groups from recruiting our people,” instead of stopping people from applying for Sarasota County Government jobs.

Caragiulo said he could understand implementing such a prohibition in the private sector. However, he added, “It’s a little concerning that it would apply in the public sector … At the end of the day, if people feel like … there is a better job for them for a myriad of reasons — maybe they’re retiring,” he continued, “that is what it is.”

Caragiulo then referenced the commission’s April 25 decision to approve an application submitted by the Town of Longboat Key for $400,000 from the county’s Community Reinvestment Program. Former County Administrator Harmer made the presentation to the board.

That ended up being the first time any local government in the county received support through that program since it was re-established in the 2016 fiscal year. The City of Sarasota was turned down on an application in 2016, without the request making it to the commission level.

During the April discussion regarding Longboat, Commissioner Michael Moran asked Jeff Maultsby, then-director of the county’s Office of Business and Economic Development, “Why in the world don’t we have five proposals that we’re picking from?” Moran pointed out, “It seems like we’re begging people to [let us] try and give them $1.4 million.”

“That’s an excellent question,” Caragiulo responded at the time, “and it is one that has publicly bewildered some of us since this program [was] … refreshed, if you will.” Caragiulo added, “I don’t now that there’s an answer out there …”

On Nov. 7, Caragiulo pointed out, “There was no lobbying [for the funding for Longboat], per se.” He had not spoken with Harmer about the request, he added.

Former County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

A former county administrator might have knowledge that is of use to another local government, Caragiulo said, but the County Commission still would have to conduct a public process on a request such as the one Longboat had submitted. The commissioners would ask questions and then take a vote, he pointed out.

“I’m sort of having a problem,” he continued, with what the ordinance is “trying to correct, other than a … hypothetical.”

“It’s beyond a hypothetical,” Detert replied. “I’ve seen it here.”

“When did the lobbying occur?” Caragiulo asked.

County employees with institutional knowledge — including an understanding of the county budget — “get recruited by another organization,” she told Caragiulo. Those employees “know things other people don’t know. It makes [them] more valuable.”

“But it’s incumbent upon an organization to want to retain its people,” Caragiulo responded. The goal is to provide the type of work environment that makes them want to stay, he added.

“We’ve lost a couple of very top people,” Detert said.

“There’s a lot of reasons,” Caragiulo told her, why someone might want to take another job, including the person’s work environment and the scope of his or her responsibilities.

“And stress,” Detert added. “We get it.”

“I go back to the same spot,” Caragiulo said: “What problem?”

If a county employee wants to go to work for another organization, he continued, “Great. Let them go to work for another organization.”

“I can’t think of a better way to explain it to you,” Detert replied.

Noting that his career, prior to his election to the board, was in human resources, Commission Moran also indicated his agreement with Caragiulo that government employment is different from employment in the private sector.

Moreover, Moran said, “I think we’re smart enough” to understand when someone making a request of the commission is taking a “very biased” stance.

“People aren’t leaving for more money,” Detert told her colleagues. “But they’re getting paid for their knowledge and connections. They’re leaving us because they can go somewhere that’s less stressful …”

“That’s the nature of employment!” Caragiulo replied.

Finally, Detert said, “I’m just going to remove this item from consideration. How’s that.”