What should we make of this squabble between Palm Beach County Administrator Bob Weisman and Inspector General Sheryl Steckler?
For starters, no one who’s followed the issue from the start should be surprised about this sticky mess. The Office of Inspector General wasn’t set up properly from the start. But it’s hard to get the toothpaste back into the tube. Competing political interests are now entrenched.
Original proponents of the 2009 creation of the Inspector General’s Office failed to insist on putting the agency under the Clerk & Comptroller’s Office, where it belonged. Comptroller Sharon Bock already had a Division of Inspector General & Audit, set up in 2005 to identify government waste, inefficiencies and misuse of power. In fact, she had uncovered many millions in unneeded costs and fiscal abuse. Her office is one of the few accredited by the Commission on Florida Law Enforcement.
For political reasons — including that many county commissioners disliked Bock because she criticized earlier decisions — commissioners were reluctant to increase her authority by giving her new inspector general powers. So the original advocates for a strengthened inspector general erroneously let politics distort the outcome.
The fight between Weisman and Steckler centers on whether Steckler’s office, an unusually independent unit within county government, should be given more power, namely to enter a lawsuit as an independent entity. Steckler’s employer, the county, is the defendant in the lawsuit, initiated by cities over how much of her budget they will have to pay.
I don’t blame the cities for balking at the proposed financial arrangements. They are being asked to buy a pig in a poke, because the extent of Steckler’s authority is ill-defined and the cities would have little control over the growth of her budget. And there is a constitutional issue.
Even worse, the expenses of the Inspector General’s Office could inflate exponentially, amounting to political suicide for any politician who would criticize the budget increases. For one thing, politically radical Palm Beach Post editors will crucify any politicians who question the inspector general’s costs. Among those advocating for more inspector general authority, they are strangely silent about the expansion of costs. And there is no professional incentive for the agency, which is not required to go before the voters or answer to taxpayers, to keep the budget low.
I remind all parties that in early 2011, the third grand jury called by then-State Attorney Michael McAuliffe weighed in on how to measure the inspector general’s performance. The jury found that the agency’s performance can be “quantitatively measured.” One of the jury’s key measurements for good performance was “the net savings to the taxpayer.” But I don’t hear any of the players in this issue bringing that up. So I will.
Later this year, the county Ethics Commission will perform its statutory duty to evaluate the inspector general and, with the state attorney and public defender also weighing in, decide whether to let her keep her job or fire her. It is essential for this group to require the inspector general, whoever it is, to adhere to sound fiscal integrity and spending policies. It’s too easy for the inspector general and the agency’s advocates to say they “need more money” for this or that, with little regard for the taxpayer or adhering to independent cost-benefit analyses.
Everything government does, including fighting corruption, should survive an ongoing cost-effectiveness analysis. That means comparing the expected costs of the inspector general’s programs to the expected benefits to the taxpayer. The objective is to determine whether benefits outweigh costs. No more self-righteous comments from advocates that “you can’t put a price on fighting corruption.”
Whoever the inspector is should be held to this standard, among others, when performance is evaluated. Further, the agency should not determine the criteria and benchmarks for how “net savings to the taxpayer” should be compiled. Those criteria should be determined independently by the Ethics Commission or by county commissioners, with the advice of independent private sector professionals in the field of cost-benefit analysis.
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