January 27, 2010
Anthony Westbury: It's time to clean house at Fort Pierce City Hall
By Anthony Westbury
"How long has this been going on?" asks an old 1970s hit song, to which we must also add, "And who knew about it?"
I'm talking about the unsavory mess inside the City of Fort Pierce's Community Services Department, recently exposed in a forensic audit.
Shining a bright light on the department has revealed an ugly conglomeration of questionable practices, some of which may prove to be criminal.
There it is in line two of the 194-page report: The audit "has exposed a systemic failure throughout every aspect of the Community Services Department's oversight responsibility."
In other words, this is not an isolated incident involving one or two individuals, it's an organization riddled with corruption and fed by favoritism, questionable relations with outside contractors, and possibly even outright theft. The Community Services Department altered so many documents they must have bought their White-Out correctional fluid by the tanker-load.
And the canker spreads to other parts of the city including the Purchasing and the Finance departments. It indicates that close scrutiny of a few of the city's high-ranking employees should also be a priority in the future.
Yet what about the two city managers and the city attorney who presided over the operation while this miasma of rottenness was incubating and finally burst forth like a lanced boil?
What did the big bosses know and why didn't they do something?
It's hard to fathom how in a such a small organization someone on the third floor didn't at least have an inkling about what was going on below.
In fact they did receive a direct warning; they chose to ignore it.
In 2006, the recently appointed head of the Community Services Department wrote a report to the City Commission. Without naming names, Brian O'Connor blew the whistle on a number of suspicious practices he'd identified. His warning was reported in this newspaper.
Yet within months, whistle-blower O'Connor had been hustled out by City Manager Dennis Beach for failing to be "a team player."
Beach's hands-off management style may have contributed to the lack of oversight of the Community Services Department. His unwillingness to delve into departmental operations allowed things to fester, unchallenged, in the dark.
While Beach's successor, David Recor, claims city operations have become more transparent under his watch, it's been a hit-and-miss process at best and a continuation of the same old, same old, if we're being uncharitable.
Similarly, where was handsomely paid City Attorney Rob Schwerer in all this? How could someone so well-versed in municipal law, and with oversight of every legal document coming and going at City Hall, have been so much in the dark?
Some heads should roll after this expose, whether criminal charges are ever pursued or not. The city must change its entire style and scope of management. It must become utterly transparent in everything it does before it can regain the public's trust.
There is sure to be immense pressure from some quarters to blow off this audit, to minimize its findings.
Yet if anyone tries to sweep this mess under the rug, the bump will tower above City Hall itself. A complete overhaul of how business is done at the city needs to be done, and quickly.
Anything less would be a travesty for the people of Fort Pierce and anyone thinking of investing in the city in the future.
How long has this been going on? For way too long. We need to clean house.
Anthony Westbury is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects his opinion. For more on St. Lucie County issues, follow his blog at TCPalm.com/westbury. Contact him at (772) 409-1320 or firstname.lastname@example.org.