Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Catherine Brunson’s ruling that Palm Beach County’s municipalities must fully fund the Office of the Inspector General is a great step forward for good government in Palm Beach County.
For the past four years, a collection of municipalities, led by the City of West Palm Beach, has been fighting against picking up their fair share of the costs to run the Office of the Inspector General. This has forced Palm Beach County to make up part of the shortfall and has also left the corruption-fighting agency seriously short-staffed.
The years of legal wrangling culminated in a high-profile August court trial where West Palm Beach and county officials made their cases. While the objecting cities called demands to fund the office an illegal county tax on municipalities, county officials countered that the tax was levied by the voters upon themselves during the 2010 enabling referendum. The 72 percent of county voters favoring the creation of the Office of the Inspector General included significant majorities in each and every county municipality. Thankfully, Brunson saw through the cities’ charade and insisted that “the officials who represent the people may not undermine the electorate process because they disagree with the vote of the people.”
Brunson quickly and completely rejected the objections raised by the municipalities, finding that funding the inspector general is not an illegal tax, does not infringe on home rule and does not amount to double taxation. Quite frankly, some of the arguments put forward by the cities are quite offensive, especially given that the county’s enabling legislation was put in place through a negotiation with the municipalities — only to have those negotiations used against the county in a court of law.
It is time to put this issue to rest, once and for all. While West Palm Beach has vowed to appeal, we feel that would be a mistake. The likelihood of success is low, and it is long past time that we have a fully functional, independent Office of the Inspector General making sure that Palm Beach County finally sheds the derisive “corruption county” moniker.
For her part, we are hopeful that Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller Sharon Bock, an intervenor in this court case, uses Brunson’s ruling this month as the grounds for accepting payments from municipalities, which she has refused to do up to this point due to the pending lawsuit. This will finally give the office the money it needs to operate effectively.