Should elected officials count county-sponsored event tickets as gifts? The Florida Commission on Ethics thinks so.
The Volusia County Council finds itself once again having to revise its sponsorship process, this time due to an opinion issued by the Florida Commission on Ethics.
The Oct. 30 opinion on gift acceptance and disclosure determined that tickets to events held by both non-profit and for-profit entities paid for by government entities via a sponsorship contribution are considered gifts if elected officials attend the event. It would be a gift from the government entity to the elected official, to the amount of the entrance ticket's value. If that value is over $100, then that elected official must include the gift in his or her financial disclosures.
How does that affect Volusia County? At the Nov. 19 council meeting, the council approved a $1,500 sponsorship for the Volusia Literacy Council's 9th-annual "Lights of Literacy" Gala, rendering them a silver sponsor of the event with a reserved table for eight and presentation of county logo on event signage and materials.
That table for eight could likely be entirely vacant at the gala.
“Until that’s totally cleared up, I’m not going to another one," Kelley said, adding that if he wants to go to a county-sponsored event, he'll buy his own ticket.
County Attorney Dan Eckert said it calls into question the entire sponsorship arrangement and whether it is the best way to direct funds into nonprofits like the Volusia Literacy Council. Last fiscal year, which ended in Sept. 30, the county allocated $46,650 toward sponsorships, according to accompanying agenda documents. This fiscal year, $3,000 have already been pledged to sponsorship. This latest one bumps it to $4,500.
“I think it places the council members in an unfortunate position, and you may wish to change how to do business about this," Eckert said.
County Councilwoman Deb Denys called the Commission on Ethic's opinion a "real game changer." She suggested a moratorium on support until the matter can be addressed by the county's legal department, which she believe has an obligation to tell the council how much each they will need to individually disclose with every possible sponsorship.
“You owe it to council to tell us exactly what implication it is to us," Denys said.
Council members also expressed concern with it appearing that the county was contributing to elected officials, as the gifts would be listed as coming directly from the county to them. Suggestions to let the nonprofits know of the situation were also brought up.
Kelley also asked why the county would sponsor an empty table.
“We’re being penalized for a contribution for a 501c3 representing the county that we’re having to then declare," he said.