That time we ran out of elected officials who wanted ethics training

Miami is no stranger to ethics scandals and corruption (How many probes are there into Opa-locka right now?). That’s why it was a real head-scratcher when Katy Sorenson, the founder of the Good Government Initiative, announced last week that the program would be closing down because they couldn’t find enough people who wanted to participate.

Katy Sorenson (Courtesy of the Good Government Initiative)
Katy Sorenson (Courtesy of the Good Government Initiative)

The former Miami-Dade County commissioner for District 8 spent 16 years in office, during which four of her colleagues left office because they were either imprisoned, on house arrest, accepted bribes or committed other ethical violations.

After leaving office in 2010, she founded the Good Government Initiative to train elected officials in things like budget finance, ethics, land use, and working with the media. She also held day-long seminars teaching citizens how to run for office and help citizens become more engaged.

Graduates of the program include notable new names in local politics, like County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who now holds the seat Sorenson once did, and City of Miami Commissioner Ken Russell.

But now, after five and a half years in operation and 86 graduates, Sorensen has closed the doors of the Good Governance Initiative. We asked her what inspired her to start GGI, why it closed (turns out a lot of elected officials lie on their applications) and if she thinks it’s made any difference in the political landscape.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Not long after leaving the county commission, you started the Good Government Initiative. What inspired that?

Well, I took a course called “Senior Executives in State and Local Government” at Harvard and I thought it was so worthwhile to explore things like budget finance, ethics, land use, and working with the media. I wanted to start something like that here for people who couldn’t travel all the way to Harvard.

The other benefit was that you develop a cohort. The classes were 17 people or so, so they became friends with each other and managed to keep in touch. With the Sunshine Law [which requires that most conversations between elected officials be part of the public record], it’s hard to develop friendships with your colleagues. We had people in the classes who were not in the same elected body, so they were able to talk about things they care about and develop friendships.

After five and a half years of running the Good Government Initiative, you recently announced that you were shutting the program down. Why did you think it was time to close the doors?

It was a long and somewhat painful decision, but I realized that in reviewing all the elected offices, in four counties from Monroe to Palm Beach, that everyone who wanted to take the course pretty much had taken the course. I realized there would probably be only about six people and you need about 16 to make it a valuable cohort.

There wasn’t enough turnover to get enough new people in the class, and I couldn’t really expand the boundaries — it was hard enough getting people from Palm Beach and Monroe to come.

I basically looked at all the data and said “It’s not adding up.” I reluctantly decided the program would have to at least take a breather so that the pool could grow after a few election cycles.

But what about people who wanted to run, couldn’t you also look to those people and help them understand the ropes?

The main program was for elected officials, those are people who are already in office. I had a few satellite programs for people considering running which was about one day or so, and a citizen’s academy, and some community conversations. They were nice, but it wasn’t the main reason I started the Good Government Initiative.

How is it possible that all across all four counties, there was no one left to take the course? There must be hundreds of elected officials.

There were many people who felt like they didn’t need or have time for the program. They just weren’t interested and it ended up being a small market. Also some people who applied I didn’t accept because I didn’t think they met the standards that we required.

I wanted a baseline of ethics and integrity to start with — if the first thing that pulls up when you google their name is a mugshot or if they lie on their applications, that’s a non-starter.

Then some people just didn’t have the intellectual capacity to be a part of the program. It wasn’t reform school, it was people who wanted to do the right thing but didn’t have the know-how to do so.

You were a county commissioner for 16 years. Were there any people you sat on the dais with that you think could have benefitted from the program but didn’t take it?

I think all of my colleagues could have benefited. But some of the commissioners have been in office for a really long time, so they know about budget, land use, ethics, etc. If you’ve been in office for eight to 10 years, you probably don’t need the program.

With that said, when I was in office, I had four colleagues who left either to go to prison, house arrest or were removed for crimes like bribery or or ethical violations. I didn’t compare our county commission to other county commissions so I don’t know if that was unusual or not, but it was alarming.

Looking back, do you think that the work you’ve done has made a difference?

I do. We had 86 elected officials go through the program and 70 are still in office. Every class had really different personalities. I think what they had in common was eagerness to learn and to explore ideas to consider other people’s point of view, especially because it was a non-partisan course.

Lots of alums talk about the relationships they formed and the ripple effects that has to the greater community. If they’re doing a good job, and citizens feel it as well, I feel like I’ve done my job.

I feel proud of what we were able to accomplish. Maybe it’ll come back if there’s a need for it. If anyone wants to take it on I would be happy to consult and put it together again. There’s a Buddhist phrase that basically says “When the student is ready the teacher appears.” And I think that could happen again.

What advice do you have for someone who is considering running for office but might not know what the first steps are?

Get involved in an issue. Go to the meetings. You should be reading The New Tropic [we didn’t tell her to say that] and The Miami Herald to know what the issues are. Then start speaking up at meetings. Go little by little, and all of a sudden you find yourself being an activist. If you’re thoughtful and have a good perspective, they will even start seeking you out.