By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hollywood City Attorney Jeffrey Sheffel
Two Hollywood Planning and Development Review Board members have resigned after being warned by the city attorney of potential conflicts if they continued to serve while doing work for projects needing board approval.
Joseph B. Kaller an architect, and Gary Bloom, an engineer, stepped down after being informed by City Attorney Jeffrey Sheffel in a Jan. 23 email that they “have legal conflicts” because of their membership on the board.
Sheffel told Kaller and Bloom that it was not enough for the two to recuse themselves – as they have done in the past – from voting on matters in which their firms did work on behalf of projects.
“You must either resign you (sic) membership on the Board or cease to represent clients that come before the Board for approvals,” Sheffel said.
The two men quit a few days later.
Neither Kaller, who operates Joseph B. Kaller & Associates of Hollywood, nor Bloom, owner of Fort Lauderdale’s GBB Engineering, responded to phone calls seeking comment. Kaller’s term was to have expired at the end of June. Bloom’s term didn’t expire until June 30, 2016.
In an interview, Sheffel could not provide specific cases in which Kaller or Bloom had done work for clients who appeared before the board. He said, however, that there were several times when both refrained from voting on matters before board that makes final rulings on development projects and zoning issues.
“They have recused themselves,” Sheffel said, “both more than a couple of times, Kaller more so.”
Sheffel began researching conflict issues after being informed that Hollywood’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) had selected Kaller’s firm, in partnership with another group, for work on a proposed 300-vehicle public parking garage at 327 Nebraska St.
In February, the city agreed to sell the half-acre site, which previously housed a fire station, to the CRA for $1.7 million. The project is likely to come before the planning board for review and approval if the project goes forward, Sheffel said.
The city attorney’s opinion was based on prior rulings by the state Commission on Ethics, which were provided to Kaller and Bloom. A key ruling involved a 2011 case out of Vero Beach that held a conflict was created when a planning and zoning board member’s business did work for a client after the client’s matter had come before the board, regardless whether the board member worked on the issue for the client.
In the same case, the commission ruled that a board member should not serve if he has substantial private interests regarding a matter coming before the board and should also refrain from serving if he has employment or contractual agreements that would create a continuing or frequently reoccurring “conflict” with his public duties.
After stepping down, Kaller appeared before the planning and development board on February 13 seeking the board’s approval of a modification on plans for a previously approved townhouse project.
Kaller’s January 27 resignation letter “due to conflicts with the city’s ethics policy,” said it had been an “honor” to serve on the board.
Bloom, on the other hand, initially resisted Sheffel and suggested he ask the city commission to remove Kaller and he from their appointed positions.
“I think you should do some more research on the extent of this far reaching conclusion that you recently reached, since Joe and I have been serving on city board for the past 15 years without this issue being presented,” Bloom said in a Jan. 27 reply email. “You can then explain to the commission why for the past 15 years…we were allowed to serve and recuse ourselves when an item was presented that created a potential conflict arose.”
Sheffel fired back: “Just saying ‘it has always been done that way’ is no argument at all.” He added that if Bloom did not voluntarily resign he would ask the commission to remove him.
“I cannot allow the city to engage in a continuous ethical violation once it has been brought to my attention.”
A short time later, Bloom resigned.
The nine-member planning Board and the city administration have come under criticism recently for supporting a zoning exception for the controversial Ben Gamla Charter School to build a 300-student middle and senior high school in a traffic congested neighborhood across from city hall.
Neighborhood and civic groups objected to the approval. City Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the area where the school will be built, said the board and the city administration are pro development. “There are people on the board who endorse whatever staff recommends,” Hernandez has said.
“Pressure over the recent Ben Gamla approval, and the longstanding practice of these board members recusing themselves due to conflicts of interest finally came to a head,” said Nancy Fowler, secretary for the North Central Hollywood Civic Association.
By Dan Christensen,BrowardBulldog.org
Gov. Rick Scott
Before the Legislature convenes in Tallahassee next Tuesday, Coral Gables healthcare tycoon Miguel B. “Mike” Fernandez will host a Sunday afternoon BBQ with Gov. Rick Scott, his wife Ann, and key members of the governor’s campaign finance team.
Fernandez, dubbed “Florida’s newest billionaire” last year by Florida Trend, was named finance co-chair for Scott’s campaign in January. In the announcement, the governor called Fernandez a “close friend.”
But Fernandez, chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners, is more than Scott’s friend. He’s also a huge contributor to his re-election campaign and the owner or co-owner of fast-growing healthcare companies that under Scott’s administration have been awarded multiple, multi-year state contracts potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Most of those lucrative contracts involve Florida Medicaid, which is implementing managed care changes, including the Managed Medical Assistance program. The program is expected to begin in May.
Better Health Plan, which does business as Simply Better Health and is an affiliate of Fernandez’s $450 million Simply Healthcare Plans, won contracts from Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) last year to provide general services in three of Florida’s 11 Medicaid managed care regions, including Broward County.
Clear Health Alliance, a Medicaid plan offered by Simply Healthcare Plans, was awarded AHCA contracts to provide “specialty” services to Medicaid patients who are HIV positive or have been diagnosed with AIDS.
The Florida Times-Union first reported Fernandez’s ties to Better Health and Clear Alliance in January after Scott appointed Fernandez to his campaign team.
AHCA disclaimed any partiality in contract awards in a statement released by agency spokeswoman Shelisha Coleman.
“Every company that won an award in SMMC (Statewide Medicaid Managed Care program) rightfully earned its award. No companies received an award as a result of favoritism. The agency followed Florida’s strict procurement laws…in letter and in spirit at all times.’
