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 firstname.lastname@example.org