While Riviera Beach struggles with poverty, mold-infested city buildings, deteriorated water systems and administrative chaos, council members and the mayor have indulged in domestic and international conferences, luxury hotels, record-high car allowances and extensive credit card spending.
Among the destinations: China. Spain. Haiti. The Bahamas. Little Rock, Ark. Nashville. Dallas. Pittsburgh. They’ve attended meetings less than an hour’s drive away and stayed over, at the Ritz-Carlton or Diplomat Resort and Spa with an ocean-view room.
They’ve used city credit cards for such things as a personal membership in a college alumni association, Darth Vader knee boots and a political contribution. Some have charged the city for rental cars or for mileage on their own cars, despite giving themselves a county high $9,000-a-year car allowance. They also can use a city car for free for out-of-town trips.
A port city of 34,000, Riviera Beach is among the poorest third of Palm Beach County municipalities. Though pricey condos line Singer Island’s oceanfront, 29 percent of city households make less than $25,000 per year, and 16 percent draw less than $15,000 a year.
It’s a city in political, management and economic disarray, where council spending contributes to one of the highest property tax rates in the county.
At $8.45 per $1,000 of taxable value, the tax rate is near the $10 maximum allowed by law. That, despite having the advantages of waterfront condo towers, marine businesses and a substantial industrial base to plump up revenues.
Meanwhile city needs are pressing.
“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 said Thursday. “This is like a code red emergency in our city.”
Recent disputes over council spending are believed to have contributed to the council’s firing last month of City Manager Jonathan Evans, who during his six months on the job, records show, instructed staff to follow procedures more closely in deciding whether to approve council member expenditures. Evans, who is negotiating with the city over his severance, declined to comment for this article.
A high price of public service
The legislative section of the city budget, which includes the council members, provides a wealth of benefits that far outstrip what most other Palm Beach County cities allow, even without counting discretionary spending accounts that are second to none.
Four city council members get a $19,000 salary for the part-time job and the council chair and mayor get $20,200, more than all surrounding communities other than West Palm Beach, which is three times its size. But they also get a $12,000 stipend for overseeing utility issues, the only local community known to afford such a benefit.
RELATED: Was $12,000 utility district stipend for council members justified?
Riviera Beach taxpayers also foot the bill for each council member to have a part-time aide, at a salary of $36,114.
The county, with 1.4 million residents, has legislative aides for its commissioners but no cities or towns neighboring Riviera Beach do, nor do the much bigger Boca Raton, Delray Beach or Boynton Beach.
In 2015, the council members also voted themselves state pensions and increased their health insurance to cover their families.
Their car allowance, in the city of 10 square miles, is the highest in Palm Beach County and among the highest in the state.
They get a budget of $5,500 a year each to promote events they host. They get $1,000 for employee professional development. Another $1,500 for office supplies. And $400 for subscriptions and memberships.
Extraordinary, for a city of any size: They get $17,500 a year each for travel — $7,500 each for city business and $10,000 for travel for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.
And the spending is growing.
The Legislative Department portion of the city budget, which includes expenditures for council members and aides, increased from $680,800 in fiscal year 2016 to $820,428 for 2018, a jump of 20.5 percent.
The city also provides council members a political benefit, in the form of “Neighborhood Sector” and “Community Benefits” discretionary spending.
Four of the five council members got $375,000 each in Neighborhood Sector money in 2016, to designate for road and other infrastructure projects in their political districts and another $250,000 in 2017. They didn’t add money to that account for 2018 but arranged to carry over whatever was left.
They each also get $15,000 annually in Community Benefits, to distribute among nonprofits and community groups in their districts.
Lots of conferences
Much of their travel spending is for conferences.
A common part of most city budgets, conferences can provide valuable education for city officials.
“Elected officials are always encouraged to attend FLC and NLC conferences,” said Councilwoman Dawn Pardo. She attends many, as a member of the executive board and board of directors of the Florida League of Cities and a member of the National League of Cities Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee. “There are dozens of seminars targeted toward municipal government and elected officials,” she said.
In West Palm, City Commissioner Keith James generally goes alone to Florida League meetings, as the city’s representative. Council members from the much wealthier Palm Beach save their money and don’t attend.
Riviera Beach, by contrast, frequently sends more than one council member to the same conference, doubling, tripling or even quadrupling costs for airfare, ground transportation and hotels. Registration fees alone for the conferences run as high as $525.
