Two senators short-circuit Legislature’s plan to audit troubled Hallandale Beach CRA
Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald
By William Gjebre
Published November 28, 2013
A Florida Legislature’s joint auditing committee is dropping its inquiry of Hallandale Beach’s questionable use of local redevelopment funds at the urging of two area state senators, one a longtime acquaintance of Mayor Joy Cooper.
Democratic Sens. Eleanor Sobel and Oscar Braynon II, representing portions of Hallandale Beach, could not be reached for comment, despite repeated calls, to elaborate on a letter they signed recommending against a state audit or any action related to the controversial city spending of Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds.
In addition, the committee will not ask the Florida attorney general for an updated opinion on how CRA funds can be used. This was a contentious issue between the city and the Broward Inspector General’s Office which found that Hallandale Beach had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds while ignoring a 2010 opinion that limited CRA spending to “bricks and mortar” redevelopment projects.
“Broward has a huge [legislative] delegation and no one stepped to the plate and said let’s take a look at what happened to the $80 million” received by the city’s CRA from property tax dollars since 1996 to battle slum and blight, said Frank Schnidman, an attorney and senior fellow at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.
The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee “depends on local input and two delegation members said don’t…look back.” Schnidman said.
With the Broward County Commission recently having conceded it has no authority to order an audit of the Hallandale Beach CRA under an existing operating agreement, the Legislature’s audit committee was an opportunity for an analysis of the city’s CRA spending, said Schnidman, who worked as a consultant to Hallandale’s CRA for about a month earlier this year.
“State law has to [be amended] to establish clear criteria so cities, counties and CRAs can be held accountable,” said Schnidman.
Hallandale Beach’s CRA is funded by a portion of property taxes collected within its boundaries, roughly three-fourths of the city west of the Intracoastal Waterway. By law, the funds are to be used to revitalize the area.
Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Palm Beach, chaired the Legislature’s auditing committee in June when he and vice chairman Rep. Lake Ray, R-Duval, sent a certified letter to Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper city citing the Inspector General’s report and seeking further information about questionable spending. The letter warned that if expenditures were found to be improper the city might have to restore the money to the CRA trust fund.
In an interview, Abruzzo, now the committee’s vice chairman, said not a single Broward legislator “came forward to ask that we take it up. We can’t do anything until we have a request [from a legislator].”
Instead, the committee has only the joint letter from Sobel and Braynon.
“Out of respect for the two, the committee will not go forward with an audit,” said committee staff coordinator Kathy Dubose.
The committee had waded into the thorny issue of Hallandale Beach’s CRA spending after receiving the Broward Inspector General’s 56-page report that found city officials had co-mingled CRA redevelopment funds with city funds for many years and misused CRA funds for grants to nonprofit groups and for such expenditures as fireworks displays. The committee asked the city to explain the allegation of misuse of funds.
At the same time, the committee urged the city commission to ask the Florida attorney general for an updated opinion to clarify how CRA funds can be spent, and to abide by the decision. The city rejected that request in a 3-2 vote in July supported by Mayor Cooper and commissioners Alexander Lewy and Anthony Sanders.
Neither Sobel nor Braynon responded to multiple requests for comment about their letter recommending against a state audit.
In their letter, however, Sobel and Braynon urged the committee to “abandon” any plans to audit the city or its CRA as “unnecessary and duplicative.”
While not mentioning that the county’s inquiry found “gross mismanagement” of tax dollars by top city leaders, including questionable loans and grants to businesses and nonprofits, the two senators embraced arguments that paralleled the city’s arguments. They noted the city cooperated by providing requested documents and that city personnel gave interviews even though it was the city’s position that the Inspector General did not have jurisdiction.
The city also implemented many of Inspector General’s recommendations, including a reorganized CRA staff and procedures, the letter said.
“It is our opinion that the city and the Hallandale Beach CRA are being punished because they asserted their right to express a difference of opinion with the OIG,” the letter said. “Finally, we are concerned that the state Legislature is being used to further political agendas at the local level.”
Former city Commissioner Keith London said he was disappointed the committee has backed off its probe. “It has egg on its face and its tail between its legs,” he said.
London, who lost a bitter race for mayor against Cooper last year, also said he was not surprised Sobel made a recommendation against a state audit because she and Cooper have been friends for years.
Cooper acknowledges her 14-year friendship with Sobel, but says it had nothing to do with the senator’s opposition to the Legislative audit. Sobel’s stand was based on her review of the situation, nothing more, the mayor said.
“I think she responded knowing Hallandale Beach and what we have done and how much we have accomplished,” Cooper said. “Why go any further?”
Cooper blamed London for attempting to keep the issue in the public eye.
“We have a sour grapes person who lost an election,” said Cooper. “I think the city is doing wonderfully.”
While the committee’s plans for a Hallandale audit appear over, Abruzzo said the matter could resurface if a member of Broward’s legislative delegation steps forward to ask for one.