Hallandale commissioner Anthony Sanders resigns amid allegations of wrongdoing

Hallandale Beach Commissioner Anthony Sanders and Jessica Sanders

UPDATE, Aug. 11 By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org:

Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Anthony Sanders resigned his commission seat today on the heels of a scathing report from the Broward Inspector General’s Office that said he “engaged in a pattern of misconduct” in the awarding of city grants and other funding.

“To the residents of Hallandale Beach and Mayor Joy Cooper…I have decided to end my term as Commissioner of the City of Hallandale Beach effective today,” Sanders said in his resignation letter. He said in his letter there was “toxicity” on the current commission.

Sanders, a commissioner for nine years, had generally supported Cooper in controlling the commission majority until the most recent election.  He denied any wrongdoing in his formal response to the IG report, which was finalized earlier this week.

City commissioners next week are expected to call a special election to fill Sanders’ seat because there is more than a year remaining on his four year term.

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

July 11 – A preliminary report by the Broward Inspector General’s Office says Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Anthony Sanders “engaged in a pattern of misconduct” when he “failed to disclose payments” made to him and other family members by a community group which Sanders voted to give thousands of dollars in city grants and other funding.

The July 7 report obtained by Florida Bulldog also said that Palms Community Action Coalition Inc. (PCAC) made contractual payments to Higher Vision Ministries, where Sanders is the pastor and the only paid full-time employee. The report adds that Sanders solicited and received contributions for the church from developers seeking to do business with the city.

PCAC is a Hallandale Beach-based nonprofit organization that provides job training and community development services to local residents.

The various payments occurred during a three-year period in which Sanders voted in favor of PCAC, according to the report.  “Commissioner Sanders continued taking a salary from his employer, continued accepting significant payments from PCAC on behalf of his employer, failed to abstain from voting, failed to disclose the voting conflicts to the voting body either verbally or in writing, directly and indirectly solicited developers to give contributions to his employer, and accepted those contributions on behalf of his employer,” the IG report stated.

The report said the Inspector General plans to refer the office’s findings about Sanders to the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Hallandale Beach city commission “for whatever action those entities deem appropriate.”

“We are filing against Commissioner Sanders an ethics complaint charging a violation of the Broward code of ethics to be tried by an administrative hearing officer,” the report said.

If sustained, the allegations would violate provisions of state, county and municipal codes that prohibit elected officials from receiving anything of value to influence their vote, take any action that provides undue benefit to family members and require refraining from voting to avoid conflict and disclosures in such cases.

The report apparently stems from an investigation opened by the IG’s office, as reported by the Florida Bulldog in June 2016, involving the city’s Community Benefit Program (CBP). The program requires contributions from private developers vying for city projects over $1 million to help fund recruitment, training and hiring of city residents and purchasing from local vendors.

PCAC partnerships

According to the IG documents, it was Sanders who “initially promoted the idea that local workers should be included in city development.” The city requirements made it difficult for developers to win a city contract without a program partner, which had to be named in bidding documents. The IG said PCAC was frequently designated as “partner” in bid documents.

The Bulldog story said investigators were looking for voting conflicts in their review of city commission and Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) minutes. The inquiry came three years after the IG found the city “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds. Sanders was investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing in the IG probe four years ago, but did not escape criticism in the latest probe.

Sanders did not return calls seeking comment on the Inspector General’s latest assertions.

The new investigation of Hallandale Beach covered a period from January 2013 through December 2015. During that time city commissioners, including Sanders, approved direct grants to PCAC three times and development contracts that included the group as a “benefit plan partner” seven times, according to the report.

The city requires companies seeking contracts above $1 million to set aside funds for things like job training programs.

The 10 grants and development contracts ultimately “benefited PCAC a total of approximately $893,320,” the report said. Funds collected from successful bidders were later transferred to PCAC, amounting to $695,870; the balance came from city grants.

The report outlined the connection between the commissioner and the community group. “The OIG [Office of Inspector General] substantiated that PCAC made contractual payments to Higher Vision Ministries…, that PCAC employed his [Sanders’] son; and that PCAC also made other consulting and employment payments to the commissioner’s wife and another son.”

Payments to Sanders’s wife

According to the report, PCAC paid Sanders’ wife, Jessica, for consulting and grant writing and paid two of Sanders’ adult sons for part-time employment. Jessica Sanders had been involved with PCAC in 2011. “We found that PCAC directly paid the commissioner’s immediate family a total of approximately $7,588 between January 2013 and December 2015,” the report stated.

In addition, the report said that PCAC made monthly $1,000 payments to Higher Vision Ministries to transport job trainees to classes. But, it added, neither the church nor PCAC documented any rides. The IG said it determined PCAC paid Higher Vision approximately $27,000 for 613 miles of transportation service – or about $44 for “each accountable mile” under the agreement.

“In all,” the report said, “PCAC paid Commissioner Sanders’s employer and immediate family a total of approximately $38,688 during this three-year period.”

“Following one of Commissioner Sanders’s votes in November 2013 for a Hallandale Beach multi-million public workers project that included PCAC as a community benefit plan partner, PCAC paid an extra (that is, over and above $1,000 per month) $2,000 to Higher Vision Ministries with a memo notation of Donation/Pastor’s Appreciation,” the report stated.

In another instance, the report said, “…following city commission approval for direct city funding to PCAC between October and November of the following year [2014], it [PCAC] made extra payments totaling another $2,100 to Higher Vision Ministries.”

“As described in this report,” the IG report stated, “the commissioner was well aware of the nature of these conflicting relationships and their bearing on the propriety of his voting. Yet, Commissioner Sanders admitted that he did not disclose these relationships or payments to the public at any time during the period he voted to benefit PCAC.”

The IG report said investigators “also established that, while they were at city hall for a commission meeting involving one of the development votes, Commissioner Sanders solicited one of the project awardees to make a direct contribution to the Higher Vision Ministries church, who then asked a second developer to do the same. Their companies’ two donations to the church totaled $1,100.”

