Some surprises surfaced in Martin County's primary election. Stuart residents chose two inexperienced candidates over seasoned professionals for their city commission. The dismay city residents recently expressed over the city government's perceived lack of transparency was the likely cause.
That tells us ethics in government counts, and voters notice when they believe it's missing.
At the same time, the election returned County Commissioner Sarah Heard to her seat, although an apparent lack of transparency was behind two criminal indictments for allegedly violating public records laws. So, does that tell us that ethical behavior counts only sometimes? Or only for some people?
No, ethics in government always counts, in both behavior and especially in decision making.
In the case of Ms. Heard, yes, the public noticed. She actually lost more votes than she won. Although she retained her seat, more citizens chose someone else over her than at any time in Ms. Heard's previous four elections.
Voters had three other choices, but 12,000 more people voted in this primary. She managed to rack up only 37.46 percent of the vote, 21 points less than Ms. Heard's highest margin in 2006. Her lowest percentage prior to this was 55 percent. We believe that sends a clear message that ethics count.
Her record, most notably when she controlled the majority from 2012 through 2016, had been marred by what we believe were a number of poor decisions that led to lawsuits lost or settled by the county, some of which we listed in our previous newsletter. Those lawsuits ultimately – and unnecessarily – cost the county millions of dollars that could have been better spent. We believe voters recognized that.
We also asked our readers in the previous newsletter to determine if some commissioners, including Ms. Heard, had violated the five ethical principles identified universally by the Institute for Global Ethics – honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion, We believe our readers, indeed, found that those values had been largely missing in the county's decision-making … and, judging by election results, so did voters.
One Martin did not endorse any candidate, because that is not our role. First, our charter does not permit political endorsements, and, second, we did not want to stray from our primary function – to be a consistent, reliable source of factual information for residents to make their own judgments.
Sometimes, however, facts alone are insufficient. Finding accurate information requires time-consuming research and deciphering what we find. That's why a large percentage of the populace depends on email inboxes, or Google searches, or social media posts for information, reading them only when they agree with their own personal biases.
That sort of email network helped build Ms. Heard's nearly impenetrable voter bloc, because followers reject all other information, including facts.
Is it possible for our local government to rise above personal bias fueled by misinformation that will lead the county to operate more efficiently, effectively and to make better decisions – regardless of who holds office? Yes, we believe there is a solution.
We believe our taxpayers and citizens deserve the protections offered by an independent, local ethics commission, free from outside influences, similar to the state's ethics commission; however, focused exclusively on Martin County. A local ethics commission, not answerable to the county commission, would be proactive, rather than reactive, as is the state's.
It would clearly define the expectations of government officials and provide oversight to ensure that no commission or staff decision violates our laws, policies and procedures, the provisions of grants and contracts, and how taxpayer funds are spent.
A local ethics commission would have no enforcement authority, but it would shed light on questionable practices and investigate complaints, bringing public and law enforcement scrutiny, if necessary, to governmental actions. Other counties have demonstrated that an ethics commission more than pays for itself by making government transparent and efficient.
It's time that residents take control of the oversight of their government, including all commissioners. It's time to create an independent ethics commission for Martin County.