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Corruption County: School board members like ethics watchdog, balk at county commission role

by George Bennett | September 29th, 2009

A majority of Palm Beach County school board members likes the idea of bringing the $2.7 billion school district under the eye of a proposed county ethics watchdog — but not if county commissioners have the final say on filling the position.

After watching five local elected officials go to prison on federal corruption charges since 2006, county commissioners this summer endorsed the concept of an independent inspector general’s office with subpoena power to monitor public officials and government contracts.

But who would hire and fire and approve the budget of the inspector general remains an open question.

A coalition of business and civic groups has proposed that the inspector be chosen by an independent ethics panel whose members would be appointed by a variety of public agencies.

County administrators have proposed that the inspector general be chosen by an independent selection committee with county commissioners voting on whether to approve the selection. The inspector general could be removed for cause if five of seven commissioners agree under the administration proposal.

County commissioners want to add the inspector general to the county charter if voters approve in November 2010. The school board isn’t covered by the county charter, but commissioners hope school board members agree to be monitored by the inspector general.

At least four school board members — Frank Barbieri, Paulette Burdick, Bill Graham and Sandra Richmond — said in interviews this week that they support the inspector general idea. But all four oppose giving county commissioners the ultimate say on hiring and firing the inspector.

“I don’t want one organization driving the whole thing,” Graham said.

“I would not want, as a school board member, to have a final vote on who’s going to oversee the school board. I can’t imagine the county commissioners wanting that,” said Richmond.

The Palm Beach County administration’s proposal is modeled after the 12-year-old inspector general’s office in Miami-Dade County. Miami-Dade Inspector General Chris Mazzella was selected by an outside committee and approved by county commissioners. The commission approves his office’s budget and can remove him if 9 of 13 commissioners agree.

While Mazzella’s office was originally created to monitor county government, the Miami-Dade school board later asked to be included as well. School board members don’t have a say in hiring or firing the inspector general in Miami-Dade, but they can vote to terminate their relationship with the office.

Palm Beach County Commission Chairman Jeff Koons and Commissioners Burt Aaronson and Karen Marcus are generally supportive of the Miami-Dade model proposed by county administrators. Commissioners Shelley Vana, Priscilla Taylor and Jess Santamaria have voiced reservations about giving the commission the ultimate vote to hire the inspector general.

Commissioner Steven Abrams said he’s waiting to see if the county and the business-civic coalition can reach an agreement.

Commissioners are expected to vote before the end of the year on an ordinance creating an inspector general for the county government. They envision using the November 2010 referendum to create a broader inspector general law covering the school district, municipal governments and other public entities.

The school board, county commission and the Palm Beach County League of Cities are slated to discuss the inspector general and other topics when they hold a joint meeting Oct. 28.

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