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Editorial: Probe council spending, firing of city manager

A few choice words come to mind about the morass the city of Riviera Beach finds itself in these days: sad, derelict, greed.

There’s one that should stand out, however: reprehensible.

RELATED: SPECIAL REPORT: Riviera leaders big on credit cards, cars, hotels

Because amid Riviera Beach’s dispiriting disarray of water quality woes, unexplained high-level firings and low staff morale, city councilmembers are unashamedly padding the budget with financial rewards for themselves.

Among other things, councilmembers get a generous $19,000 salary for a part-time job ($20,200 each for the council chair and “non-voting” mayor), a hefty $9,000-a-year car allowance, an extraordinary $17,500-a-year travel allowance and an outrageous $12,000 stipend for overseeing utility issues. Add to that, “Neighborhood Sector” and “Community Benefits” discretionary spending of about $250,000 for each of four councilors and a “Legislative Department” budget topping $800,000 in 2018, and Riviera Beach’s largesse to its council is in a class all its own among Palm Beach County municipalities.

Resident frustration, inept governance

Frustrated residents, in increasingly vocal numbers, are right to question the governance they’re getting for their tax dollars. They are right to rail against the stigma of inteptitude highlighted by the abrupt firing of City Manager Jonathan Evans last month by three councilmembers — Terence Davis, Lynne Hubbard and Dawn Pardo. Especially when residents have yet to be given specific reasons for the dismissal , other than alleged “misfeasance.”

For his part, Evans says he was left “baffled, perplexed, disheartened, you name it, I’ve gone through a string of emotions and am just trying to find some type of closure to the situation and realize that I did nothing wrong.”

The councilmembers may have evidence to rebut that. All indications are, however, that Evans was doing a good job of cleaning up a mess inherited from the previous city manager. The human resources director gave notice last month,. There is no purchasing director, IT director or building services director. And the public works director has been on leave for months, pending an internal investigation, while receiving full pay.

“We need a water plant. We have a public works building that employees can’t be in. We have a City Hall we can’t even attend meetings in because of the mold conditions,” small-business owner Horace Towns told the Post’s Tony Doris the day after Evans’ firing. “This is like a code red emergency in our city.”

The city council first sought to handle this emergency by changing the record from firing Evans “with cause” to “without cause”. After that failed, the council attempted to replace Evans with an interim city manager whom they had neither vetted nor interviewed. That collapsed after media reports he had been fired from his previous job in Wellington in 2016, and had been accused of domestic abuse by his then-wife in 2006. On Thursday, the council promoted Deputy Finance Director Karen Hoskins to interim city manager.

RELATED LINK: Turnover, vacancies contribute to internal dysfunction in Riviera

Fumbling the city manager firing only highlights systemic issues that have dogged Riviera Beach’s “promise” and “potential” for years. From seemingly intractable crime to an inordinate number of lower-performing public schools to a sometimes stalled $375 million marina development project, the port city of 34,000 has struggled with, for lack of a better way of putting it, “getting out of its own way.”

Time for explanations, investigations

Tightening internal policies and controls, especially when it comes to expenditures, was one way that Evans looked to change that dynamic. It was also where he apparently ran afoul of the three councilmembers.

Hubbard, for example, posited that, among other things, she didn’t like the way Evans orchestrated a youth summer jobs program she initiated, didn’t like him trying to outsource city work and didn’t feel he paid sufficient attention to costs.

But the council is itself on shaky ground. In September 2016, Hubbard submitted an invoice for $285 from her Subscriptions and Memberships account to cover her Florida A&M University alumni dues. Davis defends the city spending $10,415 to send four other councilmembers to a National League of Cities summit in November 2016, though workshops were available for viewing online afterwards. And since the start of 2016, Pardo racked up $18,756 in charges on city credit cards.

Evans encouraged city staff to question such charges. For example, city staff rejected a water conservation project initiated by Pardo this year because residents were to choose one or two “privately owned” front yards for demonstrations.

It’s time for Pardo, Hubbard and Davis to stop hiding behind “the advice of counsel” and fully disclose why they voted to fire Evans. Tell the voters who put you in office why you have plunged their city further into embarrassing disarray.

They deserve answers — now.

And if they can’t get them, perhaps the Palm Beach County Ethics Commission and the State Attorney’s Office can.

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