The Fight Against Oversight

After nearly four years, the frivolous but dangerous lawsuit over financing of Palm Beach County’s government watchdog finally went to trial Tuesday, with the expectation that testimony will end today. Boca Raton and Delray Beach are among the 14 cities in court. The cities deserve to lose mostly because their case is weak legally but also because their case is an outrage politically.

The Office of Inspector General is a county agency, even though the seven county commissioners and the county administrator have no say, directly or indirectly, in who becomes inspector general. That person – it was Sheryl Steckler and now is John Carey – is chosen by the five members of the Commission on Ethics, the state attorney and the public defender. Five outside groups choose the five ethics commissioners.

But money from the county budget finances oversight of county government by the inspector general. Since the office is part of the county – though independent – the county is the defendant in the lawsuit. Oddly, the inspector general’s office is not a party in the lawsuit. Steckler sought to have the office intervene, but lost in court.

The cities’ case rests on a lie: that the county ordered the cities to help pay for the inspector general, a move that amounts to double taxation. In fact, residents of all the county’s 38 cities demanded that the inspector general also have jurisdiction over the cities, and told their elected officials to pay for that oversight.

I have written about this issue for five years, since former State Attorney Michael McAuliffe convened the first of three grand juries on public corruption. McAuliffe argued for the inspector general and ethics commission that the grand jury recommended, but he warned all along that the biggest potential problem for the inspector general’s office would be money. The other problem has been resistance to the new oversight. The lawsuit involves both.

By withholding their money, Steckler said before leaving office in June, the litigious cities made the office’s future seem uncertain. They are among the county’s largest cities – West Palm Beach has led the lawsuit – so their share of the office’s cost is disproportionately high. The uncertainty made it hard for the office to hire.  Clerk of Courts Sharon Bock was complicit, saying that she couldn’t even release to the office money from cities that were willing to pay. Only recently did Bock relent, passing along money from seven smaller cities.

In 2013, though, Steckler and the county reached a deal. The office would have 23 staff members and a budget of $3.3 million, with the county paying what the cities weren’t, until the lawsuit is resolved. Resolution could be a ways off. Each side will appeal Judge Catherine Brunson’s ruling, which probably won’t come for weeks.

In the meantime, Carey’s office has plenty of authority to investigate complaints from any city but limited resources. Also – and this point often gets lost -- that inadequate staffing makes it harder for the office to respond when cities ask for advice on how to efficiently and ethically spend the public’s money. A number of the smaller cities do, because they don’t have the resources of larger cities.

In addition to relying on a lie, the lawsuit relies on myths. Among them:

*That November 2010 vote created the Office of Inspector General and Commission on Ethics. Actually, the county commission created both in 2009.

*That November 2010 vote ordered the cities to pay for the inspector general in a certain way. Actually, it didn’t. Originally, the county was going to pay its share through a tax of 0.25 percent on all contracts. When the software to implement such a system seemed too expensive, the county simply took money from the general fund. The 2011 county ordinance covering the inspector general’s office – drawn up after the referendum -- calculates each city’s share based on how much business a city does with contractors. The cities are free to decide how they will pay it.

*The voters didn’t know what they were doing in 2010. Actually, the ballot language asked voters if they wanted an inspector general “funded by the County Commission and all other governmental entities subject to the authority of the Inspector General?” (Emphasis mine.) By nearly 75 percent in all cities, the voters said yes.

*The inspector general is “controlled by the county.” Former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Whelchel made that claim in late 2013, when she joined the council majority in rejecting a motion to pay the city’s share. As I explained, the county does not “control” the inspector general’s office. Not even close.

According to the county’s 2012 figures, Boca Raton’s share of the office’s cost is about $149,000. Delray Beach’s is about $125,000. Delray’s continued participation in the lawsuit is especially infuriating. One report from the inspector general’s office helped Delray Beach successfully challenge a no-bid extension of the trash contract, which could save millions. Another helped oust City Manager Louie Chapman. And are those comparatively small amounts of money in nine-figure budgets really worth the cities thumbing their nose at the voters?

The Booze Question

Will Mizner Park be hopping after 2 a.m.? That will depend on whether Boca Raton and the Mizner Park management company can strike the right legal tone.

Jazziz, the restaurant/club at the southwest corner of Mizner Park is thriving after barely two years. Combine Jazziz with the adjacent Yard House Restaurant, the nearby iPic Theater and the new Lord & Taylor across the park to the east, and Mizner Park’s southern end arguably is the most dynamic it has been since the park opened more than two decades ago.

As we learned during last week’s Community Redevelopment Agency meeting, Jazziz has asked General Growth Properties (GGP), which manages the non-residential portion of Mizner Park, whether the company would let the club stay open past 2 a.m. A simple request? Not hardly.

As City Manager/CRA Director Leif Ahnell correctly pointed out, the request is most about “the sale of alcohol.” Boca prohibits the sale of alcohol after 2 a.m. Trying to change that ordinance just for Jazziz would mean having to also allow other nightspots citywide to sell booze later.

So the idea would be for the CRA to create an entertainment district: Mizner Park. Within that district, GGP could allow just Jazziz to stay open later. Andrew McKinney, GGP’s Mizner Park manager, told the city council – acting as the CRA board – that the company is willing to change the lease for Jazziz.

Council members liked the idea. Mayor Susan Haynie says another Mizner Park business had asked for later hours, but it was next to the complex’s apartments. Jazziz is across the park from bedroom windows.

Still, Ahnell and City Attorney Diana Frieser noted that the city would have to be careful. What if other businesses in Mizner Park or just outside the park wanted to sell alcohol after 2 a.m.? Could an ordinance creating the entertainment district be written so as not to enable businesses outside the district to ask for the same change?

Staff members are supposed to ask such questions, but the clear push from the council – especially from Constance Scott – was to make it happen. Jazziz has become the sort of regional draw Mizner Park supporters envisioned long ago. Council members seemed thrilled that a Mizner Park business is doing well enough to ask for more. Who can blame them?

Penning the Pension Plan

Boynton Beach may be at the end of its one-year impasse with the police union. Delray Beach may be heading for its own contract impasse with the same union.

In Boynton, the police have been working without a new contract since Oct. 1 of last year. This week, the city commission approved a new offer and will wait for the union to respond. Police contracts in Delray Beach and Boca Raton expire Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Boca Raton has made an offer to the Police Benevolent Association. Delray Beach is still working on the city’s offer. Commissioner Shelly Petrolia met with staff members Monday, seeking information on the negotiations. Will Delray and the union fail to reach agreement in time and thus be at impasse? “Good question,” Petrolia said. Staff is still “doing research.”

In both cities, the issue is pensions. Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie and Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein have pledged to support reforms that will shrink the cities’ unsustainable pension liabilities. Even if Boynton Beach and the union reach agreement, the pension fight lies ahead. This impasse has been strictly about wages, and it got nasty enough that union staged a brief “sickout” and paid for a childish billboard mocking City Manager Lori LaVerriere and other Boynton officials.

If the union accepts the wage deal, LaVerriere said, she starts work on pensions. That, she said, could take two years. The union will take note of what happens in Boca Raton and Delray Beach.


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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.