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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jul. 24, 201412:00 PM EST

Council members soon realized city's need for full-time, independent inspector general

by: David Chapman

City Ethics Officer Carla Miller thought $50,000 for a part-time inspector general next year would be a start in digging deeper into possible city fraud, waste and abuse.

Then former Palm Beach County Inspector General Sheryl Steckler arrived.

In the few weeks she was in town, the goal was for Steckler to help Miller review some confidential cases, assist in whistleblower training sessions and meet with City Council members, among other duties.

When council members met with Steckler, they brought boxes of information for issues they were digging into themselves.

When Miller and Steckler met with procurement officials, they saw 17,000 purchase orders and contracts that could use oversight.

Miller said it became “abundantly clear” that $50,000 wasn’t going to be enough. The idea of a part-time inspector general building a case for a full-time office was gone.

The case already was built for several council members, who introduced a bill Tuesday to create such an office for $400,000.

“I think it became clear for everyone involved,” Miller said.

The bill, 2014-519, would establish a full-time, independent Office of Inspector General that would increase accountability and oversight of the executive and legislative branches.

“We need to reassure taxpayers we have a sufficient level of oversight,” said council member Robin Lumb, one of the six who introduced the bill. “This is what you do when you have a government of this size.”

Lumb said he isn’t alleging fraud or misconduct, but during his three years on council his “eyes have grown wider and wider” when it comes to the need for such oversight.

Contract compliance is one example he suggests where additional help could save money. Several years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice found problems with city buildings and facilities regarding Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Lumb said contractors the past 15 years haven’t done what was required concerning ADA compliance, leaving the city exposed and on the hook for more than $30 million in needed changes for access. If an independent inspector general had been in place, Lumb said he believes the city might have been able to avoid remediation costs.

“We can’t afford not to have an inspector general,” he said.

Council President Clay Yarborough also is one of six sponsors on the bill. He said while the city’s previous inspector general office the city had until 2011 was OK, it reported to the mayor and never truly was independent. Council defunded the office during the budget process that year.

Yarborough says this time, the office needs more independence to be “less influenced by politics and more able to stretch across government.”

“Even with the tight budget we have, it could still be a very important thing,” he said. “It could save not even hundreds of thousands, but millions and far exceed what we invest.”

Yarborough said one example came to mind during the preliminary budget review earlier this year. Equipment in public works was asked to be replaced, but a closer look determined just certain parts needed repaired.

Lumb said council members often conduct their own investigations into fraud, waste and abuse and a full-time inspector general could help. The Council Auditor’s Office conducts audits on government spending and Lumb said it does a “fantastic” job, but the office is spread thin.

The inspector general reviews audits, but also conducts investigations and has subpoena power. The person would be appointed by the Ethics Commission and confirmed by council.

Lumb said the funding level could hire a certified inspector general, a couple of investigators, a contract specialist and possibly a clerical worker. There is a possibility the clerical worker could be shared with the Office of Ethics and Compliance.

Miller said it is possible that Steckler could be available for eight months to help establish the office and assist in training. While in Palm Beach County for four years, Steckler and her staff made 303 recommendations that could save more than $20 million.

Yarborough said he wanted further discussion on the $400,000, as the amount was tentative and more of a placeholder for the bill to be filed.

For now, the source of funding would be the general fund and discussion comes at an opportune time.

“We need to have this conversation during budget discussions,” Lumb said.

Those in-depth discussions begin in the coming weeks, leading to the start of the Oct. 1 fiscal year.

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