Fernandez, reached Tuesday via email, said, “Companies in which I have invested in have Medicaid contracts, totaling in the billions since 1990. This includes contracts with the State of Florida under the leadership of multiple governors, including a contract under Governor Crist. All contracts save the state much needed funds and improved care to our patients.”
In October 2012, BrowardBulldog.org reported that Fernandez was a silent partner in a $44.8 million contract awarded by Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) to manage mental health services in Broward.
The multi-year department contract went to the Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, a nonprofit led by former DCF boss and state attorney general Bob Butterworth, and its for-profit partner, Concordia Behavioral Health of Miami.
Fernandez was a major Concordia shareholder. His name was disclosed to top department officials, but was omitted from DCF records about the procurement.
Fernandez’s invisibility regarding the Broward procurement meant that no one took note of his $125,000 contribution to Let’s Get to Work, a fundraising organization set up with the governor’s support, on Jan. 25, 2012 while the procurement was pending.
Previously, during Scott’s 2010 campaign, Fernandez and his MBF Family Investments gave Let’s Get to Work $500,000.
Asked about those large contributions in 2012, Katy Sorenson, head of the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami, said, “It sounds like maybe Gov. Scott is running Florida like a business – doing business with his friends.”
Fernandez’s money continues to gush the governor’s way.
On November 2, 2013, as the governor’s re-election campaign was stirring, Fernandez personally gave $1 million to Let’s Get to Work. No one else has written a check that large in support of Scott’s re-election.
Little River Plantation home
Sunday’s get-together at Fernandez’s opulent Little River Plantation, not far from Tallahassee, is a by invitation only event. The public is not invited.
Miami Herald political reporter Marc Caputo recently obtained a copy of the invitation and accompanying email:
“As an important member of Governor Rick Scott’s finance team, Mike Fernandez is opening his home to you. He is not a public person and believes we need to meet each other in person and in a social setting…Nothing formal (casual jeans and casual setting.) We will chat, have BBQ and see beautiful horses…We need to come together so we can deliver victory together,” the email said.
Little River Plantation features a 7,000 square foot home with six bedrooms, seven baths, a full gourmet kitchen and a great room, according to its web site. There’s a smaller lake house nearby.
“Your every whim will be coddled within the walls of our fabulous homes away from home,” prospective guests are told.
UPDATE: FEB. 21 — With anxious residents watching at city hall and at home on computers and cable television, Oakland Park has put off for two weeks a decision on whether to approve a controversial psychiatric and drug rehabilitation hospital. The reason: Wednesday night’s hearing ran too late to finish the hearing.
About 40 persons spoke for and against the project.
Resident and former Mayor Steven Arnst was critical of a letter sent to the city by a West Palm Beach lawyer for the developer instructing commissioners on their “duty” to grant Palm Partners’ application and warned that they faced a possible discrimination lawsuit if they did not. Arnst called it a “threat.”
Fort Lauderdale lawyer Wilson Atkinson, who represents another rehab facility, Fort Lauderdale Hospital, informed commissioners that Palm Partners does not have a Florida Agency for Health Care Administration license needed to operate a 300-bed psychiatric/behavioral health hospital.
Atkinson said that should the city approve the project, and Palm Partners is unable to obtain such a license, the city would be stuck with a facility that would operate under less stringent Department of Children and Families regulations for residential treatment facilities. Those facilities allow patients to freely come and go outside specific treatment hours — a nightmare scenario for residents and one that Palm Partners has said it would not allow.
The five-member city commission will pick up the quasi-judicial hearing regarding the proposal to open the North Ridge Behavioral Health Center on March 5.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Revised plans for a controversial psychiatric/behavioral health hospital on the site of the old North Ridge Medical Center in Oakland Park are to be presented to the city commission Wednesday before a final up or down vote.
The changes, including additional fencing and assurances that it would not admit convicted sexual offenders to its residential treatment programs, were made to satisfy the concerns of nearby residents.
If approved, the proposal by Palm Partners LLC promises to reinvigorate a working hospital facility vacant since its purchase and closure by nonprofit Holy Cross Hospital in 2008. It would also create 300 new jobs and return the property to the tax rolls, promising “a significant increase in revenues to the city,” according to the proposal.
Today, Palm Partners operates a small, upscale drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Delray Beach. Its plan for a much larger, 300-bed facility to be known as the North Ridge Behavioral Health Center has provoked a strong negative reaction from wary residents in Oakland Park’s North Andrews Gardens neighborhood.
City Hall, located at 3650 NE 12th Avenue, is bracing for a crowd at Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. public hearing.
“We are expecting a lot of people,” said Kristen Nowicki, an Oakland Park senior planner.
Two elementary schools and a high school are in the neighborhood. Several parents said in interviews that they fear their children will not be safe.
Opposition to the psychiatric facility has also come from the Broward School Board, which recently notified the city of its concern about “spillover effects” from the proposed psychiatric facility on nearby Northeast High School.
“The district’s position is that the proposed project is incompatible with the school,” said a letter from the School Board’s growth monitoring unit.
Last month, the city’s five-member planning and zoning board unanimously recommended the commission deny Palm Partner’s application to the city for its approval. If the city commission votes no, Palm Partners, owned by company chief executive Peter A. Harrigan, would have to go to court in an attempt to make the project happen.
Palm Partners signed a contract last year to purchase the 11-acre site on North Dixie Highway, between Northeast 56th and 58th streets, from Holy Cross Hospital for an undisclosed sum.
The company has said it hopes to operate an inpatient detoxification and rehab facility that will cater to a well-heeled class of psychiatric patient. The hospital would also treat other maladies such as eating disorders and sleep apnea.