Four of the five council members — Lynne Hubbard, Tonya Davis Johnson, KaShamba Miller-Anderson and Dawn Pardo — attended the National League of Cities summit in Pittsburgh in November 2016, costing the city more than $10,415.
Council members sometimes take their aides to conferences.
Hubbard, for instance, attended a Florida League of Cities conference in Hollywood, in August 2016, with her aide, Javarious Jackson.
Her trip cost Riviera Beach $1,680, including an oceanview room at the Diplomat Resort & Spa. The city paid $773 for her aide to attend. He stayed at a Courtyard Marriott for $124 a night.
The conferences have many sessions that run at the same time, so having an aide helps gather more information, said Davis Johnson, who said she took her aide to an Orlando conference in August.
“There was so much going on by way of workshops, where I could not possibly be in every workshop and she works very closely with me on the business of the district,” Davis Johnson said.
Similarly, that’s why it makes sense to have more than one council member attend the same conference, Councilman Terence Davis said. “One person attending would only be able to attend 20 to 25 percent of the conference workshops,” he said.
The public benefits, Davis Johnson said. “It’s an opportunity for me to hear best practices, to hear from municipal leaders about what’s going on in their cities, to try and see what I can bring back to our city, for the constituents I represent in District 3. …”
“I’m very conscious about what I attend, where I attend and the cost of what it is, because I do understand that it’s tax dollars,” she added.
Sometimes a council member will go to a conference in one city while the aide goes to another. When Davis Johnson spent $1,326 for a National Forum for Black Public Administrators forum in New Orleans, for example, her aide Pascale Reid attended a grant-writing program in Miramar that cost $837.
Auto expenses quickly add up
The city allots the mayor and council members $9,000 a year each, or, $750 a month, as their car allowance.
For work trips of 50 miles or more, city policy allows them to drive a city vehicle for free.
Terence Davis doesn’t like to fly because of terrorism, he said, but will attend Florida conferences by auto.
When he does, he sometimes rents a car and charges it to the city. Asked why he did that for a Fort Lauderdale conference last October, rather than take a city car, he replied: “The city vehicle was being used by another Legislative Department member.”
One administrator familiar with Riviera Beach’s fleet, however, said aside from the car, the city has SUVs and many other vehicles available for use by council members. “The city has 500 pieces of rolling stock,” he said.
Davis said he knew that but that city staffers get priority for those. “On that date they were all taken,” he said. “I like the city vehicles. I prefer to use those.”
When Hubbard traveled to a Hollywood conference in August 2016, she took her own car and billed the city $68 for mileage.
Why put in for mileage when the city already gives you a $750-a-month car allowance? “The car allowance covers your wear and tear on the car, your meetings, dry cleaning. … If I’m going out of town on business for the city, that’s different. If you take your car, you can do the mileage.”
Why not use a city car for the out-of-town trip? She tends to use a city car for local driving, such as showing guests around the city, she said. She said she was unaware that the city car isn’t allowed for trips of less than 50 miles.
A review of car logs shows when council members and their aides use city cars, it’s mostly for local trips, in violation of the 50-mile rule.
“The logic is, when I’m paying you a stipend to use your car and then you come in and use a city car, that’s double payment,” Palm Beach County Inspector General John Carey said.
A report by the Office of Inspector General this year found that some council members keep city cars for days longer than the stated purpose for which they’re logged out. Porous record-keeping provided no proof of tips that some council members kept the cars during weekends for personal use, the report said.
Sometimes car log forms are filled out completely but often they’re not. Start and finish mileage numbers often are left blank.
Other times, amounts filled in are baffling. In one case Councilwoman Hubbard had an aide drive her to Palm Beach International Airport, logging 78 miles. But it’s only 20 miles round trip, so the city car shouldn’t have been used. Hubbard offered that sometimes people who use the car before or after her don’t fill out the mileage log correctly.
Records indicate Mayor Thomas Masters used a city car twice during 2014 while his license was suspended, Inspector General Carey said.
County ethics rules prohibit officials from using their position in a way that results in “a special financial benefit” for themselves or their families. The Palm Beach County commission on ethics can refer violations to the state attorney for prosecution.
But, Carey said, “There are many things in our system of government that come down to an issue of what is expected and accepted by the voters. For example, the voters allow their city council members to have a $750-a-month car stipend when all rest of the county has $500. That’s not a violation of law. Whether it’s wasteful or not, that becomes an issue the citizens have to answer through their votes.”
