Palm Beach County’s government corruption watchdog is about to get a new report card that will help determine whether she keeps her job. Supporters credit Inspector General Sheryl Steckler’s oversight since 2010 with helping change the image of corruption-plagued Palm Beach County. But critics question the broad scope and rising cost of her investigative reach. A legal challenge filed by a coalition of local cities has threatened Steckler’s funding. Both opponents and backers are being invited to chime in on a new evaluation system being created to judge Steckler’s progress as local officials decide next year whether to keep her or make a change.
On Thursday, the Inspector General’s oversight committee called for using a mix of factors to evaluate Steckler. That’s expected to include a review of whether she follows contract mandates and industry standards as well as considering critiques from the government entities she oversees. “This office is going to be criticized for doing its job. It’s just the natural fallout,” said David Baker, of the Palm Beach County Ethics Initiative, a group of business and civic groups that pushed for reform measures. It will be up to the committee — made up of the county’s Ethics Commission as well as the Palm Beach County State Attorney and Public Defender — to decide whether criticisms warrant finding a new inspector general. “There is a lot of sneaking around in the shadows; attempts to undermine,” Ethics Commissioner Ronald Harbison said.
Since 2006, four Palm Beach County commissioners have resigned and pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to misuse of office. Hiring an inspector general was the centerpiece of ethics reform recommendations issued by a grand jury in 2009 in a review aimed at cleaning up government corruption. In November 2010, more than 70 percent of voters approved expanding her investigative jurisdiction beyond county government to include all 38 local cities, towns and villages. Since then, her office has grown to more than 20 investigators, auditors and other employees with a nearly $4 million budget. Steckler is empowered to investigate fraud, waste and abuse among elected officials, public employees and those who do business with local government.
Despite voters’ approval, some municipal and county officials have bristled at the reach of Steckler’s oversight. A coalition of 15 cities, including West Palm Beach and Boca Raton, filed a still-pending legal challenge to the county requiring the cities to help pay for the inspector general’s office. Also, Steckler in September called for the State Attorney’s Office to convene another grand jury to review policies imposed by Palm Beach County government as well as the cities of Boca Raton and Delray Beach that Steckler maintains get in the way of her oversight duties.
County Commissioner Jess Santamaria, a staunch supporter of the inspector general post, contends that opponents to having a local government watchdog have used the lawsuit and other hurdles to try to undermine Steckler’s efforts. Steckler’s work can’t be judged accurately, no matter what the criteria, until those obstacles are removed, Santamaria told the inspector general review committee Thursday. “The criteria is meaningless,” Santamaria said. “We are wasting our time … We have got to follow the mandate of the people.” Steckler on Thursday called for the oversight committee to use her annual report and the terms of her contract as key factors to gauge her success. She also pointed out that her office is subject to ongoing professional review in order to maintain its accreditation. Steckler contends that her office has identified nearly $7 million in potential savings or questionable spending and produced recommendations for changes that save taxpayers money. “This office is designed to hold government accountable. It’s not always going to be well received,” Steckler said Thursday. “It’s hard to measure.”
Steckler, who is paid about $150,000 a year, has a contract through June 2014, but she gets six months notice if the oversight committee decides against renewing her four-year contract. That notice would have to come by December 2013. The inspector general can be removed before her contract ends, but only for misdeeds, incompetence or negligence, Baker said. The post was created with limited oversight to try to keep political pressure from discouraging audits or investigations. “Independence is what this is really all about,” Baker said.
For a previous story on this Office Of The Inspector General, go to the Inspector General News website or please visit the original Sun Sentinel article written by Andy Reid.