Doing right by the voters?     

Boca Raton has a different mayor and city council than the city had in 2011. Delray Beach has a different mayor and a much different city commission than the city had in 2011. Yet in both cities there’s nothing different from 2011, when Boca and Delray joined the lawsuit against Palm Beach County’s Office of Inspector General.

Technically, 15 cities—including most of the largest in the county—were part of the original challenge to how the office is funded. (Wellington dropped out.) Practically speaking, the lead plaintiff has been West Palm Beach. The city’s bloated legal department of nearly 10 lawyers has handled most of the work, though private firms also are helping some of the cities. Boca, Delray and the others basically have hitched a free legal ride.

The lawsuit rests on a flimsy legal argument; more about that in a second. Worse, the lawsuit insults the residents of those cities.

In November 2010, voters in all of the county’s 38 cities approved putting the cities under jurisdiction of the inspector general. The county commission created the office, along with the commission on ethics, in 2009—after the third county commission had gone to prison on corruption charges. A grand jury had recommended creation of the office. County government was under the inspector general from the start. The 2010 vote by the cities was overwhelming. Nearly three-fourths of voters—those numbers also held true in Boca and Delray—wanted the outside scrutiny of the inspector general.

The office can’t pursue criminal charges; that’s the job of the state attorney’s office. But the inspector general can refer possible criminal violations to the state attorney. What worries officials in some cities—especially some well-entrenched city managers—is the ability of the inspector general to take anonymous complaints and issue opinions about contracts, purchasing and other deals that might otherwise not get a second look that could result in a better deal for the public.

Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie last week reiterated what her predecessor, Susan Whelchel, had said: Boca’s opposition is not about oversight but about the idea of the county double-taxing the cities. The inspector general is a county agency, so the plaintiffs claim that the county can’t make cities pay for a county service. In fact, the county didn’t order the cities to pay; the voters of those cities did. And the service is for the cities, not the county. The county has been paying for its oversight all along.

The lawsuit finally might come to trial in June. If Boca and Delray voted to withdraw as plaintiffs, the trial would go on. West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio is dug in on the issue, even if City Attorney Claudia McKenna—the face of the cities’ resistance—is retiring this month. Still, withdrawing would send the right message, however belatedly. And Boca and Delray wouldn’t have to decide how to pay their share immediately. The county clerk has said she can’t collect any of the cities’ money until the lawsuit is resolved.

Last October, Anthony Majhess tried to get the Boca council to pay some of its share. His motion failed, 3-2, but Haynie—then a council member—joined him. Whelchel showed that she didn’t understand the issue by claiming that the inspector general is “controlled” by the county. In fact, the inspector general reports to a seven-member committee of appointees and elected officials. No county commissioners serve on the committee, and the commission makes no appointments to the committee.

Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein said recently that the city should withdraw from the lawsuit. Since the inspector general backed up Delray’s challenge to the trash contract issued without bidding, that move would be appropriate. Most cities in Palm Beach County have respected the wishes of their voters. Any opposition at this point is more about opposition to good government.

Lee County blues                              

Speaking of good government, at least for the moment Palm Beach can look down on another county in Florida.

That would be Lee County, where the good people in the Fort Myers area just suffered another embarrassment when it comes to their public officials.

State Rep. Dane Eagle, a first-term Republican, was arrested early Monday on a drunken driving charge. According to a report in The Fort Myers News-Press, police saw Eagle’s car clip a curb after making a U-turn, and then run a red light. Eagle reportedly blamed the smell of alcohol in the car on friends who had ridden with him after drinking. Eagle claimed that he had not been drinking, but he refused a sobriety test, for which his license was automatically suspended for a year. He said the police did not present a “complete and accurate picture of the events.” Eagle’s assignments include a seat on the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

Coincidentally, the next day Republican voters in Florida’s 19th Congressional District, which includes Lee County, chose a GOP candidate for the June 24 special election to replace U.S. Rep. Trey Radel. He resigned in January after being busted last November in Washington for cocaine possession. Radel had tried rehab and public contrition to keep his job, but couldn’t pull it off.

(Side note: If anyone still thinks Sarah Palin’s backing is all Republican candidates need, Palin endorsed former Palm Beach County state senator Lizbeth Benacquisto in the District 19 primary. She lost to former businessman Curt Clawson by 13 percentage points.)

And as all that goes on, former Lee County Commissioner Tammy Hall is in a federal prison, serving six months after pleading guilty to using nearly $34,000 in 2010 campaign donations for personal use.

Granted, Radel and Eagle’s issues aren’t public corruption. But they do amount to violation of public trust. Palm Beach County knows how Lee County feels.

Sobering news                            

So much for even the Florida Legislature’s small attempt to regulate sober houses.

On Tuesday, the bill by State Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, all but died. It would have required the unregulated sober houses, which are transitional treatment facilities and thus different from the residential treatment centers that the state already regulates, to register with the Florida Department of Children and Families. Boca Raton, Delray Beach and other cities in Palm Beach County supported the bill. It had passed two committees unanimously, but ran into opposition from Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron.

Working against the bill was a lobbyist for the Florida Alcohol & Drug Abuse Association. Its members include at least one sober house in Delray Beach, which has been trying for years to help residents of single-family neighborhoods with what they saw are crime problems from operators of sober houses that overcrowd homes and dump patients.

Sen. Clemens told me that the Appropriations Committee just scheduled a meeting for Thursday. The bill might have life, though the odds are slim. Structural relief on sober houses must come from Congress, which can change the Fair Housing Law to help cities where the houses set up. But if Florida, where the problem may be most severe, can’t get excited, how will Florida persuade Washington to act?

You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.