Palm Beach County Administrator Bob Weisman is recommending against a lawsuit settlement that would prevent the county’s corruption watchdog from auditing the cities she’s supposed to watch over.
Fourteen of the county’s 38 cities and towns are suing over payments they’re required to make to fund the Office of Inspector General. The cities call the payments an illegal tax.
Weisman informed county commissioners this week that a settlement has been proposed that would eliminate the office’s authority to conduct audits. And in an interview Thursday, he said he opposed the deal and that he was also concerned with the way the offer would limit revenues needed to fund Inspector General Sheryl Steckler’s services.
The proposal, put forth by West Palm Beach officials, would create a countywide fee that would be levied on many government contracts.
“We are defending against that principle,” Weisman said today recommending against changing the way Steckler’s office is funded.
County commissioners are scheduled to discuss the settlement proposal May 21.
Weisman said he would recommend that the board “proceed on the current course.”
The Office of Inspector General was created in 2009, as part of an ethics reform package to help the county shed its corruption-tainted image. An amendment to the county charter, overwhelming approved by voters in 2010, extended the office’s oversight to all 38 cities and towns.
Steckler said Thursday that she was pleased with Weisman’s recommendation. She has argued the settlement would cut at the heart of her mission.
Under the proposal, many government contracts would be exempt from the countywide fee, which would equal one quarter of 1 percent of the contract amount. The exemptions could reduce the amount of money the inspector general’s office receives – a move that Steckler said would “chop us at the knees.”
The proposal also would prevent Steckler from conducting audits in any of the county’s municipalities.
Steckler said only two cities – West Palm Beach and Lake Worth – have internal auditors to fill that void.
Steckler said she is also concerned county attorneys did not tell her about the proposal, which Weisman abruptly announced during Tuesday’s commission meeting.
Steckler has been critical of County Attorney Denise Nieman and her staff, alleging they have not protected the three-year-old watchdog office as they battle the cities in court.
“We don’t feel that we have been 100 percent represented,” Steckler said Thursday, noting that the county attorney’s office is defending both the county and the Office of Inspector General in the suit. “You can’t represent two clients with opposing views,” Steckler said.
Nieman defends her office.
County attorneys contend that Steckler’s office, although functionally independent, is essentially a county department that does not have the authority to sue or be sued. Steckler’s office challenged that position in an effort to intervene in its own defense in the cities’ suit, but repeatedly lost in court.
“The clients are the Board of County Commissioners,” Nieman said. Steckler, she added, is a department head.
Nieman said she did not consider West Palm Beach’s proposal an official settlement offer and therefore did not discuss it with Steckler and her staff. The county was not presented with a formal legal settlement, Nieman said. Instead, West Palm Beach officials proposed revisions to the ordinance governing Steckler’s office.
“While a positive outcome in any case isn’t guaranteed, we’ve been successful thus far in our defense of the IG ordinance, and we’re ready, willing and able to try the case,” Nieman wrote in an email to Steckler on Wednesday. “There’s no incentive to settle from my perspective.”