Palm Beach County commissioners should consider putting its embattled corruption watchdog under the clerk’s office, to allow its investigations more independence, County Mayor Steven Abrams said this week.
The Office of Inspector General, formed three years ago after a series of corruption scandals, has been hamstrung by legal battles over its funding and pushback over its independence.
Abrams said he plans to ask his counterparts on the commission to direct County Administrator Bob Weisman to research the possibility of assigning the inspector general’s responsibilities to Clerk and Comptroler Sharon Bock. The change would require voter approval, he said.
County commissioners on Tuesday asked Weisman to investigate creating a special taxing district to pay for Inspector General Sheryl Steckler’s oversight. As part of that research, Abrams said county administrators should also consider expanding Bock’s authority.
The proposals are the latest in a series of changes pitched to resolve legal disputes over Steckler’s independence and budget. The disputes have left her with half a staff, half her budget and no standing to defend herself in court.
Abrams stressed that his top priority is to resolve a lawsuit filed against the county by 14 cities and towns that have refused to pay for Steckler’s oversight. The cities say bills for Steckler’s services are an illegal tax.
But Abrams said that giving Bock supervisory responsibility over the inspector general function could help resolve complaints about Steckler’s independence.
Although Steckler’s office is functionally independent, county administrators have maintained that it is essentially a county department. Steckler’s office relies on the county to provide office space, open bank accounts, execute contracts and act as an employer.
County attorneys have said the only way for Steckler’s office to be independent is to make it its own taxing district. The move would require approval from both the state legislature and county residents, which could take years to secure.
Abrams said the proposal was not a “viable, near-term solution.”
Bock and her staff are already independent of county government, Abrams said.
As an independently elected constitutional officer, Bock serves as the accountant and financial manager for all county money. Her office includes its own inspector general division, and her staff routinely performs audits of county spending.
“The county clerk is a separately elected official,” Abrams said. “That could be a possibility long-term.”
In a statement released by her office, Bock said Thursday that she had not been formally notified of Abrams’ proposal and declined to discuss it in detail.
“It appeared from the Commission meeting on Tuesday that the County is fully engaged in finding a solution to several of the challenges surrounding the IG’s office,” Bock said in the statement. “The Clerk is the Constitutional auditor and has been for more than 100 years. Therefore, it’s only reasonable to include the Clerk’s office in this discussion.”
Steckler said Abrams’ proposal is not new. She pointed to a 2009 grand jury report, released after a spate of scandals that sent three county commissioners to federal prison. The report recommended the creation of the inspector general post and stronger anti-corruption laws.
The grand jury rejected the idea of expanding the clerk and comptroller’s office to include the inspector general post.
“The office of the clerk acts as the chief financial officer for the county,” the report said. “An inherent conflict may exist when a CFO also acts as an independent watchdog of the entity it serves in a supporting role.”
The grand jury also pointed to a “significant level of acrimony” that existed between the county and the clerk’s office.
“The grand jury finds little common ground with which to build the trust necessary to achieve efficient and effective oversight of county government functions,” the report said.
At the time of the grand jury’s review, Weisman and Bock had repeatedly been at odds over the clerk’s authority. Bock had argued the state constitution gave her the power to work as the county’s auditor. County administrators denied she had that authority.
The relationship between the two officials has healed in recent years. County commissioners on Tuesday lauded Bock’s annual review of the county’s finances.
Former Loxahatchee Groves Vice Mayor Dennis Lipp, who has fought county pushback against Steckler’s office, said there would likely still be questions about the inspector general’s independence if Bock were responsible for the post.
Lipp said county voters would reject a push to make the inspector general’s office its own taxing district. Voters simply don’t want to pay another tax, he said.
“The special taxing district is a poison pill,” Lipp said.
WATCHING THE WATCHDOG
Jennifer Sorentrue has covered Palm Beach County government for The Post since 2005. In an exclusive on May 5, she revealed that county and city resistance to the county’s Office of Inspector General has left the anti-corruption watchdog crippled by court rulings and budget restraints and struggling for independence from the agencies it’s assigned to oversee.