 

Hallandale freezes payments for city development, jobs programs citing waste & fraud

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach City Manager Roger Carlton

Hallandale Beach City Manager Roger Carlton has ordered what could be a multi-million dollar freeze on all payments under two city jobs and business development programs, saying they “have lost their way.”

Carlton acted about what he said was “waste” and possible fraud weeks before a report by county investigators became public last week that accused City Commissioner Anthony Sanders of failing to disclose payments he received from a local community group awarded city funds, including money under the two programs, with his backing.

In a June 5 memorandum obtained by Florida Bulldog, Carlton, who was appointed city manager by a new reform-minded city commission majority, expressed outrage about the flawed city programs and public apathy about them.

“I am angry about this situation,” Carlton wrote. “… It is extremely disappointing that there is no outrage in the community about these programs. No demands for reform have been publicly made to date. No complaints regarding the fact that public funds, which should have been utilized effectively to build capacity of local contractors, or help individuals find work can be found.”

In a preliminary July 7 report, the Broward Inspector General’s office said Commissioner Sanders “engaged in a pattern of misconduct” when he “failed to disclose payments” made to him, other family members and his church, Higher Vision Ministries, by a jobs development group, Palms Community Action Coalition (PCAC) during a three-year period. Sanders voted to give PCAC three grants and backed seven funding agreements under the Community Benefit Program (CBP), resulting in the PCAC receiving a total of $893,320 from 2013 through 2015, according to the report.

Carlton’s directive was aimed at the CBP and the Hallandale Opportunity Project (HOP), the city’s administrative arm created to monitor job development, including placement and training, and the purchase and use of local subcontractors and residents, by firms that won contracts. Those gaining contracts under the program pledged a percentage of the contract to hire residents and subcontractors and/or earmark funds to train and create jobs for residents.

“It’s not a pretty outcome,” Carlton said in a brief interview with the Florida Bulldog, adding “millions of dollars” are at stake. The city manager also said the city will “recover as much as possible” of any misused funds.

“I have directed the Finance Department and the Capital Improvement Division to cease making any payments to consultants, contractors, design/engineering firms and/or individuals under the CBP/HOP program until a complete review … can be completed,” Carlton said in his memo.

Exception to freeze for a handful

“The only exception to this payment freeze,” he wrote, “will be to those individuals and firms who are doing actual physical work or are in a verifiable training program at a job site, and who are qualified participants due to their employment and residency status.”

Jeremy Earle, assistant city manager, has been placed in control of the troubled programs and was directed to reform them. The city’s review of the programs, Carlton’s memo said, “will include an analysis of waste, fraud and abuse.” It added, “Without equivocation, there has been waste. Fraud and abuse will be determined.”

“If necessary,” Carlton stated, “the results of our review will be brought to the appropriate authorities for their determination.”

In his memo, Carlton said the city must retool the programs – not terminate them — and make them effective by using “best practices across the country… We must also eliminate providers that are not contributing to program goals.”

The new controversy surrounding the Hallandale’s CBP is similar in some aspects to that involving the city’s troubled Community Redevelopment Agency, which came under investigation by the Broward Inspector General Office five years ago. The findings: The city’s CRA lacked effective city oversight, agency funds were mixed with city funds, a good deal of spending lacked documentation, and policies changed frequently or were not adhered to. The IG found $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures from 2007 to 2012, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and nonprofits.

The IG’s new probe – as reported by Florida Bulldog in June 2016 – was already underway when Carlton took over as city manager on Feb. 6, 2017.  He didn’t like what he found surrounding the CBP and HOP.

“During the past six years, the CBP and the HOP programs have lost their way for a complex variety of reason,” Carlton said in the memo. Successful bidders for city contracts “have contributed to the CBP and HOP at a rate which has grown so rapidly since the recovery of the Great Recession, that there are not enough small contractors of unemployed/underemployed workers in the city of Hallandale Beach to feed into the program.”

The programs ran afoul, he stated, because:

  • Program personnel for both the city and companies awarded contracts were hired often without a competitive process or without demonstrating the ability met the goals of the programs.
  • City monitoring staffers were not given “uniform standards or criteria… to follow” and were not included in negotiations to understand CBP provisions of each contract; and sanctions for failing to comply were less severe than the cost of complying.
  • “City administrators did not demand the excellence and fair-dealing required for the effective use of public funds. That is our fault, and the city administration will resolve these issues going forward.”
  • “The city commission also needs to shoulder some of the responsibility for the difficulties in this program. The rumors, confrontations, accusations and innuendos regarding abuses in the CBP/HOP are not new. When my predecessor brought a series of reforms on October 19, 2016, these reforms were approved by the city commission in a 3/2 vote…, but were not made a priority. The turmoil that swirled around city hall at the time, in part, allowed the need to implement the reforms as a priority of the organization to go unmet.”

In its July 7 report, the Broward IG also stated that Commissioner Sanders solicited and received contributions from developments seeking to do business with the city under the CBP program during the period of the investigation.

The IG report revealed some possible payment discrepancies that could receive closer review by the city:

  • PCAC had an agreement to pay $1,000 a month to Higher Vision to transport job trainees to Sheridan Technical College in Hollywood, with payments totaling $31,000. But the report said no services were provided after May 16, 2015. It also said the city provided free bus passes to the trainees to get to the school.
  • The city provided $17,000 from October 2014 to September 2015 for PCAC to send 10 women to Sheridan Technical to receive training as nurse aides. But six of them dropped out.

Hollywood Beach CRA the target of moves to cut its funding, or kill it

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Rendering of Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort. Photo: City of Hollywood

Rendering of Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort. Photo: City of Hollywood

Hollywood City Commissioner Peter Hernandez says the Beach Community Redevelopment Agency should be abolished because it has had increasing property tax funds for its use — at times exceeding its needs — while the “rest of the city is starving” to pay for operations and needed improvements.

