Letter: A Conflict Of Interest For Town Management

Editor’s note: The following letter is in response to the article “Schiola And Piesley Spar Over LGWCD Eligibility Rules,” published last week.

Last week’s Town-Crier article brought to light the fact that Town of Loxahatchee Groves employees and equipment have provided clerical and advisory services to candidates for public office and individual members of the public. Perla Underwood, assistant town manager, acknowledged to the Town-Crier that she provides these services on a regular basis. Perla Underwood is a principal in Underwood Management Services Group (UMSG), the company that provides administrative and other services to the town.

It goes without saying that our tax dollars should not be used for these purposes. A basic tenet of Florida law is that expenditures of government funds must serve a “public purpose.” Making copies and scanning documents for private purposes, and authoring campaign materials for candidates on town time, serves no valid public purpose and should not be done by town employees under any circumstance.

Candidates who utilize the town’s services in this manner create potential problems for themselves. Florida Statute 106.15 states that: “(3) A candidate may not, in the furtherance of his or her candidacy for nomination or election to public office in any election, use the services of any state, county, municipal or district officer or employee during working hours.” There is evidence that this has occurred repeatedly in the past to benefit certain candidates and individuals supported by UMSG principals.

Providing services in support of specific candidates creates an apparent conflict of interest, which should be a concern for everyone. In effect, this practice enables UMSG to spend funds collected by the town to influence the campaigns of the candidates who could have the authority to approve their contracts in the future. In fact, subsequent to the election of 2015, in which a change in the council occurred, UMSG received a new three-year contract with fewer deliverables and increased pay. Also, the new council approved a contract amendment authorizing them to provide code enforcement services at a fixed cost of $107,500 per year (as compared to approximately $25,000 per year in prior years). According to this contract amendment, the town must pay UMSG $107,500 per year even if they do no code enforcement work at all! Further, if the code enforcement officer exceeds the “maximum” of 21 hours per week under the contract, the town must pay additional hourly rates of $65 per hour (as compared to $45 per hour under the previous contract). Needless to say, the terms of this amendment are extremely favorable to UMSG, but fail to include customary protections for the town and its taxpayers. As a result, the town is now on the hook to pay UMSG a total of $482,798 per year — a total increase of 38 percent over the $350,355 they received in FY 2015. Regardless of whether these additional services were warranted or justified, the terms and timing of the contract create an “appearance of impropriety” for certain council members and beg the question of why they chose to expose themselves in such a public way.

It is the responsibility of our council to stop this practice going forward. The services of our town management company should be restricted to those services that serve a public purpose and benefit our entire community, rather than a select few. Providing services to election candidates in furtherance of their campaigns should be prohibited, along with providing clerical services to private individuals for private purposes. Our town staff should not spend time during working hours on activities that are not a part of their public duties. These things should go without saying, but past practices have created the need to point this out. Hopefully, our council will take appropriate action at the next council meeting.

Elise Ryan, Loxahatchee Groves