Weeding Out a Culture of Stench

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Randy Schultz‘s “City Watch”

Clearing the Air in Delray: The latest indication of how things have changed in Delray Beach came Tuesday afternoon.

City Manager Don Cooper e-mailed a memo informing the mayor and the city commission of “allegations of numerous purchasing violations by city employees over multiple years dating back, as best as we can determine at this point, to at least 2006, and (involving) substantial amounts of money.” There is one criminal investigation, and Cooper said, “There may be others.” Investigations by the city, the Office of Inspector General and the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office are examining not only potential criminal charges but also violations of the county ethics code and the city code.

Do the math, and you understand that the 2006 date means that what MayorCary Glickstein called “simple exploitation of systemic breakdowns of fundamental management-level control and oversight” went on for at least six years under former City Manager David Harden, who retired at the end of 2012. In his memo, Cooper referred to “a cultural and management processes that either ignored ethical requirements or were unaware of those requirements, but, in either case, are indicative of systemic failures to maintain high ethical standards …”

The first sign of trouble, however, didn’t come until after Harden left. Harden’s successor was Louie Chapman Jr. A year ago, the Office of Inspector General flagged an improperly authorized trash cart purchase on which Chapman and former Community Improvement Director Lula Butler had misled the commission. That investigation revealed widespread purchasing problems, and the commission made fixing them a priority when it hired Cooper last November.

Mission being accomplished. In his memo, Cooper said “a new purchasing department will be created and charged with all purchases over $2,500 and with the responsibility of enforcing all purchasing requirements, per commission direction. A complete review of policies and procedures will be undertaken to ensure Best Management Practices are implemented and followed, combined with training and annual evaluation of compliance.” The commission will get quarterly reports “as to compliance and changes made.”

When it comes to city government, purchasing is as basic as it gets. It’s to management what street paving and trash pickup are to services. If a city can’t spend the public’s money properly, something is terribly wrong. Yet in Delray Beach, according to Cooper, the problem involves “allegations of employees or relatives of the employees doing business with the city” and “the chain of employees reviewing and approving the transactions.” Even as the investigations continue, it’s clear that Delray Beach had massive institutional failure.

For those who have been watching, it doesn’t come as a big surprise. In Harden’s last years there was a sense of something off in Delray, despite the continued success of Atlantic Avenue and the demand for housing. Management and commissioners, though, didn’t want anyone looking.

Harden resisted Office of Inspector General oversight. He argued that inspector general investigators should have to make appointments to speak with city employees. He argued that cities should be able to define “waste,” “fraud” and “mismanagement” as they saw fit. Harden argued in 2012 that Delray Beach didn’t have to put the trash-hauling contract out for bid. In a report triggered by a citizen complaint, the inspector general disagreed.

This month, the inspector general issued a follow-up report. It concluded that because Delray used the office’s 2012 finding to challenge the contract and get a new hauler, the payoff to the city is $12 million. In 2012, Harden disagreed with the inspector general’s conclusion, claiming that because money went from residents to the hauler—Waste Management—and not directly to the city, the bidding rule didn’t apply. Using that argument, Waste Management lost without the case even going to trial.

Cooper responded to the new OIG report by saying that “we appreciate the work that has been done on this matter and the savings that the City of Delray Beach has received as a result of your recommendations.” His attitude represents a dramatic shift.

For the last two years, as reformers have joined the commission, there have been comments—some from people aligned with former county commissionerMary McCarty—that these new elected leaders are too tough on city staffers. The theme came up in the mayor’s race this year, with talk that Delray Beach under Glickstein has become less civil.

In fact, those accusations are bogus. Delray Beach needed change, and is getting it. That doesn’t happen without raising issues. The resulting change may not please some who once had influence but it’s benefiting residents. In an e-mail to Cooper late Tuesday, Commissioner Shelly Petrolia praised the new manager, saying, “You have my full support to do whatever is necessary to weed out this ‘culture’ of stench.”

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To Finish or Not to Finish El Rio: Boca Raton’s Hillsboro El Rio Park is on the north side of 18th Street just west of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. It has a baseball field and a soccer field. The rest of the park had been planned for the south side of 18th Street. Then came the recession.