While his proposal has yet to gain support from his colleagues, Hernandez and other city commissioners, who also serve as directors of the CRA, have directed the city’s staff to explore options that would redirect the Hollywood Beach CRA funds left over at the end of the year to the city. Such a revenue give back would mark a first for a CRA in Broward.

In the past, the Hollywood Beach CRA has been accused in a state audit of circumventing state law by rolling over end-of-the-year funds to the next year, a large part of which in recent years has backed the $147 million Margaritaville hotel-entertainment complex in the redevelopment area. The complex is expected to open in October.

In suggesting that the Beach CRA should be abolished, Hernandez said the district — which encompasses less than a square half-mile at 293 acres — “is not really blighted and a slum.’’ Those conditions, he said, are to be met to qualify for redevelopment funds under state law.

The city, Hernandez said, has been operating on “bare bones budgets” while the CRA has given $28 million in incentives to the private developer of Margaritaville. In addition, the city gave developer Lon Tabatchnick valuable, city-owned beachfront land for the project and endorsed construction of a $38 million parking garage project using bonds to be paid back with parking revenues over 30 years.

Peter Hernandez

Peter Hernandez

The CRA district was established in 1997. According to city documents, property values there have jumped since the initial assessment of $546 million. Property in the district is now assessed at about $2.7 billion, which will bring in about $27 million in tax revenue, according to the city’s new annual budget that starts Oct. 1.

Abolishing the Beach CRA and redirecting its tax revenues to the city, Hernandez said, could result in Hollywood being able to cut its citywide property tax rate, the highest among municipalities in Broward County, by 1.5 mills — or $1.50 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

CRA executive director Jorge Camejo did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

With the city in need of funds for operations and other purposes, city officials, at the urging of some commissioners, have presented a variety of proposals aimed at shifting to the city a sizeable portion of an estimated $5 million in anticipated unused end-of-year CRA funds for the coming year.

The Beach CRA gets is revenue from tax increment funds levied on property within its redevelopment boundaries. The $5 million in anticipated unused funds are drawn from four sources: Hollywood, $2.7 million; Broward County, $2 million; Children’s Services Council, $179,000 and the South Broward Hospital District, $54,000.

Unless the city finds a way to shift the money, the funds must be spent on redevelopment within the CRA’s boundaries.

LOOKING AT OPTIONS

City officials are examining a variety of options to obtain the CRA funds – from having the CRA proportionally refund unused tax dollars as outlined above, with the city receiving only $2.7 million, to reducing the percentage of tax increment funds earmarked to the Beach CRA, resulting in the city receiving $4.7 million, or even abolishing the CRA.

Abolishing the Beach CRA, however, would endanger $116 million in projects in the CRA district, including installing underground utilities, the reconfiguration of the Hollywood Boulevard Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, and street flooding/drainage improvements, according to a city document.

Two other options require county approval: one calls for Broward to agree to give up its $2 million to the city, resulting in the city receiving a total of $4.7 million; the other calls for removing the Diplomat Hotel from the CRA, resulting in $3.3 million going to the city rather than the CRA.

Hernandez said he expects city officials to begin discussions with the county soon regarding about how best to proceed.

Ralph Stone, director of the Broward County Housing Finance and Community Development Division, said it “would be a first” should a CRA seek to return unused end-of-the year funds to its municipality for citywide uses.

About a year ago, the county said it planned to monitor and take action against CRAs that hoarded funds at the end of the year rather than spending on needed projects. Under state law, CRAs that have funds at the end of the year must spend that money on projects to be completed in three years or pay down debt. If not, CRAs must return the money to the agencies that contributed those public tax dollars.

The county’s concern followed findings by the Broward Inspector General Office that the Margate CRA deliberately mishandled $2.7 million in funds, rolling it over for several years without specific purposes. The Inspector General also found that the Hallandale Beach CRA had $2.2 million in questionable expenditures—an allegation denied by the agency.

In February 2013, the Florida Auditor General cited the Hollywood Beach CRA for failing to report $36.2 million in unspent year-end funds from year 2009-2010 and $34.2 million from 2010-2011.

The Beach CRA, Hernandez said, had “rolled over the funds for Margaritaville.”

Frank Schnidman is a community redevelopment expert/consultant and professor of urban and regional planning at Florida Atlantic University. In an interview, he said that over the years the Hollywood Beach CRA has complied “with the spirit of the law” in its use of end-of-year funds, but added it “has been rolling (funds) over and built up quite a bank account” that was a key funding tool for the city-backed Margaritaville project.

Schnidman said city officials seeking funds for citywide expenses and projects should also consider talking with the county about the option Hernandez has suggested: abolish the Hollywood Beach CRA.

Broward to seek return of CRA tax dollars mishandled by cities; Millions at stake

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward Administrator Bertha Henry and attorney and FAU professor Frank Schnidman

Broward Administrator Bertha Henry and attorney and FAU professor Frank Schnidman

Broward will seek the return of county property tax dollars from city community redevelopment agencies that hoarded that money instead of spending it on projects to fight slum and blight that are ready to get underway, according to County Administrator Bertha Henry.

The county’s toughened stand follows recent findings by Broward’s Inspector General that Margate deliberately mishandled $2.7 million in CRA funds. It also comes amid fresh criticism about the way Hallandale Beach allegedly handled its community redevelopment funds.

Frank Schnidman, an attorney and senior fellow at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said in an interview that Hallandale Beach appears to have mishandled $12.6 million in CRA funds – an allegation disputed by a top city official.

“They lost track of the money,” Schnidman said. “They were not aware there were all these millions of dollars…they had misplaced.”

The County approves the establishment of CRAs after the need for redevelopment is studied and documented and contributes tax dollars – so called tax increment funding, or TIF – to the municipal agencies from revenue generated by the increase in property values in the redevelopment area.

Ten Broward cities have CRAs that receive TIF dollars. Others include Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Pompano Beach, have CRAs.

Henry said in an interview last week that the county will enhance its review of expenditures to make sure municipal CRAs don’t improperly bank funds at year end instead of spending them as required by state law.