Each council member gets a city credit card, also rare for municipal councils. Even more astounding: Until November, when the arrangement was modified for management ease, they also got two cards — one from the city, the other, from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.
Expense statements obtained through public information requests show the mayor and council make frequent use of these credit cards.
On the city credit card alone, since the start of 2016, each council member racked up from $4,000 to more than $18,000 in charges. Pardo’s, pumped up by conference travel, was the highest, at $18,756. Davis, who doesn’t like to fly, charged $4,144.
Through these cards, taxpayers purchased two trips to China (2012 and 2017) for Mayor Masters and three to the Bahamas (2015, and twice in 2016). He went to Haiti in 2016, as well, to deliver disaster supplies.
Masters realizes the bad optics of such trips and has taken criticism for them in the past. But he boasts of their potential benefits for the city.
In 2012, he wasn’t planning to go to China but the World Conference of Mayors, for which he is the vice president for tourism, insisted, he said. The “VIP Invitation” to the 5th Global Economic Leaders Summit in 2017, said the meeting at the Shangri-La Hotel in Changchun City was focused on “business matchmaking and cooperation between over 350 global selected investment projects. …
“You may meet investors who may be interested in seeking programs to invest in your city,” the invitation said.
The China trips create business opportunities for Riviera Beach companies, Masters said. They also may result in exchange programs for Suncoast Community High School students, “which has the largest Asian population of any school we know of in Palm Beach County,” and scholarships for city youths to study at a Chinese college, he said.
A presentation he gave at the 2017 conference is posted on the city website. “Make sure people see the presentation,” he said, “so people know I’m not going to China for a vacation.”
The mayor’s most recent trip to China, in August and early September, cost the city $2,046, while the Chinese picked up the hotel tab, he said.
When Masters returned from China in 2012, then-Councilman Bruce Guyton questioned the public benefit of the $10,000 trip and how the mayor justified overspending his travel account. The overspending was addressed by taking the amount out of the mayor’s travel allotment for the following year, according to the mayor’s office.
Guyton’s concern about expensive trips didn’t last long. In November 2015 he took one of his own, attending an Employee Benefits Conference in Honolulu, which cost city taxpayers $4,732.
The mayor isn’t the only one to travel abroad on a city credit card.
Councilwoman Dawn Pardo flew to Barcelona in March 2015.
There, Pardo attended the 9th Annual International Public Markets Conference, accompanied by the CRA director and the architect for the city’s $375 million marina redevelopment, “as part of our mission to learn more about the development, operation and management of a public market,” she said in an email last week.
“Our delegation was able to gain insight from attendees representing 150 different countries and we had the opportunity to meet personally with operators of some of the world’s most successful markets,” she wrote. “We heard about what works and what doesn’t, education programs in markets along with apprenticeship programs inside the markets. We also toured the mega yacht repair facilities in Barcelona including MB92, the largest yard in Europe and a strategic partner with Rybovich. We learned about their local workforce programs and housing and how these boatyards attempt to fit into neighborhoods.”
On Jan. 9, 2015, Pardo used her CRA credit card to contribute $50 to West Palm Beach mayoral candidate Kimberly Mitchell. Mitchell was a longtime West Palm city commissioner and her mother, Anita Mitchell, chaired the county Republican party in 2014 and ran Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign in the county in 2016.
Pardo reimbursed the city on Feb. 27, 2015, after realizing she mistook her city card for her own, she said.
Davis’ credit card statements include a $53 charge at Kenneth Cole, a shoe retailer.
“I’m a big Darth Vader fan,” he explained. For last year’s Trunk and Treat Halloween event for Riviera Beach youths, he had all the regalia — helmet, breathing machine, smoke effects — but he needed knee-high boots and found them at Kenneth Cole, he said. “I’m not a boot guy, by the way.”
The city’s approach toward giving council members Neighborhood Sector and Community Benefits money for district infrastructure projects or nonprofit programs is more generous than that afforded by other area cities and towns, even wealthy ones.
Millionaire-packed Palm Beach, for example, does not give individual council members money to hand out for projects or to nonprofits. Nor does Jupiter. West Palm Beach allows its commissioners $7,500 each, a sum that includes their travel allowance.
Riviera Beach, by contrast, has given four of its five council members Neighborhood Sector money. (The fifth councilman, Davis, as an at-large member of the council, does not have a geographic district and isn’t eligible.)
According to Pardo, money for her Singer Island district has gone for a storm water project to clean runoff into the lagoon, and to address flooding, and for a pipeline extension to allow homes in one area to fuel appliances with natural gas.
