By Dennis C. Lipp
In November 2010, 72 percent of the voters of Palm Beach County and majorities in all 38 municipalities approved a charter amendment to create an Office of Inspector General (OIG) and a Commission on Ethics (COE.) The attacks from County Administrator Bob Weisman on Inspector General Sheryl Steckler and this week’s announcement of a proposed settlement of the lawsuit by 14 cities against financing Ms. Steckler’s office should have every supporter of open and honest government up in arms.
Mr. Weisman’s effort to limit the authority of the OIG is nothing new. The first draft of the inspector general ordinance gave the county commission the power to hire and fire the inspector general. County Attorney Denise Neiman initially agreed with the League of Cities’ attorney to place definitions on the terms “waste,” “fraud,” “abuse,” “misconduct” and “mismanagement.” These attempts to constrain the OIG failed.
Mr. Weisman made another attempt to control the inspector general through the county’s employee Policy and Procedures Manual. Last year, he proposed that if an employee wanted to meet with the inspector general, the employee would be required to ask his/her boss to arrange an appointment. How would that conversation go?
So why is Mr. Weisman demanding the immediate termination of Ms. Steckler? Mr. Weisman’s memo of April 26 to the commission outlines his reasons: The inspector general does not have legal status to intervene in the lawsuit, and does not conduct her office in accordance with the principles of the Association of Inspectors General.
Regarding Mr. Weisman’s contention of legal status, the inspector general ordinance, in Article XII, Section 2-423(6), gives the inspector general authority to investigate “any municipal or county-funded project, programs, contracts or transactions.” The funding of the OIG seems to fall under this section of the enabling legislation.
Mr. Weisman also contends that the inspector general must use the county attorney for all legal actions. This is also incorrect. Section 2-423(3) of the ordinance gives the inspector general the power to subpoena witnesses. The ordinance requires “72-hour notification need only be given to the state attorney and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District,” not the county attorney.
Regarding Mr. Weisman’s contention of inappropriate conduct, on Feb. 23, 2012, Palm Beach County’s Office of Inspector General became fully accredited by the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation. In fact, the commission made the following comment in its report: “The diversity of the OIG staff education, training and certifications reflects the OIGs ability to succeed at it(s) accomplishing its mission of ‘Enhancing Public Trust in Government.’ “
Mr. Weisman contends that the inspector general does not accomplish her mission, and the state believes that she does. Mr. Weisman is welcome to his own opinion, but he is not welcome to his own facts.
Most elected officials have nothing to hide and welcome the independent watchdog. Some power-hungry politicians and their allies in the bureaucracy have been working against the inspector general since day one. The politically astute know to support the inspector general in their public comments. These politicians, with a condescending nod, say, “Of course I am for it, but we have to find the right way to fund the office,” or, “I’m not against the office, but I think the problem is with the current inspector general.”
Mr. Weisman has failed to limit the purview of the OIG. His memo to the commission is rife with inaccuracies. Let’s not let the work we’ve done be washed away.
Dennis C. Lipp, a former vice mayor of Loxahatchee Groves, served on the Commission on Ethics Drafting Committee.