Listen Here, You Boneheads, We Ain't Broke so Don't Try and Fix Us

Just a few hours before his avuncular mug would appear on national television as an expert commentator on the judiciary's role in the presidential election, retired Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan made an offer to the Miami-Dade County school board: He would draw up ground rules for a proposed ethics commission. The largely skeptical elected officials on the dais weren't sure they needed one.

A white-haired, bespectacled gentleman, Kogan was the star in an ethics A list of speakers who, on this mid-November afternoon, tried to persuade eight members of the school board that they should support colleague Marta Perez's crusade to bring ethical accountability to the fourth-largest school district in the nation. It was not a foregone conclusion that Perez would receive the backing of a majority of the board. In October, when a panel of board-appointed advisors recommended that an ethics commission be created for the school district, several members balked at the suggestion. Manty Sabates Morse argued that the district was doing just fine without one. "Up to now I really didn't think we had a problem," she said. Later she testily asked, "What doesn't work? Maybe if you can explain to me what doesn't work, I would feel that we need this. But at this moment, nobody has given me any proof."

Proof and political pressure were provided as Kogan, head of the Alliance for Ethical Government, relinquished the podium to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas; Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla; Joe Centorino, head of the public-corruption unit at the State Attorney's Office; Robert Meyers, executive director of the county's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust; Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce leaders; parents of students; and others who implored the board to respond to the scandals that have been well documented in news accounts and investigations by Centorino's staff.

A doctoral student at Nova Southeastern University referred to a file several inches thick, stuffed with newspaper articles she collected over the previous two years documenting school-district improprieties ranging from misspent funds and padded construction contracts, to sexual-harassment cases, to schools changing athletes' grades, to the recent controversy surrounding the political campaign of board member Demetrio Perez, Jr.'s son. Karelia Martinez-Carbonell is preparing a dissertation on ethics in the school district for her public-administration degree. "These things that have happened that we all read about? I don't know how any of you could have missed," she had responded to Morse's query back in October. "Whatever you have is not working, and the perception is that something needs to be done."

After about an hour of testimony, board members agreed to let Kogan's group, superintendent Roger Cuevas, and others prepare recommendations for an ethics commission, but then decided they wouldn't even begin considering them until June of next year.

The board also weakened Perez's proposal by changing Kogan's mission from "drafting recommended bylaws" to simply "making recommendations." Actual bylaws seemed alarmingly premature to board members such as Morse, Solomon Stinson, and the retiring G. Holmes Braddock. The vote was a tiny step toward an ethics commission but far from Perez's original call for an independent inspector general, a motion she said "sank like a lead balloon" earlier this year.

But even this nominal advance wasn't undertaken without substantial arm-twisting from speakers and veiled threats from various board members. Following are excerpts from the November 15 hearing:

Kogan appealed to the board's sense of reason. "Today ethics is a big thing in government, whether it be our county government, whether it be the school board, or whether it be our state or national government," he asserted solemnly. "This is your opportunity to allow the people of Dade County to understand and to realize that the school board is serious when you're talking about ethics. I want to point out that this is not a commission that does any witch-hunting or anything of that nature. It's a commission, as the county has, whose sole purpose is to make sure that we keep an ethical climate in government. I'm sure the school board would want the same thing. I urge you to seriously consider doing this. The people of this county expect this, and they want this, and I recommend it to you."

When board chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman introduced Penelas as the next speaker, Perez smiled broadly. Sitting next to her, Stinson slumped back in his chair, stone-faced. Penelas proposed to extend jurisdiction of the county's ethics commission to include the school board. "Perhaps there's an opportunity, rather than reinventing the wheel, of having these two efforts merge," he ventured. "Here you have an ethics commission that's in place, has jurisdiction over items such as enforcing conflict-of-interest statutes, code-of-ethics ordinances. I want to make that as an offer to you."

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Rebecca Wakefield