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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Sep. 3, 201412:00 PM EST

Timing, funding concerns arise for Inspector General's Office

by: David Chapman

There’s widespread, vocal support among City Council members to create an independent Office of General Council.

Yet, there have been rumors. Behind-the-scenes questions, concerns about the way the office’s funding and structure has been “manipulated,” as Rules Committee Chair Bill Gulliford described it as he brought the issue up for discussion.

Although it’s gone through alterations, the main concept remains: Sheryl Steckler, the former Palm Beach County inspector general, would be hired for eight months for $104,000 to establish the independent office.

During that time, she’d serve in a consultant-type role and establish the office’s procedures, manuals, IT infrastructure and train city staff. Carla Miller, the city’s ethics officer, said Steckler also will help her with a backlog of about 65 cases that need review from an inspector general.

The eight-month window is key for Steckler, who will hit 30 years within the state retirement system at its conclusion. Under the agreement, she’ll be housed within the State Attorney’s Office, which is providing half of her $104,000 compensation as part of the agreement to establish the office.

Miller told the committee Tuesday that the arrangement has been transparent and if any aspect of the situation were unethical, she would “kill it immediately” instead of spearheading it. Instead, she calls the arrangement a “win-win” for all parties involved, but especially citizens who demand accountability from government.

The office would review city procedures and policies in looking for waste, fraud and abuse, with Miller telling the group the savings could end up being “tenfold at least.”

Council member Robin Lumb has been a staunch proponent of the office and continued defending it Tuesday, calling it a “critical need” for council members who, in their part-time positions, don’t have time to review abuses He said he didn’t have time to follow up on even one-third of what he’d like to, with more issues constantly arising.

“It’s one thing after another,” he told the committee.

Gulliford said he brought the issue up not as a personal standpoint, but as a way to get the discussion on the table. He supports the concept and the office is “really going to clean up this city.”

Miller said the rumors of behind-the-scenes talk started in the past couple of weeks, but there is nothing to hide. Steckler, she said, will provide a turnkey operation at the end of her support role.

Miller said Steckler’s involvement is a matter of time and experience. She considers Steckler the best municipal inspector general in the country and the best person who could help Jacksonville set up in office sooner rather than later.

Steckler served as Palm Beach County’s inspector general for four years after scandals involving public officials.

She created the office from scratch with a $3 million annual budget. During her tenure, she and her staff made 303 recommendations that could save more than $20 million.

If the local opportunity was passed, establishing the office could take years — there would need to be a Request for Proposal for an inspector general to set up the framework, the protocols and procedures would need to be adapted and office still created. Steckler’s involvement saves that time, Miller said.

During the eight months, Miller said Steckler will be creating those manuals and adjusting them for Jacksonville. She’ll also help train a contract analyst specialist and investigator, possibly during the first few months of 2015.

Without the proper procedures and people in place, Jacksonville can’t be certified, which is critical for such an office. With the proposed arrangement, Jacksonville would be “years ahead,” Miller said.

Miller said she hopes the city’s first inspector general in the office could be appointed by June or July of next year, with a couple of weeks of overlap in Steckler’s tenure.

How far the concept goes will depend on council and funding levels, she said.

She has estimated it could cost about $190,000 for the first year of operation, with a possible fee attached to city contracts covering future years and making it sustainable.

After Tuesday’s discussion, the committee passed the bill 7-0. It’s up for review today with the Finance Committee.

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