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Watchdog inspector general needs to be watched, too

Palm Beach County IG Sheryl steckler
Palm Beach County IG Sheryl Steckler

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Palm Beach County’s inspector general, Sheryl Steckler, will be leaving her job. I wish her well.

Now is the time to publicly evaluate the Office of Inspector General, which has become controversial when it should not have been. The reasons are many, beginning with the fact that the office was conceived and created under the stigma of a charged political climate. The idea was well-intentioned, but the structure and process were ill-conceived.

Various instances of Palm Beach County corruption prompted the idea in 2009 of establishing, by county ordinance, the inspector general and an ethics commission.

Almost immediately, the effort began to veer off course. The facts justified raising legitimate objections against creating a new branch of government and a new bureaucracy to house yet another investigator. The smart decision would have been to house the watchdog function within the county Clerk & Comptroller’s Office, which already provided a state-certified, well-run Inspector General & Audit Department to identify government waste and abuse.

But no. Because many county commissioners and the county administrator politically despised the comptroller, the commission refused to increase her authority by giving her more power. Commissioners played politics instead of opting for less-costly government. That was mistake No. 1.

A lot of well-informed business and community leaders never believed that a new, separate inspector general’s office was needed in the first place. Their view was that the law enforcement and prosecutorial systems already in place successfully identified and rooted out the pre-2009 county corruption. Most corruption cannot be prevented in advance anyway, but the existing system was successful at detecting the corruption that arose in prior years. The county never needed a new inspector general’s office to get that done – so going ahead with the plan was mistake No. 2.

ethicsMistake No. 3 came when county staff made sure the new Ethics Commission had no members  from the business community, who could have provided expertise in creating an effective business plan, competent fiscal and personnel procedures, and an efficient process to evaluate the inspector general’s actions and results. But business was left out because the county staff was miffed at the industry’s criticism of how the county administrator’s office conducted itself.

Mistake No. 4 was the intellectual deceit perpetuated by inspector general proponents, who never came clean with the public about what the new position would cost taxpayers, long-term. Such concerns were brushed aside at the time, and trivialized. Proponents were worried that if voters knew what the real costs of an inspector general’s office would be over time, they’d vote against it. The mantra was, “‘Corruption County’ must be cleaned up, whatever the cost.” They neglected to mention that taxpayers were already paying for a cleaning and detection process that was working.

Numerous government or quasi-government agencies in Palm Beach County started out small and grew into financial behemoths, including the Health Care District and the South Florida Water Management District. The same thing will happen with the Inspector General’s Office unless reasonable heads intervene.

Few local politicians have the courage to whisper a word of criticism against the Office of Inspector General, for fear of being branded “anti-ethics” and fried by the big-government agenda of The Palm Beach Post and do-gooders. But politicians don’t understand that this creature’s growth is destined to soon grow out of control. Now that the Office of Inspector General has its foot firmly in the door, there will be no stopping it without displays of political courage. Whatever the office wants to do next will turn into a need and be promoted as such. This fiefdom will grow, nourished by ever-increasing tax dollars.

This means the watchdog needs to be watched, too. With the county searching for Steckler’s replacement, now’s the time to realize that, before it’s too late. Does anybody want to bet me that the costs of the Inspector General’s Office won’t double in the next five or so years without prompt intervention?

John R. Smith

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