Tallahassee Games: This is how the Florida Legislature can drive you crazy. A good idea comes along. This year, it was help for cities on police and fire pensions, which consume more and more of city budgets because benefits are too generous. The cities liked the idea. The unions liked the idea. It would be all the relief cities need, but it would be a big start.
Almost everyone in the Legislature liked the idea. It passed the Senate unanimously.
But because so many people liked it, House Speaker Will Weatherford decided that he would attach this non-controversial idea to a controversial idea that he happens to like: changing the state pension system.
To simplify, the Florida Retirement System includes all state teachers, most county government employees, elected officials and public safety employees who aren’t in city police and fire pension plans. Boca Raton and Delray Beach have police and fire departments, so they have police and fire pensions.
Studies have concluded that these local pension plans pose major financial problems for city taxpayers if benefits aren’t reduced. In contrast, the Florida Retirement System is considered financially solid. The average annual benefit is less than $20,000. In some cities, police officers and firefighters can retire on nearly their full salary.
But Weatherford and other Republicans don’t like the teacher unions and want to push more state-covered employees into a 401(k)-type pension plan. At Weatherford’s urging, the Florida House passed a bill that combined local pension relief with changes to the state pension system.
Democrats are allies of the teachers union, and they opposed those changes to the state system. In the House, their opposition didn’t matter. In the Senate, it did, because several Republicans also weren’t buying what Weatherford was selling. Charlie Dean and Greg Evers are former sheriffs in counties where deputies are in the Florida Retirement System. Another Republican, Jack Latvala, wants to be Senate president, and he wants Dean and Evers to vote for him. So he led the opposition in the Senate to Weatherford’s combined pension bill. It failed.
Ideally, the House then would have passed the Senate bill that focused only on city pensions. It would have passed the House easily. But the House never took up the bill. So because of the House speaker’s selfishness—his attitude was: My bill or no bill—cities and their residents lose out. Which will put even more pressure on leaders of Boca Raton and Delray Beach during negotiations with police and fire unions. And that’s how Tallahassee can drive you crazy.
J Street Strikes Out: Since two of the country’s leading Jewish organizations—the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League—have offices in Boca Raton, U.S. policy in the Middle East is practically a local topic.
Last week, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations rejected a request for membership from the group J Street. Some of the roughly 50 organizations aren’t really that major, but collectively the conference is a major voice regarding Israel. For such organizations, membership in the conference is a big deal.
Most of the organizations—especially the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee—back the policies of the Israeli government, whatever party happens to be in power. J Street, which was formed just six years ago and is aimed at younger Jews in the U.S., is different. It supports negotiations with Iran on ending that country’s nuclear program. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly opposes the talks. J Street opposed Israel’s 2008 military action in Gaza. J Street also strongly supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
According to news reports, the Anti-Defamation League voted to admit J Street. A staff member in the Boca office said ADL had “nothing more to share at this point” about its vote. A staff member in the American Jewish Committee’s Boca Raton office relayed a statement from National Communications Director Ken Bandler that the AJC is “not discussing” how it voted. Balloting was not conducted in public.
The New York Times reported that while J Street got just 17 of the 42 votes cast, groups that voted for J Street—named for the organization’s D.C. street address—have far more members than groups that voted against J Street. One conference member critical of J Street said some of the group’s positions were “unacceptable” for American Jewish organizations. The vote shows that debate about Israel’s future remains much more vigorous and diverse in Israel than in the United States.
Waste Not: The yearlong good-government effort by the Delray Beach City Commission should be vindicated tonight.
If four of the five members agree—and there’s no reason why the vote shouldn’t be unanimous, the commission will approve a deal under which Waste Management, Inc., will continue to provide garbage collection at least through October while the city seeks bids on the trash contract. In August 2012, a previous commission extended Waste Management’s contract for eight years and $65 million—without seeking bids. Delray had not put the trash contract out for bid since 2001.
The current commission argued that Delray Beach had violated its own rules by not getting bids in 2012. Palm Beach County’s Office of Inspector General had agreed. The new commission went to court, and in March the city won. A judge ruled for Delray Beach without the city even having to go to trial.
Under the agreement before the commission tonight—an issue on which Boca Raton magazine has been reporting exclusively—Waste Management agrees not to appeal Judge Meanu Sasser’s ruling. Waste Management also agrees to pay Delray Beach $130,000 for attorney fees the city incurred challenging the contract. That is fair, since the company led the effort to avoid bidding, which led to the lawsuit, which led to the need to hire an outside attorney.
Mayor Cary Glickstein, who made the trash contract—Delray Beach’s largest—a campaign issue when he ran last year said, “Regardless of what happens (with bids for a new contract), I consider this a complete victory for honest government.” He’s right. Delray Beach can take a victory lap if the new contract also produces a savings.
Gray Matters: One of those former Delray Beach commissioners who voted for the no-bid trash contract is Angeleta Gray. She lost her reelection bid in March to Jordana Jarjura. Then things got much worse.
Last month, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office charged Gray and another ex-Delray commissioner, Alberta McCarthy, with three counts of public corruption. In December, Gray voted with the majority to award a city contract—since rescinded—to International Enterprise Development, a company for which McCarthy worked. If the firm got the $50,000 contract, McCarthy would get a new position and a raise.
Just before the vote, according to the charging documents, McCarthy paid off part roughly half of Gray’s roughly $2,400 business loan. There allegedly was no talk of Gray repaying McCarthy.
That’s a bribe, right? Not so fast. Under Florida law, bribery charges are very difficult to bring and harder to prove—perhaps because the legislators who make the laws like it that way.
In2009, however, Palm Beach County approved an ethics code for public officials. Indeed, the code states that the intent is to “provide additional and more stringent” ethics rules than state law. Gray and McCarthy were charged with violating the code’s gift law and with conspiracy. My take is that without the ethics code, prosecutors could not have acted. The chain that began with three county commissioners going to prison and a grand jury recommending creation of the ethics code and the inspector general keeps coming back to Delray Beach.
But get this: If Gray simply had reported that payment from McCarthy, and announced it before the vote, she might not have been charged. At the very least, she would have a better defense, even if she had taken the money from a friend who would benefit from the vote.
And that’s how Palm Beach County can drive you crazy.
Breaking News: This morning, the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General released a report on what the office considers Delray Beach's needless spending of roughly $300,000 on trash carts. The report says City Manager Louie Chapman and Community Improvement Department Director Lula Butler "misled" the city commission into approving the purchase four months ago. The report comes as the commission prepares to evaluate Chapman. Much more on this in Thursday's post.
You can email Randy Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.