By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach City Manager’s Office has refused to fully cooperate with the Broward Inspector General’s Office investigation into the city’s management of the Community Redevelopment district.
City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield informed the Inspector General’s Office by letter Wednesday that City Manager Mark Antonio’s office will not voluntarily schedule requested meetings between county agents and city commissioners, who also serve as the CRA’s Board of Directors.
City Attorney Whitfield also sought in her letter to identify the target or targets of the investigation.
“As it relates to the members of the City Commission, it is imperative, in order to properly advise them as to the availability of legal counsel, that I know whether your investigation is directed to the actions of the City Commission as a whole or to the actions of only individual City Commissioners,” Whitfield wrote. “This will assist me in advising whether or not they need to obtain independent legal counsel.”
The Inspector General began an investigation in April of city management practices following numerous news stories in Broward Bulldog and elsewhere regarding the city’s poor record keeping of land acquisitions and loans through the CRA.
County investigators have been to City Hall at least twice. They are known to have met with Antonio, who retires June 29, and CRA executive director Alvin Jackson. The city also has responded to the Inspector General’s request for various documents dealing with the CRA and other aspects of city operations.
But in yesterday’s letter addressed to county Special Agent William Cates, the city refused complete cooperation – apparently until the county is willing to disclose which commissioners are under scrutiny.
“It is my understanding that the City Manager’s office has notified you that they will not be scheduling those meetings and advised that all such requests should be directed to me or the CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz,” Whitfield said.
Antonio, a 25-year city employee who has been city manager for the past two years, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Whitfield or his replacement, Renee Crichton, who is working alongside Antonio until his departure and has assumed administrative duties, according to a city spokesman.
Special Agent Cates also could not be reached for comment.
Despite the letter, two city commission members told Broward Bulldog that they are willing to be interviewed if asked. Two others indicated they would not talk without consulting with the city attorney.
Commissioner Keith London said he does not understand the suggestion that city officials refrain from cooperating with investigators.
“I will go as quickly as I can. I have nothing to hide and look forward to speaking with the IG about (the) CRA and Hallandale’s mismanagement of fund,” he said. “I look forward to the final report and the arrest and conviction of people who mismanaged taxpayers’ money.”
The Inspector General is not conducting a criminal inquiry. It can, however, refer its findings to the State Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution.
Commissioner Dorothy Ross was not aware of the city attorney’s letter, but said she was willing to meet with county agents. “I’m of the opinion there is nothing to investigate; there is nothing wrong,” she said.
Commissioner Alexander Lewy was more cautious. “If they subpoena me, fine,” he said, adding that the county was “fishing for information.
Lewy said city staff has told him that most of the information the county has sought predates his election to the city commission in November 2010.
Vice Mayor Anthony Sanders took a similar stance. “I would check with (the city attorney) if asked for an interview,” he said.
Mayor Joy Cooper did not respond to a request for comment.
The CRA was created in 1996 with a 30-year mission to facilitate redevelopment in the city. But while it has spent millions in tax dollars over the years, critics complain the city has little to show for it.
Many of the issues faced by the city happened before Antonio and Jackson were in their current posts.
A number of controversial findings and actions regarding the city’s redevelopment agency have surfaced in the past year:
- An auditing firm reported in September that the CRA failed to properly track city land acquisitions totaling more than $28 million and loans to businesses exceeding $1.5 million. In March, auditors said the city also failed to provide them with $20 million in vendor contracts for review, limiting the scope of their audit report.
- The CRA acquired nine properties for $23.5 million during the past five years – taking them off the tax rolls – yet the city has enacted no plans for how to use eight of the parcels. The value of those properties has also fallen by $9.1 million.
- A local weekly newspaper that regularly features a column written by Cooper – and has touted her in front page puff pieces – received a $50,000 CRA loan in 2009 that only required the paper to repay half of that amount.