On the mainland, Neighborhood Sector money paid for a community center. Miller-Anderson said she designated her money mostly for paving.
Council members also get $15,000 each in Community Benefits money to distribute to community agencies for a public purpose. The city’s garbage collector, Waste Management, gives the city this money as part of its contract.
Neighborhood Sector and Community Benefits funds “expand and equalize the use of city funds for small neighborhood projects,” making sure each district shares in the projects and one group doesn’t get favored over another, Davis said. “Community Benefits streamline the process for neighborhood groups, individuals, and nonprofits to request support for their local projects,” he added.
Council members usually approve each other’s expenditures, though they also are vetted by the city staff. This is where friction sometimes arises between the politicians and administration.
City records show that in September 2016, for example, Hubbard submitted an invoice for $285 from her Subscriptions and Memberships account to cover her alumni dues at Florida A&M University. The Finance Department rejected the expenditure, saying it didn’t qualify as a public purpose.
After Hubbard put it on her city credit card instead, Finance Director Randy Sherman again rejected its “illegality,” as he put it in an email, but she obtained an opinion from the city attorney that said it qualified. The Finance Department rejected that opinion and issued an invoice to Hubbard for the $285.
The bill remains unpaid.
Hubbard denied on Monday that she ever put in for alumni dues. City manager emails and Finance Department records show otherwise.
“There is no clear public purpose for the city to pay for an alumni association membership for one individual,” Sherman wrote to then-Interim City Manager Danny Jones on Jan. 18, after Hubbard complained the voucher wasn’t approved.
The three council members who voted to fire Evans on Sept. 20 — Davis, Pardo and Hubbard — refused to give the public a reason why, other than to accuse him of “misfeasance.” But Hubbard, at a council meeting Oct. 4, said one reason she wouldn’t change her mind was because she didn’t like being taken to task for using her Neighborhood Sector money to replace a private resident’s driveway.
The driveway had washed away three times because of work the city did on a nearby swale, she explained. Her account conflicts, however, with a city official’s email that said the driveway was prone to flooding because the resident built up the land around it.
Similarly, city staff rejected a xeriscape project initiated by Pardo this year.
The premise of the project, she said, was “to teach residents how to conserve water while having a colorful Florida native yard.” Residents were to choose one or two front yards for demonstrations, with Community Benefits money allotted to the Public Works department to buy plants and mulch.
The problem was using private yards.
“Unfortunately, Councilwoman Pardo, legal, as well as city administration, has some concerns about utilizing public monies and equipment on private property without it being a declared emergency consistent with state statutes,” the city manager emailed her.
She shelved the project.
At a council meeting not long afterward, without discussion, she, Hubbard and Davis, voted to shelve the city manager.
Hotel stays for Riviera Beach council members frequently run over $1,000.
• Tonya Davis Johnson put $1,589 on her city credit card for a March 2017 stay at the Marriott Wardman Park, in Washington, D.C., for a National League of Cities congressional conference. With airfare and other expenses, the trip cost a total of $2,633.
• KaShamba Miller-Anderson’s stay at the Churchill Hotel in D.C. cost Riviera Beach taxpayers $1,590.
• Her November 2016 stay at the Westin Hotel in Pittsburgh cost $2,006, she said, because she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to attend and was late to reserve a room.
• Dawn Pardo made the Pittsburgh trip as well, paying $1,667 for a room at that conference hotel.
• Council member Lynne Hubbard’s hotel stay added $1,134 to taxpayers’ tab.
• Mayor Thomas Masters charged $1,570 in June for a five-day stay at the Grand Hyatt New York to accompany a local children’s choir invited to perform at Carnegie Hall. He said he made the most of the trip by speaking to a Queens College provost about offering scholarships to Riviera students, and spoke with community leaders and the police commissioner about their crime reduction efforts.
• In 2013, newly elected Councilman Terence Davis put in for a hotel stay for a meeting in Palm Beach Gardens, which borders Riviera Beach. City staffers refused to process the payment.
• In October 2016, instead of driving his car or using a city car for free, Davis rented a car to travel to a Fort Lauderdale conference. The car and his stay at the Ritz-Carlton cost Riviera Beach taxpayers more than $500. “The hotel selected was the least costliest facility relatively close to the conference site,” Davis said.
Staff writers Mahima Singh, Mike Stucka and Matt Morgan contributed to this story.