The deceptive campaign against better government in Palm Beach County goes on, as we saw last week.
On Tuesday, during the county commission meeting, up popped a proposed settlement to the lawsuit by 14 cities that are shirking their costs of running the Office of Inspector General. Voters said by nearly 3:1 in November 2010 that they want the cities to pay those costs. The cities continue to resist.
Now, former County Commissioner Karen Marcus — who has expressed her dislike of Inspector General Sheryl Steckler — and Palm Beach Gardens city council member Joe Russo — Gardens is one of the cities suing — are offering a rewrite of the ordinance that created the Office of Inspector General. In exchange for a new financing system that would make the lawsuit go away, the Office of Inspector General would lose its ability to audit county government and the 38 cities. On those terms, the office might as well not exist. Which, to some, has been the goal all along.
But is it really a proposed settlement? County Administrator Bob Weisman scheduled a discussion for the next commission meeting on May 21. In an email to Ms. Steckler, though, County Attorney Denise Nieman said, “As far as I’m concerned, there was no official settlement offer…There’s no incentive to settle from my perspective. Frankly, I was surprised it was brought up yesterday.”
West Palm Beach’s legal department has been doing the cities’ work on the lawsuit. But according to West Palm Beach City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell, she and her colleagues were not briefed on the settlement. Even if the county commission approved the settlement — which it should not — wouldn’t each city have to approve it? Who are Ms. Marcus and Mr. Russo to speak for all 14 cities? According to a West Palm Beach spokesman, “It is not a formal proposal or settlement offer, despite how it has been reported.” Let the cover stories begin.
All this came just two weeks after Mr. Weisman called for the Commission on Ethics to fire Ms. Steckler for “bad judgment.” Mr. Weisman, sort of, explains his grievances in a letter to the editor in today’s paper. Like other public officials critical of the added oversight, Mr. Weisman claims to love the inspecting but hate the inspector. It’s a tough sell.
Last year, for example, Mr. Weisman got called before a grand jury for instituting a policy that required county employees to contact a supervisor before contacting the inspector general’s office with a complaint. The grand jury criticized the policy, which Mr. Weisman changed.
In the past 18 months, the Office of Inspector General has examined aspects of county government that previously would not have had such an outside look: purchase of land in Lake Park for a marina, expansion of the county jail, the countywide public safety radio system, dealings by the Solid Waste Authority, a contract awarded on a supposedly emergency basis by a county employee to a friend. In every case, those in county government have contested the office’s review, even when the county has adjusted policies because of the finding.
With the radio contract, as the Office of Inspector General noted, county staff “does not concur with the OIG’s findings and conclusions” but will “evaluate…prior to any future major replacement expenditures.” After Ms. Steckler’s office found that Waste Management owed the Solid Waste Authority — meaning the public — about $300,000, the authority grumped about the calculations behind that conclusion. Ms. Steckler responded that, if the finding was wrong, “Why isn’t Waste Management challenging it?”
From listening to Mr. Weisman and his top aides, you get the impression that no one gets along with Ms. Steckler and her staff. In fact, a spokesman for the state attorney’s office confirms Ms. Steckler’s assessment that her office and prosecutors work well together. Sometimes, complaints come to both agencies. With the contract-to-a-friend case, prosecutors determined that there was no criminal case, so it went to Ms. Steckler’s office, which found that normal procedures were not followed.
And according to Ms. Steckler, relations below “many of the top (county) people” are good. Similarly, city officials — elected and not — ask the office for guidance. Indeed, 24 of Palm Beach County’s 38 cities are paying their share, without histrionics or the tortured legal reasoning coming out of West Palm Beach. Unfortunately, those 14 litigants make up about 70 percent of the cities’ total share.
The campaign against better government portrays Ms. Steckler as out of control. More likely, her critics are annoyed that there now is a place to take complaints that management could have squelched. Her office only can recommend, and her reports are straightforward in tone, not hostile. No one should believe that Ms. Steckler is infallible, but no one should believe that the campaign against her office is anything but an attempt to stop what a grand jury and nearly 75 percent of the voters in what was known as “Corruption County” have demanded.