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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jul. 9, 201412:00 PM EST

Temporary help on the way for city ethics office

by: David Chapman

It was dubbed “Corruption County” before she arrived.

Palm Beach County public officials were going to federal prison, prompting voters in 2010 to approve creating an Office of Inspector General.

Sheryl Steckler helped build it from scratch with a $3 million annual budget, 23 staff members and a mission to identify, question and correct fraud, waste and abuse. In four years, she and her staff made 303 recommendations, with almost 96 percent having either been implemented or in the process. Those recommendations could save more than $20 million.

Her contract ended June 30 — effectively making her a short-term free agent before she begins her next job in Tallahassee.

Carla Miller, Jacksonville’s ethics officer, saw the opportunity. She hired Steckler part-time to come into the Office of Ethics, Compliance and Oversight for the next three weeks to lend a hand and serve as an extra set of eyes. She began Tuesday.

“It’s going to be a full schedule,” Miller said of the three-week help.

While Steckler was busy revamping Palm Beach County, Jacksonville was on a different path.

In 2011, City Council stripped the city’s Inspector General’s budget, leaving it with just enough for Mayor Alvin Brown’s first several months of office. There hasn’t been one since.

The functions of an inspector general’s office were given to the ethics office created in 2011. The only problem?

Miller was a one-person show — and isn’t a certified inspector general who typically specializes in that fraud, waste and abuse. Any resources and staff she hoped would be absorbed from the former office never were.

An inspector general is responsible for detecting waste, fraud and abuse, while ethics officers work with city employees and officials to ensure compliance and trust with the public.

In 2011, she took a trip south to see Steckler’s operation, calling what she saw “inspector general heaven” because of the commitment and resources dedicated to the cause.

Jacksonville won’t be on that level any time soon.

But, for the short-term, Miller will have the person that helped create that “heaven.”

Steckler will meet with elected officials and representatives from the Ethics Coordination Council among others for whistleblower training sessions.

Miller said she has called on Steckler for advice and assistance over the past couple of years, including on the whistleblower program the city adopted last year.

In addition, she’ll help Miller look at the confidential cases that need such expertise and review the city’s plans and risks on fraud, waste and abuse.

Steckler said last week she’d do “anything and everything” to help Miller in her short time in Jacksonville.

When Steckler’s contract in Palm Beach County ended June 30, Miller said she knew there was a brief window of opportunity.

Miller had about $5,000 in salaries remaining after she hired administrative help in November. It’s those funds from which Steckler will be paid for her services.

“It’s only going to be helpful,” Miller said. “You can’t have billions of dollars (in budgets) and not have people making mistakes.”

Although not the level of Palm Beach County, Miller is thinking gradual steps when it comes to an inspector general.

She has asked for an additional $50,000 in the upcoming budget for part-time hours for a certified inspector general. That person can come in on a case-by-case basis.

David DeCamp, Brown’s spokesman, said┬áMonday┬áthat is likely to be a part of Brown’s budget when its presented next week.

Those funds will help lend expertise where there currently is none, Miller said, and can help build the case for a more full-time role. That is, only if it’s warranted.

“If nothing comes up next year, don’t spend the part-time hours,” Miller said. “If you can hire someone and they save $300,000, you can build a case for that person.”

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