“They now know they have to comply,” said Henry, referring to the Inspector General’s publicized findings.

Under state law, CRAs that have funds at the end of the year must spend that money on projects to be completed in three years, pay down debt or return it to the county.

INSPECTOR GENERAL’S PROBE

For months, the Inspector General has been conducting what appears to be a review of how some municipal CRAs in Broward have handled funds unspent at the end of each fiscal year.

In Margate, investigators found, the CRA mishandled funds by rolling them over from year to year without designating them for specific purposes. The Inspector General said the county could retrieve $2.7 million in funds provided to Margate.

Henry’s parallel review of CRA spending is expected to take two months. County representatives will then meet with CRA’s receiving tax increment property tax funds. For cities that don’t have projects ready to go, “I will recommend we go after the money,” she said.

Cynthia Chambers, director of Broward’s environmental protection department whose duties include overseeing municipal CRAs, will also be watching. She said the county would “certainly” seek the return of tax funds from CRAs that violate state law regarding the handling of year-end funds.

The Inspector General’s ongoing CRA probe began in 2012 after a string of stories in BrowardBulldog.org about questionable loans to local businesses and land purchases by Hallandale Beach. The 14-month investigation found $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures, the improper co-mingling of city and CRA funds dating to the CRA’s establishment in 1996 and poor record keeping.

The Inspector General also asked the city to tell it how much money the CRA had, suggesting the amount was uncertain. An audit by Hallandale Beach that in July, 2013 identified $12.6 million in CRA funds co-mingled with city funds.

Schnidman, the FAU professor and a former consultant for the Hallandale Beach CRA, was critical of the audit finding such a huge sum.

“They were not aware the money was there; they misplaced it. They were hanging onto the money…year after year,” Schnidman said.

The $12.6 million, Schnidman said, should be returned to the government agencies that, like the county, contributed property tax increase funds to the Hallandale Beach CRA – the city, South Broward Hospital District and Children’s Services Council.

Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee Miller disputed the notion the CRA had excess funds. “Anyone saying that is misleading the public. It’s not found money…not excess cash,” she said.

Miller said the audit went back to as far as 1996 to ascertain the amount of CRA funding, with interest. The money, she said, was then transferred to the CRA trust fund. Asked where the money was located, Miller said it was from current funding that year, not from any leftover funds from previous years.

Miller said the city had a good estimate of the amount of CRA dollars co-mingled with city funds, but the audit confirmed $12.6 million.

In the past when funds were co-mingled, Miller said it had been the city’s practice to account for CRA costs near the end of the budget year on September 30.

The $12.6 million CRA funds were used to pay agency costs during 2012-2013, according to Miller and city controller Melissa Cruz. Of that, more than $10 million went to pay salaries and benefits, administrative charges, debt service, utilities, material and supplies, repairs and maintenance, community redevelopment programs, grants to community groups, professional and outside services, subsidized loan programs, and other service charges. Another $500,000 was transferred to the city, and $2.3 million was designated for capital projects.

“It’s not as insidious as was inferred,” Miller said.

 

Cooper City shrinks official minutes: “Details you really don’t want the public to know about”

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

A Broward Sheriff's captain intervenes to calm overheated Cooper City politicians last year.

A Broward Sheriff’s captain intervenes to calm overheated Cooper City politicians last year.

Emotions boiled as the Cooper City commissioners talked angrily over each other.

“You do this crap all the time,” Commissioner John Sims shouted at then-Mayor Debby Eisinger, accusing her of trying to ram through a commission vote to spend money to send flyers to residents about an upcoming city vote to change the town charter. “I’ve had it up to here.”

“You are extremely disruptive,” Eisinger fired back during that Aug. 12, 2012 commission meeting.

“No, you are extremely dumb…,” Sims replied.

A video of the meeting shows that at one point Sims stood and leaned toward the mayor. Another commissioner, sitting between them, rose to separate them. A woman shouted, “Stop it! Stop it!” The sheriff’s captain, responsible for Cooper City law enforcement, approached the dais to calm the politicians.

Yet Cooper City’s official minutes of that meeting make no mention of the 12-minute donnybrook.

Why? City Clerk Susan Poling offered an answer at a commission meeting one month later.

“Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing to put in details you really don’t want the public to know about,” Poling said.

INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MINUTES

The record does not establish the basis for change, but since the latter half of 2008 the minutes of Cooper City commission meetings have been shrinking. Or as local political activist Skip Klauber puts it, “scrubbed.”

Cooper City Commissioner John Sims and former Mayor Debby Eisinger

Cooper City Commissioner John Sims and former Mayor Debby Eisinger

Sims complained to Poling at the Sept. 12, 2012 meeting after seeing no mention of the angry encounter the month before in the official minutes.

“You really got to be kidding me, Ms. Poling,” said Sims. “Who is telling you to manipulate the minutes, Ms. Poling?”

Poling denied manipulating the minutes and explained that commission minutes had been reduced to “action minutes” which only record official actions or commission votes and do not summarize discussions.

Commissioner Lisa Mallozzi said action minutes were instituted to save staff time and resources. “Nothing is being hidden, nothing is being thrown under a carpet. This is a more effective way to use our staff time,” she said.

Cooper City commission minutes were not always brief. Based on information Sims provided the Florida Attorney General, the minutes in 2007 averaged more than 18 pages and in the first half of 2008 averaged more than 13 pages.

CHANGE IN POLITICAL WINDS

But the political winds in Cooper City shifted in 2008. Bruce D. Loucks replaced long-time City Manager Christopher Farrell after the commission voted Farrell out. Thirty-year City Clerk Susan Bernard retired. City Attorney Alan F. Ruf was fired and replaced by David Wolphin.

During the second half of 2008 commission meeting minutes averaged about 8 pages. In 2012, the average had dipped to fewer than 6 pages.

In an interview, Greg Ross, who took over as mayor last November, noted that video recordings of commission meetings supplement the minutes. The videos are available on demand on the city’s web site and because of the videos, there was no reason for lengthening minutes, he said.