“Our facilities and services fill a significant gap in our society, providing much-needed help to those suffering with addiction and behavioral health. These illnesses are life threatening and tear families apart. Our facilities provide a foundation for recovery,” Harrigan said in a statement on Monday.
“We often hear that people know someone who needed help, including family, but were unsure what to do. Education is key and we will work with the neighboring high school and other community organizations to provide educational and outreach programs. We are here to help, and I will work hard every day to ensure this hospital is a community partner that the City of Oakland Park can be proud of,” Harrigan said.
Palm Partners has told city officials it will not accept Medicaid patients, Baker Act patients, other indigent care patients or walk-ins. All patients will pay through private insurance, third-party reimbursement or cash.
In an interview, Harrigan said most patients would stay 30-90 days. The cost of a 30-day stay would be $24,500, he said.
Harrigan has sought to assure neighbors that the hospital intends to make sure that its patients pose no threat to local residents.
“I appreciate the neighbors’ concerns and share in the need to keep our communities safe. Safety is paramount to our mission,” Harrigan said in Monday’s statement. “We have operated in Florida for 20 years and have never had a security incident involving the surrounding neighborhood.
“Our plans to invest $20 million to restore this facility, which has been vacant since 2008, will serve as a catalyst for economic growth, drawing businesses back to the area and creating thousands of jobs for the City of Oakland Park. Our investment will restore the hospital into a leading, cutting-edge facility, which will provide substantial tax revenue to the City.”
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
After a bitter, 16-year fight with the Justice Department, Deerfield Beach pump maker MWI scored a big victory last week with a federal judge’s ruling that the company isn’t liable for any damages for its violations of the False Claims Act.
The reason: The government didn’t lose a penny on tens of millions of dollars in federal loans to Nigeria used to purchase irrigation pumps from MWI.
Attorneys for the Justice Department had at one point sought damages totaling $222.9 million – an amount that would have shut the company down and thrown approximately 130 employees out of work, according to an MWI attorney.
“The ruling is important not just for MWI and the fact that it will enable the company to stay in business and its employees to keep their jobs, but it shows the hubris of the government in pursuing these cases,” said District of Columbia attorney Robert T. Rhoad.
“The government pursued this case for 16 years, devoting an extraordinary amount of resources, when it knew the government hadn’t been harmed by any damages.”
NO DAMAGES, BUT CIVIL PENALTIES
Still, Judge Gladys Kessler of Washington, D.C. said MWI, short for Moving Water Industries, caused other harm and assessed $580,000 in civil penalties against the company. In November, a jury determined MWI had filed 58 false claims in paperwork submitted to secure a series of loans from the U.S. Export-Import Bank to finance its 1992 sale of irrigation pumps and other equipment to Nigeria.
“Despite the fraudulent actions taken by MWI to persuade the government to make these loans, they were in fact paid back in full with interest and fees,” Judge Kessler wrote in her 33-page order of February 10. “The government has been made completely whole.”
Former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Gage Skidmore
The government’s long-running civil action against MWI, one of Broward’s oldest companies founded in 1926 and still run by members of the Eller family, was the focus of media attention last year when former Gov. Jeb Bush was on the government’s witness list. Bush, a former business partner of MWI’s now retired chief executive/president David Eller, traveled to Africa twice while his father was in the White House to promote MWI.
Justice Department lawyers wanted to question Bush about his compensation. Bush, however, was not involved in the deal in question and Judge Kessler excluded him after deciding his testimony would be irrelevant.
Compensation paid by MWI to a Nigerian sales agent, Alhaji Mohammed Indimi, was a focal point of the trial.
The case began in 1998 when a former MWI employee named Robert Purcell filed a whistleblower clam alleging the company paid commissions in excess of 30 percent of the contract price to Indimi.
The total sale price was $82.2 million. The Export-Import Bank loaned Nigeria $74.3 million to finance the deal. Indimi was paid about $25 million.
Purcell, who stands to collect a cut of any damages, asserted that those commissions should have been disclosed on “credit supplier’s certificates” filed by MWI with the Export-Import Bank. The jury ultimately determined MWI did not disclosed the commissions.
CRIMINAL PROBE WENT NOWHERE
The Justice Department initially conducted a criminal investigation, but found insufficient evidence to charge MWI or any of its officials with a crime. Instead, in 2002, it intervened on Purcell’s side in his False Claims Act case.
After years of little action, the case went to trial on November 6. The government argued its damages were the full amount of the loan, or $74.3 million. Three weeks later, however, the jury found MWI knowingly made 58 specific false claims and set the government’s damages at $7.5 million.
False Claims Act violators are liable for three times the amount of actual damages, or in this case $22.5 million. But the judge decided that MWI was entitled to an offset of $108 million – or $74.3 million in principal plus $33.7 million in interest and fees – paid to the Export-Import Bank for monies received from Nigeria as repayment of the loans.
“Thus, MWI owes nothing in damages,” Judge Kessler said.
Kessler went on to decide that MWI should pay the maximum civil penalty of $10,000 for each false claim. She justified that after finding evidence that then MWI President David Eller “had actual knowledge” that Indimi’s commissions “should have been disclosed.”
While Eller repeatedly told the court that MWI “would never have done anything wrong,” MWI employees testified that “Eller personally approved every commission MWI paid, including Indimi’s…Moreover, Eller testified that MWI never paid any other agent on any other combined project a total commission of more than $5 million,” the judge’s order says.
The judge also quoted the testimony of Juan Ponce, an MWI vice president of international sales, whom she called “a credible witness,” as evidence that MWI “deliberately withheld information about Indimi’s commissions from Ex-Im in order to acquire financing.”
“We knew that we were violating…the rules. We just hoped that we would never get caught,” Ponce said.
