Wellington Leaves Inspector General Lawsuit

Wellington pulled out of the lawsuit challenging the funding of Palm Beach County’s Office of the Inspector General on Tuesday after a unanimous decision by the newly constituted Wellington Village Council.

Last year, Wellington joined 15 municipalities in a lawsuit protesting the financing mechanism for the inspector general. The decision prompted outcry from the community and was a divisive issue in the recent municipal election.

Vice Mayor Howard Coates, who had voted against joining the lawsuit when it first came before the council, reiterated his concerns that public perception regarding the lawsuit made taking part in it a bad choice.

“Even if there was absolutely no question that we were challenging the funding mechanism for this,” he said, “it would be perceived by our residents as we were trying to attack the inspector general directly and indirectly cut the knees out from under the inspector general by cutting her funding. Unfortunately, I was correct when I predicted what the perception would be.”

Dropping out of the lawsuit would “take a big step in undoing the negative perception that occurred,” he said.

During public commentary, County Commissioner Jess Santamaria urged the council to follow the will of the voters — 72 percent of whom voted to create the Office of the Inspector General and bring the municipalities under its purview.

“You have a mandate from the people of Wellington,” he said. “Many of those people who elected you are in the 72 percent.”

He decried the municipalities taking part in the lawsuit. “They don’t want to be watched,” Santamaria said. “We want you to open the doors, open the windows and let the sun shine in.”

He pointed out that he was investigated himself by the inspector general. “I welcomed the investigation,” Santamaria said. “That was the way for me to vindicate myself, and I was vindicated.”

Resident Ernie Zimmerman said that the prior council went against the will of Wellington residents.

“If they’re doing their job correctly, they have nothing to hide,” he said. “We are known as ‘Corruption County’ — let the inspector general do her job. Pull out of the lawsuit. We don’t belong in the lawsuit.”

Councilwoman Anne Gerwig clarified that she has never been against the inspector general.

“My vote was based on the funding mechanism,” she said. “Accusations can be made for what my intentions were, but my intention was never to not support an inspector general. I want this to be funded properly.”

Councilman Matt Willhite asked Village Attorney Jeff Kurtz what entering into the suit has cost Wellington. Kurtz said that there has been about $2,000 in attorneys’ fees, and Willhite said he was concerned about additional costs.

Willhite noted that when the issue first came up, council members were told if they didn’t join the lawsuit, they wouldn’t be reimbursed to their general fund. “But then we were told differently,” he said. “I’m very supportive of us getting out of this.”

Willhite said that voters chose to finance the office with a .25 percent fee on contracts, but noted that Palm Beach County had tried to take funding from municipalities’ general budgets.

“The county is going back to the quarter-percent on Oct. 1,” he said.

Councilman John Greene pointed out that Wellington has not withheld funding from the inspector general.

“We are continuing to pay as we go,” he said.

Mayor Bob Margolis pointed out that financing for the inspector general costs each resident about the same as two postage stamps, or 90 cents.

“Some people say it’s three postage stamps,” he said. “But I don’t think the residents who voted for the office mind spending another 43 cents or so.”

Coates agreed, noting that it was important to open Wellington up to scrutiny to assure residents that their government is acting ethically.

“When it comes to ethics and it comes to scrutiny, we have to be beyond reproach,” he said. “We have to invite the scrutiny… I think as a municipality, we owe it to our citizens to support anyone who is going to be a watchdog for our residents.”

Coates made a motion to remove Wellington from the lawsuit, which passed unanimously, prompting cheers from the audience.

In other business, council members voted to postpone a comprehensive plan amendment that would allow for a charter school to be built on 8.35 acres of land south of Stribling Way on the east side of State Road 7.

Planning & Zoning Manager David Flinchum told the council that the proposed Wellington Charter School would serve 1,200 students and also host a daycare facility, which would be a conditional use.

The school would have kindergarten through eighth-grade classes, he said.

Part of the condition of approval would include paying for one-third of the cost of a signal at Palomino Drive and SR 7, Traffic Consultant Andrea Troutman said. There are three pending projects in the area, including the school, that would have to put money toward the signal.

“The condition is worded so they have to enter into an agreement with Wellington to fund the signal,” she said. “The only way they would not have to pay for the signal is if we do not get funding from [the Florida Department of Transportation].”

If that funding does not come through, she said they would instead pay to improve the median and extend turn lanes.

Willhite said he would not support the project unless there was guaranteed signalization at Palomino. “I cannot see putting the traffic from 1,200 students and a daycare at peak hours onto SR 7,” he said.

Gerwig asked if there is a need for another K-8 school and daycare center. “Our schools are not full,” she said.

Margolis had similar concerns. “A number of daycare owners in the community have done their own market analyses that say that most of the daycares, if not all of the daycares, are not at full capacity,” he said. “They are concerned about having another daycare center.”

Agent Jon Schmidt said that his team had done a market study. Council members asked to postpone the item so they could get more information, including the study.

“I’m really concerned that we haven’t seen the market study,” Margolis said. “I really want to see it to make me feel comfortable that there are needs for this facility in Wellington.”

The item will return at the council’s May 8 meeting.