Palm Beach County will be taking a new look at its Office of Inspector General.
A sometimes-heated meeting of the county commission about the future of the office and Inspector General Cheryl Steckler ended Tuesday without a formal vote. But commissioners plan to discuss funding the office through direct taxation, a new referendum to clarify its powers, and the possibility of settling a lawsuit over who pays for it.
The issue was sparked in part by County Administrator Bob Weisman’s remarks to the Palm Beach Post in in April saying Steckler should be fired for hiring her own attorney to defend herself in a lawsuit against the county.
On Steckler’s behalf, a parade of residents took to the microphone at Tuesday’s meeting, complaining that the inspector general’s office has been underfunded and understaffed since its inception since it was established by a voter referendum in 2010.
One after another, about 25 residents addressed the commission, saying they were sick of living in “Corruption County” and demanding more independence for Inspector General Sheryl Steckler.
“Your reputations are on the line here,” Century Village resident Honey Sager told commissioners. “It’s a wonderful county we should be proud of, not be ashamed of.”
Others, such as the Rev. Michael Rose, pastor of the Royal Palm Covenant Church, wondered what officials might be afraid of.
“We’re wondering if we have something to hide,” said Rose, one of several speakers who questioned the motives of county officials they said were not supporting Steckler’s work. “I need to know. My community needs to know. My church needs to know.”
When the public speaking ended, Commissioner Shelley Vana turned the tables, appearing to question the motives of some of the speakers.
“It is curious to me that you’re all from the same area and you all think we have something to hide,” she said, clearly irritated by the implication.
As the commissioner with second-highest seniority, she said, she took office after the series of corruption prosecutions beginning in 2006 rocked the county and sent five former commissioners to prison.
“I have supported the inspector general since Day 1,” she said.
The meeting also included a sharp exchange between Weisman and Commissioner Jess Santamaria, who accused Weisman of failing to support Streckler’s office and foot-dragging on its funding.
Weisman in turn defended the county’s treatment of Streckler. The problem, he said, is not that the inspector general’s office doesn’t have enough independence. It’s how Streckler is handling the independence she does have.
“She can’t point to a single thing where the county got in her way,” he said. “She’s saying there’s a problem where there is no problem.”
And he made it clear he had no plans to continue in office if a committee made up of the county’s Ethics Commission, the state attorney’s office and the public defender’s office decides to renew her four-year contract, up at the end of the year.
“I’m not going to live with Ms. Steckler if she gets rehired because I’ll be gone,” he said.
The Office of Inspector General was established in a voter referendum in 2010 that stated it would be funded “by the County Commission and all other governmental entities.”
However, in a lawsuit, 14 Palm Beach County cities have balked at collecting the vendor fee intended to pay for the OIG. That lawsuit prompted Streckler to hire her own attorney.
Palm Beach County Mayor Steven Abrams said commissioners will review all proposals that came up Tuesday, including a motion by Santamaria requiring the county to collect the vendor fee instead of the cities, though that would likely undermine the city’s defense in the lawsuit.
Other proposals were establishing a special tax district to pay for the office’s operations, and conducting a new referendum on the office with more specific language about its operations.
Commissioners will also review a possible settlement of the lawsuit proposed by West Palm Beach.
Weisman said part of the settlement would include funding for the inspector general’s office from the cities, as long as the money could not be used to audit the cities’ books.
“If you want to let the cities off the hook, we can settle this in two weeks,” he said.
*EDITORS NOTE: BPR originally quoted Administrator Bob Weisman saying that he would resign if Steckler gets her contract renewed. The exact quote from Weisman was “I’ll be gone.” It was further clarified that he has a scheduled retirement date coming up, and no plans to resign. We apologize for the original error.
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