Kessler observed, “The harm to the government was more than monetary – it went to the integrity and purposes of the Ex-Im’s programmatic goals. Given that approximately a third of the total loan amount went to a single Nigerian individual, the goal of the Ex-Im to finance loans that primarily benefit U.S. exporters and workers was not achieved.”
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
A government ethics bill introduced in the Florida Senate would for the first time require lobbyists before many large independent special districts to register and disclose their clients, areas of interest and general compensation.
If enacted, the sweeping new registration requirements would apply to every independent special district across Florida that levies property taxes – from water management and hospital districts to children’s services councils and improvement districts.
Florida has 136 independent districts, many run by unelected boards that impose ad valorem taxes on homeowners and businesses, according to data from the Department of Revenue. Not all exercise that power, but in 2011 those that did levied more than $1.82 billion in property taxes.
The three independent special districts that collect the most property tax dollars are the South Florida Water Management District, North Broward Hospital District and the Health Care District of Palm Beach.
Senate Bill 846, filed last week by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, was filed less than a month after BrowardBulldog.org reported how Florida independent special districts that raise and spend billions of dollars in public funds every year do not require lobbyists to register or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.
The bill seeks to impose on independent special districts the same registration and reporting requirements now faced by lobbyists at the Executive Branch. Those requirements include annual registration before lobbying can commence, the filing of quarterly compensation reports and a ban on expenditures.
Latvala’s committee has scheduled the bill for an initial hearing on Feb. 17.
“Generally, it would be fair to characterize Integrity Florida’s first look at Senate Bill 846 as containing several solutions that would strengthen ethics laws in Florida,” said Integrity Florida’s executive director, Dan Krassner. “We look forward to hearing more about it at the hearing.”
In addition to expanding Florida’s lobbying regulations, the bill would also:
- Require elected municipal officers across the state to participate in annual ethics training and certify to that participation on their annual financial disclosure forms.
- Apply Florida’s Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees regarding gifts and conflicts of interest to officials and members of the boards of Enterprise Florida, Space Florida, the Florida Development Finance Corp. and the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corp.
- Establish revolving door prohibitions that would bar departing public officials at those entities, and Citizens Property Insurance Corp., from returning to lobby within two years.
- Authorize Florida’s Commission on Ethics to initiate investigations and public hearings regarding any failures to file a full annual financial disclosure form. If violations are found to be “willful,” the commission would have to recommend an official’s removal from public office.
- Toughen the collection of unpaid ethics fines. Government employers would be authorized to withhold the entire amount of an ethics fine, plus related costs, from a violator’s paycheck, unless hardship could be proven. The ethics commission would be allowed to seek wage garnishment from private employers, and refer unpaid fines to a collection agency.
The bill has the support of Senate President Don Gaetz. If passed and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, it would take effect July 1.
The measure marks a second round for ethics reform that began last year. That legislation gave the ethics commission the power to investigate complaints referred by law enforcement and the governor, and allowed public officials to put their personal assets into what the law calls “blind trusts” to avoid conflicts of interest.
Florida’s independent special districts provide dozens of specialized governmental services such as ports, airports, mosquito control, community development, water management and public hospitals. They outnumber Florida’s counties, cities, towns and villages by more than two to one, yet operate largely in the shadow of their better-known municipal counterparts.
In all, there are nearly 1,000 independent special districts in Florida. Collectively, they spend in excess of $10 billion every year. Many, however, are so small they never encounter a lobbyist seeking to influence a contract or policy.
Under Latvala’s 26-page bill, lobbyist regulation requirements would be confined to independent taxing districts. Hundreds of small districts, many with budgets of less than $10 million a year, that use bonds or assessments to raise revenues won’t be included in the new rules.
Some big budget operations are also are not covered by Latvala’s bill. For example, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, the independent special district that runs Tampa International Airport, also does not levy ad valorem taxes.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Ex-Congressman Peter Deutsch
Five weeks after receiving approval for a middle-senior high school in Hollywood, Ben Gamla charter school officials are exploring “substantive” changes to the project, sparking renewed controversy.
Officials for area civic and residential groups who oppose the project say they are stunned that the school wants to add another floor so soon after the city Planning and Development Board ‘s Dec. 19 approval of a zoning exception allowing a two-story, 34,000 square foot facility for 600 students on Van Buren Street near City Hall.
The proposed changes, opponents say, demonstrate that Ben Gamla officials are not satisfied with the recent agreement and now want a bigger impact in the area. They want city officials to hold the school to the recently approved agreement.
“I can’t believe that in a little over a month he’s back,” said Nancy Fowler, secretary for the North Central Hollywood Civic Association, referring to school founder and former U.S. Representative Peter Deutsch.
“He’s got chutzpah,” Fowler said. “Now he’s come back to take green space on the roof to make a third story. Once you build it can be converted later.”
“If they enclose the third floor they can redo it [later] for classes,” added Shirley Stealey, secretary-treasurer for the Highland Gardens Civic Association. “We are concerned and upset.”
City Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the area and opposed the project, said, “I’m not surprised; they want more.”
Hernandez and unhappy neighborhood groups fought the project saying, among other things, that traffic is already congested in the area due to the existing Ben Gamla K-8 school, across from the proposed new school.
Word of the possible change in plans spread after a Jan. 28 meeting between Deutsch and his lawyer, former Hollywood City Attorney Alan Koslow, with city planning officials.
City spokeswoman Raelin Storey said Ben Gamla officials had asked for the meeting to discuss the project.
The Ben Gamla middle-high school project as approved with green space on the roof. New plans would replace the green space
“We didn’t expect these types of changes,” she said.
Deutsch and Koslow informed the city the school was exploring enclosing the third floor rooftop – designed previously as green space — for gymnasium complex, and proposed to use a lot to the south of the building site for additional parking.