The city is studying whether to complete the park. A second public hearing is set for 6:30 p.m. next Thursday at the downtown library. The purpose, according to the city, is “to receive input and comment concerning the amenities to include in the development of the Hillsboro/El Rio park site.” The language could make it seem as though the city has decided to proceed with the park, which has drawn opposition from some residents of the Camino Lakes neighborhood across the El Rio canal west of the site. (Full disclosure: I live in Camino Lakes. I am not involved in any attempt to oppose or support the park.)

In an e-mail, Mayor Susan Haynie said the city has made no decision to proceed. “(The hearing) is an effort to update the master plan so we can proceed with the study.” The master plan is a decade old. “We know from building (Fire Station 7, just east of the park site) the great expense of building structures on unstable soil due to the previous dump.” The park site used to be a city landfill. The city must close the soccer field sometimes because glass and other material percolate to the surface.

“The other big question,” Haynie said, “is the boat ramp feature.” The original plan included a ramp. Here is where one park issue might become part of another.

Silver Palm Park, at Palmetto Park Road and the Intracoastal Waterway, is Boca’s only launch site for motorboats. It’s very popular. It’s also across the street from the Wildflower property, which the city owns. The city council wants to work out a lease deal for a Houston’s restaurant on that property. That won’t happen unless the city and the operator of the restaurant can agree on a site plan that provides enough parking. The council also wants access for diners who arrive by boat.

The council has been clear that accommodating the restaurant should not mean taking spaces from Silver Palm Park. But would things be easier if the city had another boat launch? Maybe at Hillsboro El Rio Park?

Haynie said, though, that only a “non-motorized facility should be explored” at Hillsboro El Rio. Such a facility, Haynie said, could be eligible for a grant from the Florida Inland Navigational District. Haynie called the site potentially “a great location for launching kayaks, canoes and (stand-up paddle) boards.”

The last major park Boca Raton built is the 85-acre Countess deHoernle Park—with its large athletic complex—on Spanish River Boulevard west of Interstate 95.

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The Panhandling Issue: Does it bother you, while you’re stopped a red light, when someone approaches your car and asks for money?

Me, too.

It’s not the giving. It’s not whether the person is representing a legitimate cause. It’s the worry about someone getting run over. Boca Raton has a panhandling law. Palm Beach County doesn’t, but after Tuesday the county may have one soon.

The county commission voted unanimously to approve on first reading an ordinance that would prohibit people from “displaying information, soliciting business or charitable contributions and distributing materials or goods” on state and county roads in the unincorporated areas of the county. It would apply to people begging for themselves or raising money for, say, firefighters. A public hearing and second vote are scheduled for June 23.

There are First Amendment issues with any such ordinance, but in a memo to commissioners County Attorney Denise Nieman said safety has become the overriding factor. A man was struck and killed this year, Nieman said, while standing in an Okeechobee Boulevard median near the entrance to Florida’s Turnpike. That area is one of the most congested in the county.

The ban would apply only to roads with medians. Violators would be fined $500 and/or given 60 days in jail. The potential jail time will be an issue at when the issues come back to the commission. Should panhandling lead to a criminal charge? But what if the fine alone doesn’t stop the behavior? I’ll have more next month.

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On the Move: Mack Bernard finally returned my call asking about where he lives.

The former Florida House representative and failed state Senate candidate is running for the District 7 seat on the Palm Beach County Commission. The district includes portions of Delray Beach. Bernard’s Delray Beach home, however, is not in District 7. Records show that Bernard also owns a home in Boynton Beach that is in District 7, but the mailing address for that residence is Bernard’s Delray Beach home, on which his wife is listed as co-owner. She is not listed as an owner of the Boynton Beach home. The mailing address for Bernard’s campaign is his law firm’s post office box.

County commissioners must live in the district they intend to represent—not just when they are in office but also when they qualify to run for it. County commission qualifying isn’t until next June. Bernard, however, has opened a campaign finance account.

On Wednesday, Bernard told me that by the qualifying period he and his wife would be living in the district. He didn’t specify where. Bernard said they are looking at other houses in District 7. “But we won’t be living in the Delray Beach home,” he said.

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Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.