By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Thanks to Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee Miller’s generosity, former Vice Mayor Alexander Lewy collected a tidy gift of taxpayer cash after he quit the city commission last May before his term was finished.
To make it happen, Miller liberally interpreted a new and controversial city rule that commissioners’ enacted last year. The rule allows them to pocket thousands of unspent city dollars every year from their annual travel accounts.
“I made judgment calls,” Miller said when asked about the city’s $5,253 farewell payout to Lewy.
Miller said she decided Lewy was entitled to a payout even though he left his commission seat just seven months into the fiscal year. Likewise, she acknowledged hiking Lewy’s payout by raising his yearly travel account to $15,000. Commissioners’ standard travel budget per year is $10,000.
“I didn’t ask for it,” said Lewy, who quit to work for a lobbying group. He pointed out that he voted against allowing city commissioners to be paid for unused travel funds.
Lewy compared the travel fund payouts to other city benefits, like health insurance. “It’s not my fault that I benefited by it,” Lewy said. “I didn’t receive anything I didn’t deserve.”
Lewy said the commission authorized the increase to $15,000 as a way of providing additional funds for the mayor and commissioners who travel more on city business, but the approved resolution says each would receive $10,000 apiece. The city manager was also authorized to establish “an additional travel account” to cover such travel.
At the July 2013 meeting where the new travel policy vote was taken, Miller suggested $5,000 more for Mayor Joy Cooper plus an additional $5,000 for those traveling frequently on behalf of the city, according to city commission video.
In interviews, Commissioners Michele Lazarow and William Julian raised concerns about Miller’s payout to Lewy. Each said the city administration should have asked the commission’s approval before increasing a commissioner’s travel budget beyond $10,000.
“It was not voted up,” Lazarow said, adding the higher budget for Lewy “is a surprise.”
“It’s not right to get money if he leaves” before the end of the budget year, Julian said. He said the notion that anyone would leave early wasn’t contemplated when the policy was adopted.
Without consulting the commission, Miller said she decided to pay Lewy for unused travel on a prorated basis for the year. She also authorized $15,000 travel accounts for both Lewy and Cooper, who also voted against the travel payout policy, because they were tasked with attending numerous local, state and national conferences and meetings on the city’s behalf.
When Lewy quit he’d only spent $3,497 of the $10,000 in his city account. Miller, however, pro-rated his payout based on a $15,000 travel budget.
The city manager’s calculations allowed Lewy to receive nearly $3,000 more than he would have had his benefit been calculated using the standard $10,000 travel budget.
In 2012-2013, both Cooper and Lewy traveled extensively on the city’s behalf, each exceeding their $10,000 travel budget. The commission approved an extra $5,000 for both that year.
Records show that through Aug. 18, Cooper had spent $10,814 in travel. If she spends no more by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, she’ll be entitled to a payout of $4,186 from her $15,000 travel account. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Here is the comparable travel spending for the three commissioners who voted to approve the travel policy. The number in parentheses is the current amount each would be due after Sept. 30: William Julian, $277 ($9,723); Michele Lazarow, $2,333 ($7,667); Anthony Sanders, $3,844 ($6,156).
Commissioner Leo Grachow, appointed by the commission in May to fill Lewy’s seat, has a $5,000 travel account this year. He’s spent $76, and stands to collect $4,924 after Sept 30.