These are “substantive changes” that would require additional approval by the planning board, Storey said. The board’s previous approval included 29 conditions, most dealing with traffic, the school agreed to implement in order to gain the zoning exception.
Ben Gamla did not present a formal application regarding the changes, but the day after the meeting conceptual renderings for the third floor enclosure – a main gymnasium, a second smaller gym, a weightlifting area, and locker rooms – were delivered to the city, Storey said.
The top floor addition would be approximately 15,000 square feet, bringing the size of the entire structure to around 49,000 square feet. That’s about the same size of Ben Gamla’s initial plan for a school to accommodate 1,050 students.
City planning director Jaye Epstein did not return a call seeking comment.
Deutsch, an expatriate now living in Israel, and Koslow did not respond to requests for comment. City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark also did not return calls for comment.
Residents were critical of the city amid the renewed flap about the project, which is a partnership between Ben Gamla and the Doral Academy, a Miami-Dade based charter school in Doral.
Fowler, of the North Central Hollywood Civic Association, called the city’s planning and development process “favorable to development.”
Helen Chervin, of United Neighbors Civic Association of South Hollywood, said the city’s interests in a project of this magnitude and controversy should not be represented principally by the planning department.
“ The city manager (Swanson-Rivenbark) should be handling this,” said Chervin, who predicted Ben Gamla will likely get “what it wants.”
Hollywood’s planning process for approving zoning exceptions does not directly involve city commissioners. For example, Ben Gamla’s exception was approved by the planning board on Dec. 19, but wasn’t reviewed later by the city commission because only one commissioner, Hernandez, sought a review. Three commissioners must request a review.
UPDATE: FEB. 5 – The Broward County Commission has directed the county administrator to prepare a cost analysis and implementation plan to create an on-line, video archive of commission meetings.
Commissioner Lois Wexler asked her fellow commissioners to act after County Administrator Bertha Henry failed to present her own plan, which Wexler asked for last month. Wexler originally asked Henry to study the issue on Oct. 8, with a Dec. 15 due date, records show.
Wexler doesn’t know why the county administrator did not follow through. “There may be an inherent resistance…to make this type of…meeting information immediately accessible to the public,” Wexler said in an interview Wednesday.
The resolution, adopted unanimously on Tuesday, calls for the plan be submitted to the commission within 60 days. Wexler said she will take the matter to the commission again if Henry fails to meet that deadline.
Wexler described the video on-demand issue as “small potatoes” compared to most matters the commissioners’ tackle. Video on-demand, however, “is a signal to the public that we are accessible and hiding nothing,” she said.
While frustrated by what she believes is Henry’s foot dragging, Wexler continues to support Henry as the county administrator. “The majority of my colleagues are very fond of her,” Wexler said. “I like Bertha very much… (Her) contract is solid…(But) I’m disappointed in the lack of leadership (on this issue).”
BrowardBulldog.org reported in October that Broward is the only county in Southeast Florida and the only major local government in Broward County that does not archive its recorded commission meetings for later on-demand viewing by the public. – William Hladky
By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org
The Broward County Commission. Lois Wexler is second from right. Chip LaMarca is at the far left.
Jan. 13 – Frustrated with what she perceives to be foot-dragging, Broward County Commissioner Lois Wexler has told County Administrator Bertha Henry to present a plan soon on how to make video recordings of prior commission meetings available to the public on demand through the county’s web site.
Wexler said in an interview that she told Henry last week that if Henry fails to present a plan in a couple of weeks, Wexler would bypass her and bring the issue directly to her fellow commissioners for discussion and action.
Wexler’s frustration boiled after last Tuesday’s commission meeting when video-on-demand was unexpectedly and briefly discussed following a staff presentation about a new, web-based tool called Civic Engagement intended to promote public participation. Video on demand of commission meetings was not part of Civic Engagement.
Commissioner Chip LaMarca said he had received “some calls and requests” asking about archiving videos of commission meetings on the county’s web site for on-demand use.
Wexler, too, expressed support for such a system. “It is something I’ve been following up the last…three months,” Wexler told the commission. “We are one of the last counties (or) cities in Broward to be able to go to our web site (to get on demand meeting videos).”
She reminded Henry she previously requested a feasibility study “and I’m still waiting for some kind of response.”
County Administrator Bertha Henry
Records show Wexler asked Henry to study the issue on Oct. 8. Although the “due date” was Dec. 15, the study had yet to be submitted.
Henry told the commission that “at some point we will bring back to you a plan for that but I really wanted to get (Civic Engagement and other) initiatives off our plate.” Henry added that archiving on-line commission meetings would “take a lot of resources” and would require ongoing staff resources.
After the commission meeting, Henry met with Wexler in the commissioner’s office. There, Wexler told Henry what she wanted.
BrowardBulldog.org reported in October that Broward is the only county in Southeast Florida and the only major local government in Broward County that does not archive its recorded commission meetings for later on-demand viewing by the public.
Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe counties, the Broward School Board, and 18 of 31 Broward cities – including Fort Lauderdale – provide on demand video or audio web viewing. Only Broward’s smaller municipalities lack this service. More than 85 percent of Broward’s population resides in cities that offer this on demand web service of commission or council meetings.
“I know when government drags its feet,” Wexler said in an interview. “I’m going to give it a couple of weeks and if (Henry’s proposal is not forthcoming) I’m going to put an agenda item on the dais…There is no reason why we can’t do it…This is something I really would like to see for transparency.”
Five commissioners, including LaMarca and Wexler, have indicated they support archiving videos of commission meetings and allowing on-demand web access.
In an interview, Commissioner Martin David Kiar said, “A lot of people are not at home at 10 a.m (when meetings start).…I really believe it is better for the public…to view it online any time they want.”