Carla Miller, founder of City Ethics, a non-profit organization that provides local governments with ethics training and programs, agreed with Ross that supplementing minutes with videos is good practice.

“If you have a video tape of it, to have 10 pages (of minutes) and not 16 pages is sufficient,” Miller said, adding that state law does not require “verbatim notes”.

But Daniel Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida a non-profit that promotes integrity in government, was critical of Cooper City’s practice. He said recording thorough accounts of commission deliberations in the minutes “would save Cooper City residents the hassle of going through hours of videos.”

“It is important for the public to be able to understand their officials…and their decision making,”
Krassner added. “More detailed minutes offer greater public understanding of how decisions are debated and decided.”

Commissioner Sims made a similar argument in lengthy complaints to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2012 and to Broward Inspector General John Scott in 2013 where he argued that Cooper City was violating the state’s Sunshine Law.

“Trying to find what you want to watch on a three-plus hour video is a frustrating and highly imperfect process,” Sims wrote. “Unless someone tells you where to look, the Internet (video of commission meetings) in no way makes up for the bare, unlawfully taken minutes.”

NO INVESTIGATION

Neither Bondi nor Scott, however, would investigate Sims’ allegations.

Florida Assistant Attorney General Lagran Saunders’s two-page response to Sims noted that the Sunshine Law does not define “minutes.” He added that his office could not investigate unless a majority of the Cooper City Commission requested an inquiry.

Broward Inspector General Scott did not reply to him in writing, Sims said. Instead, a staffer telephoned him to report that his request for an inquiry had been rejected.

Nevertheless, Sims continues to accuse “the commission, the city manager and the city attorney” of “washing the minutes” because they “do not want the public to know what is going on.”

That includes the scrubbing of other official minutes, Sims said.

In his complaint to Bondi, Sims noted that the minutes of Cooper City’s Charter Review Board meetings also have fallen. Charter Review Boards meet every five years to consider changes in the city charter. In 2006, the average length of the boards minutes was eight pages; last year, about 3 ½ pages.

Klauber, a member of the 2012 Charter Review Board, said the board’s minutes were “dumbed down…to the point of uselessness.”

Klauber said minutes of the Planning and Zoning Board are now “garbage.” Under Ro Woodward, a city administrative coordinator who prepared them, the minutes were detailed. But after she retired this year, he said, quality departed with her.

A records review revealed that the four 2012 Planning and Zoning Board meetings Woodward attended produced minutes that averaged 16 pages. The four 2013 meeting minutes posted thus far on line average less five pages.

Michelle Alvarez is the administrative assistant to Cooper City manager Loucks, who was unavailable for comment.

Alvarez said in an email that the city’s advisory boards have the “option” of audio recording their meetings to help prepare minutes. She said the city’s Planning and Zoning and Pension boards do audio record their meetings. Audio recordings are retained for two years but are not posted online.

Official minutes are permanent, she added.

Hallandale finds allies amid aggressive response to county’s request for CRA documents

By William Gjebre, Broward Bulldog.org hbcralogo

A group of Broward cities have reached an agreement with the county Inspector General’s Office to turn over financial documents from their redevelopment agencies, temporarily heading off a possible court battle over the county’s claim that it has jurisdiction to investigate those agencies.

The Inspector General’s Office requested those Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) documents earlier this month citing its authority under the county charter, but after encountering resistance agreed instead to request them using Florida’s public records law.

Hallandale Beach city commissioners, criticized this year by the Inspector General for mishandling millions of dollars in CRA funds, sounded the battle cry at a meeting on Monday with a vote to explore teaming up with other CRA cities to obtain a legal ruling about the county’s authority over CRAs.

Commissioners approved several aggressive measures aimed squarely at the Inspector General’s Office, including a requirement that the county pay the city copying and other fees for any CRA financial documents it receives under the Public Records Act.

Commissioners authorized the city to file its own public records request for the Inspector General’s file on its completed yearlong probe of Hallandale Beach, including information about the sources of the allegations that helped start the investigation. Likewise, the commission also approved asking the Inspector General to specify the authority it believes it has under county law, or any legal ruling, to investigate CRAs.

MILLIONS AT STAKE

The Inspector General’s request for CRA records from city halls’ across the county signaled the opening of a broad inquiry into the potential misuse of funds and a possible attempt to recover from those cities millions of unspent taxpayer dollars.

Hallandale Beach maintains the Inspector General does not have the authority to investigate CRAs, and that CRAs are under the jurisdiction of the state.

“The jurisdiction question has to be resolved,” the Hallandale Beach CRA’s attorney Steven Zelkowitz told the CRA’s board of directors Monday. In Hallandale, as in many other cities, the city commission also sits as the CRA’s board.

Zelkowitz is expected to seek support for any legal action from eight other cities that challenged the IG’s request under the county charter for the financial documents. Those cities are: Lauderdale Lakes, Dania Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Coral Springs, Deerfield Beach, Pompano, and Davie.

“I feel comfortable that we have support,” Zelkowitz told Hallandale commissioners. The cost of any legal action would be spread among the participating cities, he said.

Plantation, the tenth city to receive a letter from the Inspector General, is not part of the challenge. Mayor Diane Bendekovic said her city had already provided the requested documents under the original request.

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper, who leads the pushback effort against the county, blamed county officials for “a witch hunt” against cities whose CRAs receive property tax funds from the county.

“I’m tired of the Inspector General wasting taxpayers’ money,” Cooper said. “We welcome an investigation by the proper authority,” Cooper said, adding that the Inspector General is not that agency.

OTHER CRA CITIES CONCERNED

Hostilities between Hallandale and the county flared again following the Inspector General’s letter to Hallandale Beach and nine other Broward cities seeking a variety of CRA financial documents. This time, Hallandale’s concerns were shared by others.

Attorneys and officials representing eight CRA cities challenged the Inspector General’s assertion of jurisdiction under the county charter. They met last week with Jennifer Merino, general counsel for the Inspector General.

