OM Newsletter: Making the case for ethical decisions

Article Posted on August 22, 2018

Dear Friends,

Let's continue the conversation we started a couple of weeks ago about ethics in local government. We all can accept that if government decisions lack an ethical base, we pay for it sooner or later. As responsible citizens, we also cannot tell ourselves that decisions are ethical when we see signs that tell us they are not.

Look at Martin County's noble objective of controlling growth by balancing development with our desire to protect our environment, an ethics-based decision. Although a decades-long objective, we now find ourselves out of balance on multiple fronts: Taxes are rising, our residents cannot afford to buy homes here, and our environment is seriously ill.

We witnessed our local government unable to respond immediately to the algae crisis after our waterways turned green, because our emergency reserves are unacceptably low for a number of reasons, including the fact we used millions to hire outside attorneys for litigation. 

One loan payment to cover the cost of just one lawsuit is shaving $1.4 million annually directly off the top of the county's budget, nearly double the state's $770,000 emergency allocation to Martin County for algae clean-up. Just imagine what we could be, should be doing with the other millions lost needlessly to lawsuits.

We believe the previous decisions by the county commission majority, Ms. Sarah Heard, Mr. Ed Fielding and Ms. Anne Scott, from 2012 through 2016 put us in this untenable position now of failing to respond to our residents' many critical needs. We believe those commissioners who had control then lacked the essential traits of ethical behavior to guide us to good decisions that benefit all residents.

According to the Institute for Global Ethics, four key values are identified by communities across the world nearly unanimously as necessary for ethical behavior – honesty, respect, responsibility and fairness. A fifth value, compassion, brought more debate, which is not surprising.

Compassion requires the ability to step out of our own lives to walk in another's shoes – a difficult task for those who put only their interests above all others!

Among dozens of examples, we believe that ethical decisions could have averted these situations:

  • The Pacific Legal Foundation stepped in to save a mom-and-pop restaurant from a $1,000-a-day fine threatened by Martin County to force the restaurant's compliance with a county easement that had not been tied to the deed at the time they purchased their property. Ask yourself, could the decision by Ms. Heard, Mr. Fielding and Ms. Scott to levy the fine despite the circumstances be considered fair, respectful, and compassionate, upholding the Institute's ethical values? The county offered a settlement to avoid a jury trial that they most assuredly would have lost.
  • A mandatory rezoning (as specified by our rules) of a townhouse development on US 1, the design of which exceeded Comprehensive Growth Management Plan requirements, was arbitrarily denied, resulting in another lawsuit against the county. Again, did the decision by Ms. Heard, Mr. Fielding and Ms. Scott to reject this application without cause violate the Institute's values of honesty, responsibility and respectfulness -- not only toward the landowner, but toward our Comp Plan? The county offered a settlement prior to a jury trial.
  • The county staff assured the purchaser of property in Palm City that all development requirements had been met prior to the property's purchase, then the county staff changed its mind after a $50 million investment had already been made. Does the commission's decision by Ms. Heard, Mr. Fielding and Ms. Scott to reject the project after such assurances violate the Institute's ethical values of honesty, fairness, responsibility and respectfulness? After a lawsuit was filed, the case was heard before a panel of three judges, who ruled against the county.

Had the decisions by Commissioners Heard, Fielding and Scott been ethics-based, our residents would not have been compelled to go to court to force the county to do the right thing.

In addition to these three lesser-known lawsuits, three major lawsuits grabbed headlines, most recently the Lake Point case. In addition to costing taxpayers an estimated $20 million or more, the case also resulted in court sanctions against the county and criminal indictments of Ms. Heard and Mr. Fielding and former Commissioner Anne Scott for alleged Sunshine law violations for hiding incriminating correspondence with Maggy Hurchalla.

Had they simply adopted the Institute's values of honesty and responsibility, they likely could have reached an acceptable conclusion to all parties without violating the law, seriously harming a bonafide business, and costing taxpayers millions of dollars. (Their trials are expected to begin in December.)

It's important to know that these court cases were adjudicated by five different judges in three different courts, and judgments were awarded by two separate juries comprising ordinary citizens of Martin County, debunking the myth that wealthy landowners controlled the outcomes.

Just as important, not one landowner or developer was charged with any wrong doing or breaking any law or violating any contract, in this case or in any other.

We reject wholeheartedly the indicted commissioners' mantra that the ends justifies the means. The “ends” they achieved is a crippled government failing to meet the basic needs of Martin County residents. “Noble” corruption is still corruption, which hurts us all.

The only solution to bringing balance and the highest quality of life to all Martin County residents is to turn to ethically based decisions. The key, of course, is first to elect county commissioners with ethical character. This conversation is just getting started.


Rick Hartman

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