Commissioner Tim Ryan said, “I’m with Wexler to get it done.”
John Beckford, chief of staff to Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness, told a reporter his boss supports video on demand. “It is safe to say if the video on demand can be implemented at a reasonable cost, it is something the county should provide,” Beckford said.
LaMarca said he does not know why a county as large as Broward, with a $4 billion budget, “doesn’t have on demand TV…It is something we should be working on,” he said.
Commissioners Kristin Jacobs, Stacy Ritter and Sue Gunzberger and county Mayor Barbara Sharief did not respond to requests for comment. Ritter’s office said she was out-of-town.
Wexler dismissed the notion that setting up video on demand would be too costly.
BrowardBulldog.org reported in October that Fort Lauderdale pays Granicus, a California corporation, $2,290 a month to operate the city’s online video system. Granicus started managing the city’s system in 2012. The city’s startup cost with Granicus was $27,825.
The Broward School Board’s on-demand video system cost $12,485 to operate this year.
Henry told the commission that video copies of commission meetings are available. “We can provide it, at any time.”
Those who want a video copy of a Broward County Commission meeting must file a public records request. A DVD copy can be retrieved at county hall in downtown Fort Lauderdale or mailed. The cost is $8, plus postage if mailed.
The Broward County Commission broadcasts live regular meeting and public hearings on its web page and on cable television. The meetings are re-webcast and most of the time re-broadcast on cable once at 5:30 p.m. the Friday following the meetings.
Administrator Henry did not respond to a request for comment.
By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward Commissioner Chip LaMarca, left, and challenger Ken Keechl
Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca and former Commissioner Ken Keechl approach their upcoming race for the commission like a child approaches the first day of school — with anxiety and trepidation.
Both fear a re-run of their slash-and-burn campaign of four years ago when the upstart LaMarca, a Republican, toppled Keechl, a Democrat, from his District 4 commission seat. Now Keechl wants the seat back.
The two spent a combined $763,106 during the 2010 campaign as they tried to drown their opponent in a flood of negative ads. A third candidate, Chris Chiari, spent roughly $65,000, mostly his own money and was not considered by either LaMarca or Keechl a serious challenger.
LaMarca blasted Keechl in a mailed ad emblazoned with a newspaper headline reading: “FBI Arrests Broward County Public Officials.” Keechl was attacked for his role as a “Ponzi scheme attorney” for having a client who was later found to be operating a fraud.
Keechl branded LaMarca a “criminal” for his drunk driving arrest in college and for being the target of an investigation into a political complaint by the State Attorney’s Office while he was a Lighthouse Point city commissioner. The probe ended without charges.
“I don’t want it to happen again. It wasn’t right. I feel sorry for my wife. She didn’t like the person they painted me to be,” LaMarca said.
“I anticipate he will come after me,” Keechl said. “He has surrounded himself with people who play hardball politics, people who believe politics is a contact sport.”
NEGATIVE ADS EXPECTED
Negative advertising could be expected in races like the county commission, according to Jim Kane, an adjunct political science professor at the University of Florida who has both held office and worked as a lobbyist in Broward during the past four decades.
“They are used because they work, especially in down-ballot races like county commission where many voters have little knowledge of the candidates. They are a way to define a candidate before the voter has any way to define the candidate themselves,” said Kane, a contributor to Browardbeat.com, a political website owned by the author of this story.
On Tuesday, a third candidate entered the District 4 race. Ben Lap is best known as a Democratic fundraiser, but neither LaMarca nor Keechl consider him a major factor at this point.
As of Dec. 31, 2013, incumbent LaMarca had more than triple the money to run ads than challenger Keechl. Including personal loans and in-kind contributions, LaMarca had $131,343 compared to $41,773 for Keechl.
That’s a stark reversal from the race four years ago when Keechl was the incumbent. He raised $614,801 that year, compared to LaMarca’s $148,305.
“Incumbents get more money because they have a vote on the commission,” Kane said.
Keechl isn’t worried about lagging in contributions.
“I am fortunate that I can always put in my own money,” he said.
Keechl contributed roughly $180,000 to his victorious commission campaign in 2006, when he was the challenger. He spent only $500 of his own money in 2010, when he was an incumbent. For an open seat in 2012 in a different commission district, Keechl spent about $1,500 of his own money on a losing campaign in a race where there was no incumbent.
“An incumbent always has access to a lot more money. I will have six figures to spend in this race and will be competitive,” Keechl said.
KEECHL AND BAIL BOND INDUSTRY
While most of those doing business with the county and their lobbyists are funneling money to incumbent LaMarca, Keechl is getting help from one special interest – the bail bonds industry.
Keechl’s connections include Wayne Spath, the president of Brandy Bail Bonds in downtown Fort Lauderdale and a long-time leader in Broward’s bail bonds industry.
The bail bonds industry has been a major supporter of Keechl since January 2009, when he backed a move by the County Commission that curtailed the county’s pre-trial release program.
Although the vote was 7-2, Keechl was an influential voice on the subject because he is an attorney and because of his membership on the Broward Public Safety Coordinating Council. The result of cutting back the county’s pre-trial release program meant a larger number of defendants are held in jail to await trial and must use bail bonds to be released.
Spath’s $500 donation was the first contribution to Keechl’s current campaign. Spath also held a fundraiser for Keechl in September.
In an e-mailed invitation addressed “Dear Colleague,” Spath wrote members of the bail bond industry to say, “I had the opportunity of working with Ken on the Public Safety Coordinating Council on jail overcrowding along with other issues. Ken understands the criminal justice system and we need your help in order to get Ken elected on the Broward County Commission.”
