Hillsborough County commissioners may enjoy receiving things for free, but they shouldn’t be allowed to.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, Commissioner Al Higginbotham proposed Wednesday to ban commissioners from accepting “all gifts (of) any value beyond the plaques, trinkets, fruit boxes and other items of limited cost that they often receive from constituents.”
He stopped short of saying the proposal was in response to anything specific witnessed going on in the Hillsborough County Commission (HCC), instead saying the ban was merely a fulfillment of a campaign promise intended to improve public perception of county commissioners. Unfortunately, the effect of Higginbotham’s proposal might have been the opposite of its intent.
The proposal was diluted by the commission, which is only drafting a change in its rules that formally prohibit all gifts from paid lobbyists who are registered with the state. The change will be voted on at a later meeting.
Of course, constituents – provided they aren’t registered as paid lobbyists – can still give gifts. Not only that, but they can give gifts worth more than $100. State law only prohibits gifts from lobbyists that are valued at more than that amount. Commissioners are allowed to accept presents worth more than $100 from non-lobbyists, provided they disclose the fact that they accepted the present.
There seems to be little need to formally prohibit gifts from lobbyists in light of that fact that the HCC passed a rule requiring disclosure of all gifts from lobbyists four years ago. Since that rule was passed, no commissioner has disclosed the existence of a present received by a lobbyist.
“Commissioner Ken Hagan argued the proposal (was) more symbol than substance,” according to the Times. It can’t be argued that he’s wrong, since the commission is apparently forbidding itself from accepting gifts it isn’t receiving.
If the commission truly wanted to rid itself of any perception of impropriety, it would forbid gifts from anyone. The very act of accepting gifts carries with it an appearance of impropriety that prevents voters from having faith in the objectivity of their elected officials. The commission is in too important a position to be allowed to accept presents that might unfairly sway its opinions.
When debating the change, commissioner Mark Sharpe asked, “Are we returning Christmas gifts?” The answer may be “no,” but if the commission wants to solve the problem of perceived impropriety, it should change that answer to “yes.”