Some elected leaders may resign rather than comply
By Charles Elmore
A new state law that requires mayors and council members in cities and towns to disclose their full net worth, certain clients and the aggregate value of jewelry, art and other household goods has churned up a wave of consternation along Palm Beach County’s southern coast.
“I was left shaking my head at the recently passed financial disclosure requirements,” Manalapan Mayor Stewart Satter told The Coastal Star. “It serves no purpose and will cause enormous disruption to municipalities. It will certainly discourage people’s willingness to serve in public office. I certainly wouldn’t disclose my financial holdings and ultimately my net worth.”
Supporters of the law say it promotes transparency for voters and guards against conflicts of interest at a level that already applies to a number of other elected officials.
But others view SB 774, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in May, as overkill for smaller towns and cities where elected officials might serve for modest salaries or in some instances zero dollars. Some run unopposed, persuaded by friends or neighbors this is an important civic duty even if there is not necessarily a stampede of candidates for every office.
“A lot of people are doing this as a public service,” said Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities. “It seems a little bit draconian.”
After Jan. 1, affected municipal officials will have to file Form 6 with the Florida Commission on Ethics. It asks for net worth in dollars, assets and liabilities worth more than $1,000, the aggregate value of household goods such as jewelry, art and stamp collections, the source of primary income with amount, and a listing of secondary sources of income, such as customers and clients, without amount.
It represents a big step up from the previously required Form 1 for municipal officials. That form asks for sources of income, liabilities and interests in businesses without specific dollar amounts.
Even if it generates discomfort, it can have good effects for the public, advocates for the law say.
Form 6 is already required of the governor, lieutenant governor, legislators, county commissioners, sheriffs and various other officials.
“Citizens who live in small towns are no less entitled to information regarding the public trust than people who live in larger cities,” said Kerrie Stillman, executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics.
Her organization has been pushing for more rigorous disclosure standards regarding municipal officials for many years, she said.
Such information can provide a healthy incentive for people in positions of power not to act in ways that might unduly benefit themselves or others with whom they have business relationships, supporters say.
“Financial disclosure provides transparency,” Stillman said. “It helps increase public trust in elected officials.”
The storyline can feel a little different to people on the ground in local office.
Satter, who took the mayor’s office in March, is the former CEO of Consumer Testing Laboratories, which tested products for Walmart and other retailers, Manalapan’s website notes. He is president of Carnegie Hill Development, a real estate development firm specializing in “the construction of one-of-a-kind, ultra-high-end oceanfront homes,” including several in Manalapan, according to his bio.
He said in a public meeting May 23 in which the law was discussed, “I’ll have a very short term as mayor, I guess.”
Manalapan Town Manager Linda Stumpf said at that meeting, “It’s a little problematic for this commission and multiple commissions I have spoken with. There are commissioners struggling with it. They don’t mind the regular disclosure they’ve been doing because it doesn’t give specifics. This does.”
Among the concerns, she said, are “they don’t feel it’s everybody’s business.”
Ocean Ridge Commissioner Ken Kaleel said he would not be surprised by mass resignations by December, perhaps including his own, and widespread discouragement of new candidates.
“Does an elected official want to expose themselves to that kind of scrutiny, especially in coastal towns, where I think the impact is going to be the greatest?” Kaleel said at a June 5 town meeting. “It casts a chilling effect on who’s going to run.”
Kaleel has served as attorney for more than three decades with experience serving “businesses and individuals in South Florida with real property matters and governmental relations, business matters, and estates,” according to the website of Kaleel & Associates in Delray Beach. The site notes he also “represents developers and individuals in all aspects of commercial and residential real property transactions.”
The newly required information will be filed in an online system and available to members of the public who want to see it. The law increases the maximum civil penalty for a violation to $20,000 from $10,000.
The new law does not require Form 6 for town managers who are not elected.
State Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, voted against SB 774 and said she would consider introducing a bill in the next session to exempt towns and cities of a certain size, or those that do not pay elected officials.
“Here you’re not getting paid, they’re asking you to make all your financial assets public,” Berman said. “That’s a big imposition.”
She said, “My concern with this legislation is it will discourage people from running for public office. It might encourage people in office to resign from their positions.”
Highland Beach Commissioner Evalyn David said she plans to stay in her seat in a term that runs to March 2025, but believes the new law could have a chilling effect on those wanting to run for office.
“This is a town with a lot of quiet money,” David said. “No one is shouting from the rooftops how much they’re worth and they may not want to shout how much they’re worth.”
As an attorney, David specialized in trust and estate planning before she retired and moved to Highland Beach in 2008, the town’s website says. She has since served on the board for Braemar Isle condominiums, according to the site.
In Manalapan, Satter said the law is landing awkwardly on smaller coastal communities.
“If the governor and Legislature are truly keen to keep politicians honest and prevent double dealing — and I would applaud such — there are much more effective ways to accomplish this without causing such widespread disruption,” he said.
Rich Pollack, Larry Barszewski and Mary Thurwachter contributed to this story.