In an interview, Spath denied his support for Keechl hinged on his past vote, although he said he had a problem with the way the pre-trial detention program was being operated before it was changed by the County Commission with the help of Keechl.
“People were getting out (of jail) who had no business getting out,” Spath said.
Keechl reported $7,225 in contributions the day after the fundraiser. To date, he has received $2,100 from contributors who identify themselves as part of the bail bonds industry.
Keechl described the bail bonds industry as “friends,” but LaMarca has another take on the contributions.
“He supported an issue that the bail bondsmen wanted,” LaMarca said. “That is the only reason they have supported him now.”
LAMARCA AND BUSINESS LOBBYISTS
LaMarca refused to comment on his own contributors, who include dozens of people who do business at the county. They include lobbyists Stephanie Toothaker, Robert Lochrie III and John Milledge; groups like the Broward Builders Political Action Committee; and companies like Weekley Asphalt.
As if to highlight that contributions to the GOP commissioner are about business rather than partisan politics, several of his contributions come from lobbyists with weighty Democratic credentials – former College Democrats of America national president Bernie Friedman and former Broward Democratic Chair George Platt.
Lobbyists George Platt, left, and Bernie Friedman
Besides District 4, three other seats on the county commission are also being contested this year.
The qualifying period for candidates in each of those contests is from noon June 16 to noon June 20.
District 4, which was redrawn since the 2010 election when LaMarca won, contains roughly 8 percent more registered Democrats than Republicans in the district. The Democratic majority offsets the removal from the district of Wilton Manors, home to many gays, which could have hurt the openly-gay Keechl.
Keechl lives in Wilton Manors, but said he’s planning to move to a new location within District 4’s new boundaries.
It may appear that Democrat Keechl has a big advantage, but that’s not necessarily the way it will work out. Democrats tend to vote in lower numbers than Republicans.
Political science studies have “shown that Republicans are more likely to turn out and are more likely to stick with their party’s nominee, especially in down-ballot races where they know little else about the candidate other than the party label,” said Kane, the University of Florida professor. “Any down-ballot race where the advantage for Democrats is less than 10 percent, generally speaking, is competitive.”
BROWARD OVERWHELMINGLY DEMOCRATIC
Kane’s analysis reflects why the District 4 race, where Democrats have less of an advantage than in any of the eight other Broward commission districts, is shaping up to be the only real contest in the Nov. 4 general election. The reason: the county is so overwhelmingly Democratic that District 4 in northeastern Broward is the only place where there are enough Republicans in upper-income neighborhoods along the beachfront to comprise a voting bloc.
In contrast, this year’s races for a trio of other commission seats heavily favor Democrats, and are expected to be decided in the Aug. 26 primary.
Three candidates have announced so far for District 2, now held by term-limited Commissioner Kristin Jacobs. They are: Coconut Creek City Commissioner Lisa Kohner Aronson, lawyer Mark D. Bogen and former Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Charlotte Elizabeth Rodstrom.
In that North Broward district, Democrats hold a 31 percent advantage, so most political observers believe the race will be decided in the primary.
District 6, where Commissioner Sue Gunzburger is also being forced out by term limits, the announced candidates are former Hollywood City Commissioner Quentin “Beam” Furr and State Rep. Joseph “Joe” Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach. Democrats have a 32 percent advantage over Republicans in the southeast Broward district.
Democrats’ advantage is even higher in District 8 – which stretches from Miramar and Pembroke Pines to West Park and western Hallandale Beach along Broward County’s southern border – where there are 38 percent more registered Democrats than Republicans.
The two announced candidates, both Democrats, are incumbent Barbara Sharief, who now has the title of county mayor, and Alexandra P. Davis, a West park city commissioner.
Meanwhile, despite their concerns, the District 4 race between LaMarca and Keechl is moving towards a negative campaign.
Keechl vowed to “tell voters who their county commissioner is.”
In turn, LaMarca said he will “not sit back” quietly and “let him pound me.”
Said Kane said, “One person’s ‘defining their opponent’ is another person’s negative advertising.”
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
A new report sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse has determined that a heroin epidemic is underway in South Florida.
“The key issue identified in 2013 is the outbreak of a heroin epidemic in South Florida and particularly in Miami-Dade County,” says the report on local drug-abuse patterns and trends presented last week to NIDA’s Community Epidemiology Work Group.
“Heroin indicators which historically have been at relatively low levels compared to other drugs of abuse in South Florida rose sharply since the last reporting period.”
In Broward, where the misuse of prescription painkillers has declined yet remains high, “heroin and/or prescription opioids constitute an opiate epidemic,” the report says.
Heroin-related deaths in Miami-Dade jumped from 15 to 33, or 120 percent, between 2011 and 2012. During the same period in Broward, heroin deaths tripled from three to nine.
Medical examiner death statistics won’t be available for 2013 until next summer, but are expected to show further increases, according to report author James N. Hall, a drug abuse epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University’s Center for Applied Research on Substance Abuse and Health Disparities.
The grim upswing in heroin deaths has occurred elsewhere in Florida, where the report says year-to-year statewide fatalities increased from 62 to 117, or 89 percent. Hall said other “hot spots” for heroin use in Florida are Orlando, Jacksonville and Sarasota.
While deaths linked to cocaine, oxycodone and certain other addictive drugs continue to eclipse those caused by heroin, evidence of its swift spread is the basis for the conclusion that an epidemic has begun.
“It’s the rapid escalation that’s disturbing,” said Hall. “This is the mother of all addictions, related to so much destruction and so many serious consequences, particularly death, most of which are preventable. To declare it an epidemic is a public health responsibility.”