Zelkowitz said an agreement was reached in which the Inspector General’s Office would rescind its letter citing charter authority and re-issue a letter seeking the information under Chapter 119 of Florida’s statutes, the public records act.

The county also agreed to push back the date when the documents were due to be produced by about two weeks. The records had been due on Friday.

Merino told Browardbulldog.org her agency agreed only to “clarify” its request letter, saying the agency always wanted the documents under the public records law even though the original letter cited the county charter. She also said her agency is only conducting an “inquiry” for information and not an investigation.

According to Zelkowitz, the Inspector General’s office refused a request by the cities to jointly seek a ruling in Broward Circuit Court on whether does or does not have investigatory authority over CRAs. He also said the Inspector General failed to cite specific provisions giving it investigatory authority over CRAs.

Merino, maintaining that the Inspector General’s Office has the authority, said her office felt it “was not the right time” to seek such a court ruling.

“We are not trying to throttle any investigation,” Zelkowitz told Hallandale commissioners. “We want the right investigative agency to do the investigation.”

In June, Broward County commissioners, expressed frustration when told by county staff that their authority to audit Hallandale Beach’s CRA was limited by both state and county law. They vowed to change state law to gain control. The commissioners created the Inspector General’s Office several years ago.

In Hallandale, several of Mayor Cooper’s colleagues expressed a different kind of frustration as the tug-of-war continues with the Inspector General’s Office.

“We spent enough taxpayers’ money on this,” said Vice Mayor Alexander Lewy.

But Commissioner Michele Lazarow, the lone dissenting vote in Monday’s commission action, has called for state officials to seek an Attorney General’s opinion on the city’s use of CRA funds, and for an outside audit of the CRA to determine if funds have been misused in the past.

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

Broward opens broad inquiry into misuse of property tax dollars by CRAs; millions at stake

By William Gjebre and Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org iglogo

The Broward Inspector General’s Office has opened a broad inquiry into the potential misuse of public funds across the county with written requests sent to at least nine cities with a Community Redevelopment Agency to hand over a variety of financial records for inspection.

One official with knowledge of the inquiry told BrowardBulldog.org the Inspector General’s review is “the beginning of a long term process.”

Frank Schnidman, an attorney and senior fellow at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said the Inspector General’s request for records is all about millions in tax dollars and who should control them.

“It’s about time that somebody was trying to hold CRAs accountable. The Inspector General’s Office might not be the right mechanism to do that, but it’s about time,” Schnidman said.

CRA’s administer programs within districts designated by local governments under state law as community redevelopment areas.  Boards made up of local government officials or persons appointed by the local government run them.

Tax increment financing is used to fund CRAs, which receive tax revenue generated by increases in real property value in their area over a baseline number determined when the CRA is created. By law, those revenues – the “increment,”— are put into a CRA Trust Fund that’s dedicated to the redevelopment of the area.

KEEPING TABS ON CRAS

In sending letters to the CRAs the Inspector General’s Office is carrying out a vow made earlier this year amid its investigation of Hallandale Beach’s CRA to keep close tabs on municipal redevelopment groups that receive half their funds from property taxes collected by the county.

Identical records requests were sent to at least eight of the 10 Broward cities with CRAs that receive county funding – Hallandale Beach, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale Lakes, Davie, Pompano Beach, Margate, Deerfield Beach and Plantation. An official in Coral Springs, the 10th city, said that city has not received a letter but expects one soon.

While some CRA officials express uneasiness, others welcomed the Inspector General’s action.

“I think they are looking for general information, but they may want to see if there is anything that’s improper,” said Will Allen, administrator at the Davie CRA. “They won’t find anything wrong here.”

In Hallandale, City Commissioner Michele Lazarow said, “I don’t think it is an accident that the letter was sent” shortly after the Inspector General issued a critical report against the Hallandale Beach CRA.

Earlier this year, the Inspector General charged that Hallandale Beach city officials had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds. The office said it found at least $2.2 million in questionable expenditures between 2007 and 2012.

Mayor Joy Cooper challenged many of the county’s allegations. Asked to comment about the Inspector General’s new request for documents, she said the city “will respond accordingly.”

The Inspector General’s office asked the cities to produce:  

*A copy of the ordinance that established the CRA Community Redevelopment Trust Fund. Hallandale Beach, for instance, did not have a separate fund for the first 16 years of the agency’s existence.

*Bank statements for the redevelopment trust fund accounts for the months of September and October for the years 2009-2012.

*The CRA’s general ledger account ending balances from 2009-2012

*Any and all CRA capital improvement plans for 2009-2012.

*Documentation for the disposition of all money remaining in the redevelopment trust fund at the end of fiscal year ending September 20, 2012 that was later used to reduce indebtedness for pledged funds.

*Records regarding all money deposited into escrow accounts from 2009-2012 for repayment of CRA debts.

Schnidman said the records that were sought indicate that the county’s agents are attempting to determine if the CRAs have complied with the requirements of state statute – 163.387(7) – regarding how tax increment trust fund balance amounts are to be treated at the end of the fiscal year.

Under the law, Schnidman said, those balances are supposed to be proportionally returned each year to each taxing authority, such as the county, that paid into the CRA.

“What the Inspector General is doing is he’s trying to figure out which of the county’s CRAs are in violation of the law and need to return all this money they’ve husbanded away,” said Schnidman. “It’s millions of dollars.”

WILL OTHER COUNTIES FOLLOW BROWARD’S LEAD?

At a time of tight municipal budgets, the Inspector General’s gambit could reverberate it city halls across the state.

“I wonder if other counties will follow this effort by the Broward IG’s Office in the continuing revenue discussions between some counties and their CRAs,” said Schnidman. “The threshold question is by what authority is the Broward IG seeking this information from Broward County Dependent District CRAs that it arguably does not have jurisdiction over?”

City officials in Hallandale briefly challenged the Inspector General’s authority over its CRA, but later backed off that position.

In Margate, where the CRA has focused on “streetscape” improvements along Atlantic Boulevard and State Road 7, City Attorney Eugene Steinfeld took a wait-and-see approach to the county’s inquiry.

