Ten years ago, Palm Beach County began to shed a bad reputation. Boca Raton and Delray Beach are overdue to become part of that change.
In 2009, Time magazine labeled the county “the new capital of Florida corruption.” Four county commissioners eventually would plead guilty to misusing their office. So would two city commissioners in West Palm Beach.
Civic groups, notably Leadership Palm Beach County and the Voters Coalition, began campaigning for reform. They got help when a grand jury on public corruption, which then-State Attorney Michael McAuliffe had empanelled, issued a report with recommendations.
Most prominent were creation of an inspector general and a commission on ethics. After what amounted to public shaming, even the commission holdouts voted to create these agencies and insulate them as much as possible from political interference.
Two weeks ago, I appeared on a panel at a convention in West Palm Beach of inspectors general from governments across the country. With me on the panel were key players in that reform movement.
One was Sheryl Steckler, the county’s first inspector general. I remarked that she “walked point” for John Carey, her fine successor who has held the job since 2014. Inspectors general get four-year contracts. The seven-member panel to which the inspector general reports gave Carey a new deal last year.
As its mission statement says, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) exists to promote “integrity, efficiency, and overall effectiveness in government” by “conducting audits, investigations, and contract oversight activities.”
Having the office means that anyone in local government can file a complaint about nearly everything – from alleged contractor favoritism to criminal activity. If the OIG believes that someone has committed a crime, the complaint goes to the state attorney’s office. For anything else, OIG investigators determine whether the complaint is valid and go from there.
Steckler recalled attending her first meeting with county contract negotiators. The bidder brought free coffee and food for the employees who would award the contract and nobody considered that unusual. After Steckler noted the obvious, the freebies stopped.
Because Steckler asserted herself in such ways, some administrators and commissioners detested her. At all of her many speaking engagements, however, the public expressed strong support for the office.
At first, however, the OIG had purview only over county government, since the commission created. So in November 2010, voters in each city got the choice to extend that purview to their municipality and pay—based on population—for staff to carry out that oversight.
Countywide, the change got nearly 75 percent of the vote. The results were about the same in Boca Raton and Delray Beach.
Yet 14 cities, including Boca Raton, sued to overturn the voters’ will. The cities argued that the county was illegally asking them to pay for county services, even though the dictate came from city residents. The cities lost at trial but prevailed on appeal.
So while the OIG can take complaints from all cities, the office operates with only about two-thirds of the staff necessary to check those complaints. The cities should be paying the balance.
As a result, investigations take longer. A self-initiated complaint went to the office last spring from Delray Beach. The delay in the office’s response likely is because other complaints—such as one involving the county bus system —took priority.
Admittedly, there’s potential for abuse of the OIG and the Commission on Ethics through frivolous and/or politically motivated complaints. When she served on the Delray Beach City Commission, Shelly Petrolia—now the mayor—filed a complaint with the OIG over a lifeguard station contract she considered excessive.
Petrolia had been the only vote against the contract. The OIG quickly found that the complaint lacked merit.
Despite that appeals court victory, nothing prevents any city from paying its share voluntarily. Based on previous estimates, that might be about $155,000 for Boca Raton and $135,000 for Delray Beach.
Either city could afford that. During Boca Raton’s budget meeting, representatives of non-profit groups lined up to ask for money. It happens every year and the city council generally goes along.
The council has approved this year’s budget. The city commission has done the same in Delray Beach. But each city amends its budget at mid-year. And there’s always next year. Each city has saved a bunch of money by not making payments that were supposed to start in 2011.
Elected officials in each city say often that they respect public sentiment. So why not respect that overwhelming public sentiment from 2010?
During Monday’s workshop meeting, Boca Raton City Councilwoman Monica Mayotte asked a pertinent question about negotiations with Virgin Trains USA—aka Brightline —for a station in the city.
Virgin Trains wants a 400-space parking garage, with the city paying most of the cost. Mayotte wanted to know what would happen if the company went bankrupt and the trains stopped running. Could the city obtain a financial analysis of Virgin Trains over the next 10 or 20 years?
It’s a logical question. It’s also probably a question for which there is no reliable answer.
The partnership with Virgin introduces a new element into the company: access to a worldwide travel brand. But it’s too early to determine the effect. In addition, it will be hard to evaluate Virgin’s future until the station in Orlando opens. The station is finished, but the track from Cocoa won’t be ready until 2022.
Part of Mayotte’s motivation may be the bankruptcy of iPic. The company pledged to move its headquarters from Boca Raton to Delray Beach as part of the Fourth and Fifth project. Now that may not happen.
Ultimately, the station will be a risk. Though it may be a good risk, no one can reliably predict what will happen with Virgin Trains. Perhaps council members could ensure that ownership would revert to the city if Virgin goes under. The site plan and design could envision how the city would use the garage if it reverted.
Virgin Trains representatives had hoped that the council could approve a deal by this month. On Monday, City Manager Leif Ahnell said it’s more likely that the council will get the station deal at the Nov. 5 meeting.
Delray’s opioid suit
I have written recently about the status of Delray Beach’s lawsuit against the opioid industry. City Attorney Lynn Gelin filled in some details.
Delray Beach is not asking for a specific amount of damages. The litigation contains documentation of fire and police overtime, overdose-reversal medicine and other expenses. Totals for Delray Beach other plaintiffs, though, would come during settlement negotiations.
Gelin also confirmed that everything now depends on a bankruptcy judge in Boston. The lawsuits by Delray Beach and about 2,000 other local governments—including Palm Beach County—were consolidated under a federal judge in Ohio. Then things changed.
The Sackler family, which owns OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, proposed a settlement that involves the company declaring bankruptcy and reorganizing without the Sacklers involved. Plaintiffs would get payments through continued sales of the painkiller that started the epidemic that ravaged their communities. So the cases got moved to bankruptcy court.
Many state attorneys general oppose that settlement because it would allow the multi-billionaire Sacklers to keep so much of their fortune and admit no wrongdoing. All the plaintiffs must wait to see how those negotiations at higher levels play out.
Readers of this blog may remember that Boca Raton at one point considered making Federal Highway and Dixie Highway one-way through downtown, to ease traffic. The Palm Beach Transportation Planning Agency recently told the city council that the idea won’t work.
Federal Highway is part of the TPA’s “complete streets” program. The agency, which oversees federal and state transportation grants, wants to make the road more accessible and safe for cyclists and pedestrians. It’s also the county’s most popular bus route.
Boca Raton’s idea of a Dixie Highway bypass/overpass for downtown traffic, however, could work. Such a project would be many years and many millions of dollars away.
The Palm Beach County Commission will vote today on whether to ban vaping at county park playgrounds.
The ban would cover all electronic cigarettes. Recent news reports have highlighted the dangers of vaping. Companies market flavored e-cigarettes, which can create an addiction to nicotine. Commissioner Robert Weinroth said he would support a statewide ban on sales of such products.
Boca Raton posts no smoking signs in city parks. No ordinance prohibits it. A spokeswoman said residents can complaint to park rangers if someone is smoking, and the rangers can try to resolve things.
Correction: I reported last week that Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District board members Craig Ehrnst and Erin Wright are up for re-election next year. So is board member Steven Engel.