By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach city commissioners have tightened oversight on property acquisitions by its controversial redevelopment agency, and reduced the power of agency officials to unilaterally buy land.
Commissioners, however, rejected the creation of a community advisory board to make recommendations regarding decisions made by the redevelopment agency.
Sitting as directors of the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), city commissioners Monday unanimously voted to cap the spending power of the agency’s administration at $25,000 for land unless approved by the full commission.
Commissioners also instructed staff to promptly report new land acquisitions, saying they wanted it reported at the next city commission meeting after a buy is made.
In taking the action, commissioners set aside a 2005 city ordinance that had allowed the city manager to spend up to $200,000 in CRA funds to buy property for affordable housing purposes without notifying commissioners.
The vote comes in the wake of a series of reports in Broward Bulldog about the city’s land buying spree, including $28 million in purchases from 2001 to 2010 made with very few plans to use the property. Meanwhile, the value of the properties has plummeted.
In September, Broward Bulldog obtained a draft of an outside audit that said the city had failed to properly track CRA land acquisitions and loans to businesses; one finding stated that 27 property purchase files “did not contain a purchase authorization from either the city manager or the city commission.”
“This is about transparency,” said Commissioner Keith London, adding he has pushed for the spending change for years. “This puts it on the agency to inform taxpayers so they can see what they are purchasing.”
In the past, London said, the city administration under former City Manager Mike Good “preferred to operate in the shadows and not sunshine.” He also leveled the accusation against Mayor Joy Cooper, which she has denied.
The action to limit the property spending authority came as the city commission was reviewing proposals to revamp CRA operations, as outlined by agency Director Alvin Jackson, a recent appointment.
The commission voted to direct staff to prepare a set of new bylaws to govern the CRA, for adoption at a later date.
COMMISSION REJECTS MORE OVERSIGHT
While the spending limits were approved, a proposal to establish a nine-member CRA advisory board was defeated 3-2. Cooper and Commissioner Alexander Lewy supported the creation of the advisory board and cast the only votes backing the proposal.
“This was sabotaged,” said Lewy at the meeting, who expected it to be approved. “I support public involvement and getting buy-in from the community. I don’t consider an advisory board another layer or red tape. This would be giving advice, direction and an additional layer of oversight from the residents and business owners who would be contributing in the process.”
“My goal was to have an advisory board to have grassroots input from residents,” Cooper said. “I’m in support of it.”
But London, who made the motion to reject establishing the board said, “According to the city manager, and I concur, we are the board of directors. Everything comes through us. I agree with the city manager (that) it’s another layer.”
BLAME PLACED ON FORMER ADMINISTRATION
Good, a city employee for 25 years who became city manager in 2002, was fired in June 2010 after chronic absences from work. He could not be reached for comment.
London, who joined the commission in November 2006, said he never received any information from Good regarding land purchases. And, London said, most of the parcels that were bought remain undeveloped.
From August 12, 2005 until October 28, 2010, a city memo says, the city manager used his unilateral spending authority to authorize the acquisition of 13 properties costing $1.5 million. The purchase prices ranged from $31,500 to $195,000.
When commissioners passed the ordinance in 2005 they cited a need to move quickly to acquire property for affordable housing because developers were then eyeing land for higher priced units, said Mayor Cooper. She said that existing residents could, over time, be forced to relocate if the city hadn’t acquired property for low affordable housing.
Cooper said ex-city manager Goode acted with the authority provided by the commission. She was mayor when the commission conferred that authority.
The mayor said she received “word of mouth” information about the city manager’s purchases, but she could not specify that she received such information regarding the 13 properties referred to in the city memo.
Cooper said she accepts the new purchasing limitation on the city manager, Mark Antonio, because it’s unlikely to hamper property acquisitions at this time. Antonio also acts as the head of the CRA, although Jackson was appointed in January as agency director.