“It sounds like they are just gathering information,” Steinfeld said.

Lauderdale Lakes CRA executive director J. Gary Rogers welcomed any new oversight.

“They are doing their job,” said Rogers.

In 2012, following up on a story the year before by BrowardBulldog.org about missing redevelopment funds, the Inspector General found that Lauderdale Lakes had misspent $2.5 million in CRA funds. The city is repaying the money to the CRA.

“We were investigated and employees were terminated,” Rogers said. “We came close to a big financial disaster” under a previous administration, added Rogers who was not with the city at the time.

“I got no problem with them looking at us,” Rogers said. “They want to make sure we are spending money appropriately.”

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

Defiant Hallandale commissioners reject call for new legal opinion on CRA spending

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org hallandalelogo

Hallandale Beach city commissioners have shot down a request from a legislative committee that it seek a new opinion from the Florida Attorney General on how community redevelopment funds can be spent and abide by the ruling.

Sitting as directors of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), commissioners voted 3-2 Wednesday night to approve telling the Florida Joint Legislative Joint Auditing Committee that the CRA “cannot at this time advocate seeking the requested” Attorney General opinion.

The action raised the likelihood that state legislators could order an audit of the city’s CRA spending. “I’m not concerned if they order an audit; they can do that regardless,” CRA Attorney Steven Zelkowitz said after the Wednesday meeting.

The state committee got involved after reviewing a highly critical report by the Broward Inspector General’s Office that found Hallandale’s CRA had “grossly mismanaged” and misspent millions of tax dollars.

The Inspector General’s report relied heavily on a 2010 Attorney General’s opinion that said CRA funds should be used for “brick and mortar” projects. City officials, however, have questioned that interpretation of state law and said that the use of CRA funds for things like handouts to local nonprofit groups and city fireworks displays are legitimate expenditures.

Hallandale’s defensive posture appears to have prompted the legislators to suggest the city seek a new legal opinion that it would agree to live by.

The city’s resistance to that idea was clear in a four-page report to the legislators that was submitted to the CRA’s board – Hallandale’s five commissioners for their approval.

“The questions the committee has requested to be posed to the Attorney General will have an impact on (CRA’s) on a statewide basis,” the report said. “The city and (its CRA) cannot legally bind themselves to abide by a yet to be issued [opinion].”

Zelkowitz, City Manager Renee C. Miller and City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield wrote the report.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Commissioner Bill Julian, who with Commissioner Michele Lazarow favored seeking the Attorney General’s opinion but were outvoted.

“I’m not surprised” by the vote, Lazarow said.

Mayor Joy Cooper, who attended via phone, Vice Mayor Alexander Lewy and Commissioner Anthony Sanders voted for the report. After the meeting, Lewy said the city has made numerous improvements to the CRA recently.

In response to several other matters raised by the state committee, commissioners agreed to reply that is their position that state law and a few case rulings do not prohibit the questioned expenditures. “In fact, the statutes and case law provide a broad framework for the expenditure of CRA monies,” the report said.

On another issue, the city’s report to the legislature noted that while Hallandale had co-mingled city funds with CRA money in the past — which the Inspector General said was improper — it established a separate CRA trust in May, 2012 and reported the fund balance is approximately $15 million at present.

At the meeting, commissioners also unanimously approved an eight-page report outlining the city’s response to recommendations made by the Inspector General.

The report – a copy of which will be sent to the state audit committee – said Hallandale has:

*Stabilized CRA staff by naming City Manager Miller executive director and hiring a new Deputy City Manager to serve as CRA director and supervise key departments that interact with the CRA.

*Provided training to top city officials regarding provisions of the state law, Chapter 163, governing CRAs, and established a process and standards for awarding funds/grants to nonprofit groups, as well as on-going performance evaluation.

*Trained staff on policies and procedures for all CRA programs; established legal and financial reviews of loans and other financial funds, and implemented controls to monitor all CRA expenditures.

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

 

 

Hallandale may seek Attorney General opinion on CRA spending; statewide impact seen

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org hallandalewateretower1

Hallandale Beach city commissioners on Wednesday will consider asking the Florida Attorney General for a ruling on how community redevelopment funds can be spent, a decision that could have a far-reaching impact.

“This is an opinion that would affect every CRA in the state of Florida,” Hallandale Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) attorney Steven Zelkowitz cautioned city commissioners at a recent meeting.

Commissioners will also review the city manager’s draft response to recommendations made by the Broward Inspector General’s office, which has criticized the city for “grossly mismanaging” millions of dollars in CRA funds.

While stating they are complying with many of the Inspector General’s recommendations, city officials continue to challenge the accusation that community development money was misspent, primarily by funding certain nonprofit groups.

With both sides at odds, the push to involve the Attorney General’s Office is coming from a state committee that has injected itself in the matter.

The Florida Legislative Joint Auditing Committee, expressing concerns about questionable spending cited by the Inspector General, recently invited the city to seek a new legal opinion that might clarify CRA spending rules.

The committee made the request after noting that Hallandale Beach officials questioned a 2010 Attorney General’s opinion that held CRA funds should be used for “brick and mortar” projects. In its letter to the city, the legislative committee also asked the city to agree to adhere to any new legal ruling.

Hallandale CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz

Hallandale CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz

City officials have argued the 2010 opinion does not limit CRA spending only to brick and mortar projects, and contend the ruling was nonbinding anyway.

The state committee also has asked the city to explain its questioned expenditures and to provide a copy of its response to the Broward Inspector General’s recommendations.

CRA attorney Zelkowitz could not be reached for comment. But during his remarks at a June 17 CRA board meeting, he noted that it was unusual for the committee to have asked the city to seek a new legal opinion and warned about the pitfalls in doing so.

“We have never seen a request that actually goes so far as to say we would like you, as a board, to request an Attorney General opinion as to certain matters and…(to) abide by it,” said Zelkowitz. “This is not to be taken lightly.”