A chart of heroin deaths in Florida since 2000 presents a roller-coaster effect, with deaths peaking early then declining sharply as misused pain medications became available at pill mills and elsewhere. The sources of those numbers are reports from the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.
Heroin’s surge was noticed last year in the wake of monitoring efforts following the state’s pill mill crackdown in 2011. One important change is the steady decline in deaths involving prescription opiates, notably oxycodone and its extended-release form, oxycontin.
Florida’s pill crackdown choked off supply and pushed up prices. But it may have had an unintended consequence as Mexican drug lords began flooding South Florida and other areas across the country with higher potency Mexican white heroin, Hall said.
The abundance of product has been accompanied by plummeting prices, which have dropped by nearly half since 2010.
“Heroin sells for as low as $10 for a little baggie, depending on how pure it is,” said Hall. “The target population is 18 to 29.”
Of special concern to researchers is the increased use of injections by young drug users who were children when the public learned about the high risk of infected syringes. Hall said 55 percent of those seeking treatment in Broward for being hooked on prescription painkillers reported their “preferred route of administration” was injection.
As a result, “a public health threat of increased HIV and Hepatitis C transmission is already occurring,” said a workgroup report issued last autumn.
TREATMENT ADMISSIONS JUMP
Deaths aren’t the only indicators measured by researchers.
The Florida Department of Children and Families tracks treatment admissions by primary drug for those seeking help at publicly funded facilities. In Miami-Dade, the number of persons admitted for heroin treatment more than doubled – 161 to 386 – between January 2012 and June 2013.
“Primary treatment admissions for heroin increased from four percent of all admissions in 2012 to eight percent in the first half of 2013 in Miami-Dade County, while remaining at five percent of all Broward admissions in both years,” according to the latest workgroup report.
Further, area crime labs reported a 13 percent increase in heroin detected in items analyzed during the same period.
Increasing or already high levels of heroin addiction were at the top of drug issues cited by researchers in 17 to 20 population centers across the country, including Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Texas, Seattle and San Diego.
Epidemiology Specialist Carol Falkowski is Hall’s workgroup counterpart in Minneapolis/St. Paul. She said a heroin epidemic is underway there, too.
“Heroin is more affordable than painkillers, produces the same effect and is sometimes just as available if not more available,” said Falkowski. “The growing presence of heroin in the U.S. now is akin to what the spread of cocaine was in the country in the 1980s.”
Hall sees things similarly from his vantage point in South Florida.
“I think it’s accurate to say that there are new heroin epidemics breaking out all over the U.S.,” he said.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, has yet to release the latest heroin findings. But Hall, former longtime executive director of the Up Front Drug Information and Education Center in Miami, said those aware of the latest findings about heroin’s re-emergence have a uniform reaction.
“The reaction is, ‘Holy mackerel, this is really getting out of hand,’” said Hall.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Senate President Don Gaetz, right, and Sen. Jack Latvala, chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee
Key lawmakers in Tallahassee say they will introduce reform legislation this session to require lobbyists at independent special districts to publicly register and disclose who they work for and how much they’re being paid.
Those often obscure, special-purpose governments spend billions of public dollars every year raised from taxpayers or through bond sales, fees or assessments. They outnumber Florida’s counties, cities, towns and villages more than two to one.
Yet as BrowardBulldog.org reported last week, only three independent special districts have adopted any kind of lobbyist registration requirements.
Legislators from both parties supported a change in state law to make lobbyist registration mandatory at special districts.
“This is an area that we intend to deal with in a second ethics bill that will come before the Legislature this year,” said Senate President Don Gaetz. “There are a number of things that either didn’t get in last year’s ethics bill, or weren’t contemplated, and this is one of them.”
“I personally support the idea that ethical standards, including lobbyist registration, apply to special districts,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “Broward Bulldog’s reporting has helped raise the profile of the issue.”
Gaetz also wants to make registration obligatory for all local governments, which also are not covered by state lobbyist regulations.
Most of Florida’s larger counties and cities have enacted lobbyist registration ordinances to promote integrity and transparency in the decision-making process. A notable exception: the city of Lakeland, with a 2012 citywide budget of $556.1 million.
In November 2011, however, a little-noticed survey by the Florida League of Cities found that “only 15 percent of municipalities require lobbyists to register in their city.”
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, is working with Gaetz to assemble the new ethics bill. He said he was surprised to learn about the lack of lobbyist registration at special districts.
“It never dawned on me that these special districts would not have some sort of lobbying mechanism for registration,” Latvala said. “I think it’s especially important for the water management districts and other large districts, but there are a lot of small independent special districts and I’m not sure whether they have enough staff to keep up with this.”
Sen. Jeremy Ring of Parkland
Sen. Jeremy Ring, chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability, called independent special districts a “shadow government.”
“Special districts should have lobbyist registration,” said Ring, D-Parkland. “They have gotten away with this because they are government out of the sunshine. We need to start treating them more as if they are in it.”
Independent special districts provide dozens of specialized services to residents across the state, including hospitals, ports and airports, mosquito control, transportation and highways and community development. Collectively, they spend in excess of $11 billion in public funds annually.
BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, documented the absence of lobbyist registration at nearly all of Florida’s 992 independent special districts.
House Speaker Will Weatherford issued a statement indicating he intends to follow the Senate’s lead about ethics reform, including the expansion of laws regarding lobbyist registration requirements.
“Last year, the Legislature passed a historic ethics reform bill and President Gaetz was a tremendous leader on the issue. I look forward to working with him on the issue again this year,” said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
Gov. Rick Scott likewise appears receptive to the idea of reform.
“Governor Scott looks forward to working with the Legislature to make sure special taxing districts operate as transparently as possible so taxpayers can hold them accountable,” said Jackie Schutz, the governor’s press secretary.
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