The Palm Beach County Commission on Tuesday rejected a settlement proposal from 15 cities involved in a lawsuit challenging the method of payment to support the Office of Inspector General.
Several speakers asked commissioners to reject the settlement agreement.
“We have developed what I can represent as a last best settlement offer,” said Assistant County Attorney Leonard Berger, who has been representing the county in the negotiations.
Berger presented an ordinance for the commission’s consideration that would have provided a fee on contracts, with numerous exemptions, rather than use the state’s LOGER (local government electronic reporting) system currently being utilized to calculate fees. He said cities have also discussed what might be paid, with West Palm Beach considering paying a flat fee of $100,000. Other cities have not made specific offers, Berger said.
“Your choices today would be to accept this and direct staff to go forward with the amendment,” he said, or to continue with the process, which includes a dispute resolution meeting between county and city representatives scheduled for Monday, March 26 at 9 a.m. at West Palm Beach City Hall.
During public comment, Loxahatchee Groves resident Dennis Lipp, formerly an assistant to County Commissioner Jess Santamaria, opposed any exemptions, except possibly for contracts of less than $1,000.
Lipp said he sat in on meetings of the drafting committee that set up the Office of the Inspector General. “We went through this,” Lipp said. “We went through this when we finally decided on the LOGER system. That would be so much easier to use, and then everybody would pay their fair share.”
Lipp pointed out that some of the largest corporations in the state would be exempt, including AT&T and FPL. “Do you know how much money FPL made last year?” Lipp asked. “Just under a billion dollars. That one-quarter of one percent that our little county gets would be less than a hundred grand.”
He pointed out that an exemption for administrative contracts included Loxahatchee Groves, which has a contractual form of government, and has already agreed to pay its share. “I already talked to our town manager. He said one quarter of one percent, no problem,” Lipp said. “Why is that going to be exempted? It’s nutty that we just sit here and nitpick this down.”
Wellington resident Morley Alperstein urged commissioners not to alter the funding base.
“We have fought from day one to truly have an independent inspector general, but along the way the road has been littered with ideas to curtail her independence,” Alperstein said. “This latest plan, to exempt 46 different types of contracts from the proposed payment system, is the worst idea yet. You said you wanted an independent inspector general. You can prove it today by voting to keep the original funding base.”
Tony Fransetta, a Wellington resident and president of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, also spoke against the proposed settlement. “It has been said it’s not about money, and in a way it isn’t,” Fransetta said. “It’s about manipulating the money to control the result. They don’t want the end result of this to effectively bring about transparency.”
Fransetta asserted that the end result is to avoid scrutiny by the inspector general. “They’re doing their durndest, and I give them credit, they’re relentless, but when they’re doing something wrong and you don’t want to be caught, you’re going to be relentless,” he said. “You’re not going to give up, and you’re even going to lie when it’s convenient… This should have been settled and settled rightfully a long time ago.”
Royal Palm Beach Mayor Matty Mattioli stressed that his village was not one of the municipalities in the lawsuit.
“Let the contractor pay this one-quarter percent as what the people voted for,” Mattioli said. “I can’t see why it’s such a tremendous problem, having meeting after meeting after meeting. What are they afraid of?”
Wellington Mayor-Elect Bob Margolis, whose municipality is part of the lawsuit, spoke against the settlement. “It has been an interesting last couple of days, but I wanted to come here and voice my opposition to the request that’s before you today,” he said.
Margolis said that properly funding the inspector general was a key part of his campaign. “When I campaigned for mayor, it didn’t just start a month ago or two months ago. It was a two-year campaign and the primary issue was the inspector general, because 72 percent of the residents in the Village of Wellington wanted the inspector general,” he said. “Everything that was seen in the last two years was about diminishing her ability to do her job. I urge this commission to reject this offer. Let us get settled in the Village of Wellington and see what happens with the new council regarding this issue.”
Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities, said that the lawsuit notwithstanding, all the cities are cooperating with the inspector general, but there are details to be worked through.
“We realize this process is going to be here and it’s going to be good,” he said. “It’s going to be the best in the nation. We’ve all embraced the system.”
Radcliffe stressed that the League of Cities is not against the inspector general. “We have embraced the system,” he said. “We are working hand-in-hand to make it a model for the country.”
Commissioner Burt Aaronson said he would not support the settlement proposal. “Why make something very difficult when it is really very easy? I would say to the 15 municipalities, ‘No way are we going to go ahead with your suggestion,’ and then let’s sit down at the table with all of them in front of us and go to work,” he said.
Santamaria said he decided to run for the county commission in 2006 because he was ashamed when friends and relatives would come visit him and ask him why he lives in “Corruption County.”
“I was ashamed that my children and grandchildren were going to grow up in a corrupt environment, so I decided I was going to do everything I could to regain public trust,” Santamaria said, pointing out that Wellington is expected to drop out of the lawsuit. “We together, the 72 percent plus, the 26 cities and the seven of us, we can regain public trust by working with the inspector general.”
Commissioner Priscilla Taylor made a motion to reject the proposal, which was seconded by Commissioner Karen Marcus and carried unanimously.