A majority vote by Hallandale Beach’s five city commissioners, who also sit as the CRA’s board of directors, is needed to get an opinion, Zelkowitz said.

Zelkowitz told commissioners the state legislative auditing committee could order an audit of the CRA even if the city receives an Attorney General opinion that favors the city’s position or if the city does not ask for a legal opinion.

City Manager Renee C. Miller’s eight-page draft response regarding the Inspector General’s recommendations cites the 2010 legal opinion in defense of the city’s actions. It states that “…a close reading of this opinion will reveal that the Attorney General gives no definite answer as to whether or not all grants to nonprofits are outside the scope of the Community Redevelopment Act.”

Much of the remainder of the response outlines how the city has altered its practices – many of them absent or disregarded in the past – in an effort to comply with the Inspector General’s recommendations and comport with state law governing CRAs.

The response said the city has:

*Stabilized CRA staff by naming Miller executive director and hiring a new Deputy City Manager to serve as CRA director and supervise key departments that interact with the CRA.

*Provided training to top city officials regarding provisions of the state law, Chapter 163, governing CRAs, and established a process and standards for awarding funds/grants to nonprofit groups, as well as on-going performance evaluation.

*Established a separate CRA trust account – CRA property tax funds were commingled with city funds before – and indicated it would provide information on the trust fund balance by the end of the fiscal year.

*Trained staff on policies and procedures for all CRA programs; established legal and financial reviews of loans and other financial funds, and implemented controls to monitor all CRA expenditures.

In another development, the city commissioners have agreed to pay Zelkowitz’s law firm $40,000 more for additional legal work stemming from the Inspector General’s report. Zelkowitz told commissioners his firm had exhausted $60,000 in its contract with the city because of the extra work.

Wednesday’s meeting was scheduled after a dispute among commissioners on the need for a public hearing. Mayor Joy Cooper and Vice Mayor Alexander Lewy wanted to have Miller and Zelkowitz prepare responses and brief commissioners individually.

They were outvoted, 3-2, in favor of a public meeting. It was backed by commissioners Michele Lazarow, Bill Julian and Anthony Sanders.

The Inspector General’s probe involved a review of the city’s purchase of property from Sanders’ nonprofit High Vision Ministries at 501 NW First Ave. The Inspector General, however, cleared Sanders of an allegation that the CRA showed favoritism toward him by substantially overpaying his nonprofit group for the property.

Higher Vision brought the property in 2001 for $45,000 and sold it to the city in 2009 for $235,000. Appointed to the commission in 2008, Sanders did not vote on the purchase.  In between the purchase and the sale, the CRA gave the group $46,000 for property improvement; the group was required to repay only $31,000 of the loan, with the balance forgiven.

Unhappy Broward commissioners want more control over city CRAs

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

The Broward County Commission

The Broward County Commission

Broward County commissioners vowed to seek changes in state law to give them more oversight over municipal redevelopment agencies after learning they cannot audit alleged misspending by Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

“We want to get back some control from the state,” County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger said in an interview.

Gunzburger and other commissioners expressed frustration when told by county staff that their authority to audit was limited by both state law and the county’s 1996 agreement with Hallandale Beach that established its CRA.

The issue came before the commission last week when a Hallandale city commissioner and a former city commissioner, both critics of the way the city has operated the CRA, traveled to County Hall to urge the county to conduct a financial review.

The critics, Commissioner Michele Lazarow and former Commissioner Keith London, cited a recent Broward Inspector General’s report that found that the CRA had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in public funds. The report had recommended a county audit with an eye toward recovering any misspent county funds.

A CITY DELEGATION TO COUNTY HALL

A delegation of city officials who have challenged the Inspector General’s report, led by Mayor Joy Cooper, argued successfully that the county has no authority to conduct an audit.

During the discussion, County Commissioner Tim Ryan noted that the Inspector General’s Office had cited possible violations of state law by the CRA, which is overseen by the Hallandale City Commission sitting as the CRA’s board of directors.

“Can we recoup [misspent funds]? Do we have the ability to act on violations?” he asked.

County Attorney Joni A. Coffey and County Auditor Evan Lukic gave the county commission the news that they were powerless to review $36 million in tax funds they have sent to Hallandale Beach for CRA purposes during the past 17 years.

Coffey explained that the county’s agreement with Hallandale Beach provided that oversight of CRA actions belongs to the city and the state, not the county.

Said Lukic, who reviewed the county-city CRA pact, “We have limited authority – but not to audit.”

Lukic said he and Coffey will work together in coming days to better define the scope of the county’s oversight authority.

CRA LIKE A PIGGYBANK?

The Inspector General’s report says that from 2007 through 2012 Hallandale used the CRA like a piggybank to improperly pay for the city’s general expenses and other pet projects, including donations to favored nonprofit groups and local businesses. In all, agents found $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures.

“The Inspector General has raised concerns about the use of money,” said Gunzburger, whose district covers part of Hallandale. “We send money to the Hallandale Beach CRA and it may be being used in inappropriate ways.

“They continue to use CRA for a piggybank,” Gunzburger added. “I am disappointed we are…not able to do anything about possible violations of law.”

Gunzburger and other commissioners asked the county’s staff to look into finding ways to change state or county laws, and make recommendations after the county commission returns from its summer recess.

“This has to be addressed through Tallahassee,” Commissioner Lois Wexler said.

The matter is “not a Republican or Democrat issue” but one of oversight of CRA spending, Commissioner Martin Kiar said.

Changes are needed “to protect the taxpayers’ money,” Commissioner Ryan added.

While the county’s elected leaders had a lot to say publicly about the matter, Hallandale Commissioner Lazarow informed them that her colleagues in Hallandale have remained mostly mum.

“There has never been an official action taken by the policy makers: No agenda item. No resolution. No motion. No vote,” she said.

Since the county commission meeting, the Florida Legislature’s Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, a Palm Beach County Democrat, has jumped into the debate, asking city officials to explain how the funds were handled and spent.

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