Something smells in Delray: Fittingly, the latest controversy in Delray Beach concerns trash carts, because something in the city stinks.
On Tuesday, Palm Beach County’s Office of Inspector General issued a report saying that since 2010 Delray Beach has spent nearly $300,000 on trash carts from the same company —Otto Environmental Systems, based in Charlotte, N.C—without seeking bids. Worse, City Manager Louie Chapman and Community Improvement Director Lula Butler, who reports to Chapman, misled—and that’s being kind—the city commission into approving the most recent purchase order four months ago, and then Chapman tried to hide his involvement when the inspector general’s office investigated.
All this comes just after Chapman infuriated Mayor Cary Glickstein and Commissioner Shelly Petrolia with his last-minute scheduling of an agenda item they had asked him to postpone until they returned from vacation. Chapman’s action violated city policy, as Commissioner Jordana Jarjura pointed out. All this comes just before the scheduled May 20 evaluation by the commission of Chapman. All this reinforces the idea that Delray Beach is a mismanaged city whose residents must hope that the cause is incompetence rather than corruption but must acknowledge that it could be both.
Start with Chapman, since he’s been CEO of Delray Beach for the last year. It’s hard to imagine how he can recover from the inspector general’s report. It makes clear that when the commission approved a $60,000 purchase order in January for new trash carts—Petrolia cast the lone dissenting vote—Chapman and Butler did not tell the commission that the city had bought 1,200 carts just last September and had 700 on hand. Butler told the commission that her department needed the carts soon. In addition, Chapman authorized that purchase order of $57,000 on his own, even though the commission was supposed to approve any purchase of more than $15,000.
Here, though, is the really bad part: When investigators questioned Chapman and Butler after receiving a complaint from resident Ken MacNamee in February, Chapman twice denied approving the earlier trash-cart purchase. He denied having been told by Butler that he had approved it. After the second interview, however, investigators asked for all emails related to the purchase. Only after being confronted during a third interview with a Dec. 31 email—from himself —did Chapman acknowledge that he had signed off on the $57,000 deal. The commission will discuss the report next week as part of its workshop meeting.
In the manager-commission system of government that Delray Beach and most South Florida cities have, commissioners who set policy rely on the manager to be truthful and credible, and to follow the rules. Mayor Cary Glickstein called Chapman’s actions regarding the contract and the investigation “unacceptable by any measure.”
With Chapman, there is “a trust that has been broken,” Petrolia said. Chapman’s denials to investigators, she said, “speak volumes.” In fact, the report speaks volumes about how Delray Beach works—or, more appropriately, doesn’t work. When investigators tried to find out how the September purchase was approved, Butler, the city’s purchasing director and others pointed fingers. Butler’s assistant, Al Berg, first claimed that he had asked for bids on the trash cart purchase. Asked for documentation, Berg changed his story. According to the report, Berg was “unable to explain any of the city’s purchasing policies or procedures, only that he knew this purchase had been made without the city commission’s authorization.”
In an interview, Inspector General Sheryl Steckler said her office found “no indication of collusion” between Chapman and Butler. She noted, though, that “this is the way this city has done business for a long time.” Correct. The $65 million trash-hauling contract was done without bidding. An April inspector general’s report showed how city staff flubbed the new beach equipment contract, which became an issue because of issues with the old contract. The trash cart purchases actually total about $1.6 million and date to 1996, but the report deals with only the last four years.
“We’re trying to change a culture here,” Petrolia said, referring to herself, Glickstein—both elected last year as reformers—Jarjura and residents like MacNamee. They saw Delray Beach become a closed political shop during the final years of David Harden’s time as manager. Those forces continue to fight reform.
As for Chapman and Butler, they still don’t understand the real issue with the trash chart purchase. In her response to the inspector general’s report, Butler apologized for “what appeared to be a misrepresentation” to the commission in January. The record shows that there was more than an “appearance.” Mr. Chapman blamed the September trash cart purchase on his being new to the job and having a lot to learn. The purchase “fell through the cracks.” Because he did not consider it a big deal, he “did not recall it” when investigators asked. He also apologized.
For all the bustle along Atlantic Avenue, Delray Beach never will be the city it can be without that culture change of which Petrolia spoke. If change doesn’t come as a result of this report, the problem is about a lot more than trash carts.
Inspector General: The Sequel. What timing. As Delray Beach digests yet another inspector general’s report critical of the city, the Palm Beach County Inspector General Committee today will choose a successor to Steckler. She announced her resignation last fall.
The committee—the five members of the Commission on Ethics, plus State Attorney Dave Aronberg and Public Defender Carey Haughwout—will start interviewing the nine finalists at 8 a.m. in the Palm Beach County Governmental Center, after which the committee will vote. The new inspector general will get a four-year contract, as Ms. Steckler had.
This week’s report on Delray Beach shows both the need for the office and for a fearless occupant of the office. Like the current finalists, Steckler was an outsider professionally in Palm Beach County, though she attended high school and community college here. The inspector general can’t be chummy with elected officials and those the office might investigate. Steckler was neither. Also, Steckler’s successor must hope that the county wins a lawsuit brought by 14 cities—including Delray Beach and Boca Raton—against the method of financing the office. Because those cities have refused to pay their share—going against the wishes of their voters—the office never has been fully staffed.
Despite the lawsuit and other resistance, the office remains a place for citizens and public officials to circumvent those abusing the public trust. The filing of complaints can produce reports filled with revelations that are news to elected officials. Just ask the ones in Delray.
Goal-setting wrap up. As predicted in this blog last week, the Boca Raton City Council’s goal-setting session last week focused on some holdover priorities and other needed improvements to how the city operates.
Mayor Susan Haynie summarized the session in her State of the City Address on Tuesday to the Federation of Boca Raton Homeowners Associations. She and the council want to finalize a deal this year with a tenant for the Wildflower property, reform police and fire pensions—that will mean reducing benefits—improve how Boca Raton handles economic development and permitting and complete a plan for the 20th Street area east of Florida Atlantic University. Related to economic development, another goal is crafting a plan for downtown parking. Though the council holds such sessions every year, Haynie explained that the goals really have a five-year timeframe.
Haynie noted correctly that property values for 2013 increased almost 4 percent in Boca Raton, a key indicator of an improving economy. Though the rate of increase was higher in other cities, Boca Raton’s property roll of $17.3 billion is the highest of any Palm Beach County city. It’s more than double that of West Palm Beach, the largest city, and $5 billion more even than Palm Beach. Delray Beach is at $6.6 billion. So where Boca’s increase of $600 million would have been 9 percent in Delray, it’s less than half that in Boca. Still, it’s a healthy sign.
Floridian White House hopefuls? In the new, endless presidential election cycle that the political-industrial complex has created, any serious candidate must be running all-out by January 2015. The one-year campaign of 50 years ago is now a two-year campaign.
This week, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, who writes the popular The Fix column, rated two Floridians high on the Republicans’ list for 2016. If he enters the race, Cillizza says, former Gov. Jeb Bush would become the front-runner. Cillizza ranks Sen. Marco Rubio third, higher than many other analysts put him.
Of course, as Cillizza rightly notes, if Bush runs, Rubio won’t. For all of his cable-TV appearances, Rubio remains the junior partner in that relationship.
You can email Randy Schultz at email@example.com
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.