Stop costly witch hunt, Tamarac, and don’t terrify employees | Editorial

·5 min read

The city of Tamarac is officially out of control.

Commissioners are expected to spend up to $50,000 Wednesday so a law firm can conduct a witch hunt over who tipped off a Sun Sentinel reporter to their selfish scheme to spend money on lavish perks for themselves. Tamarac should reconsider and reject this reckless idea that could permanently stain the city’s reputation — and it should forget the perks, too.

A city spending city money to investigate city employees for providing a public record? It’s shocking in its stupidity and will only create more chaos in a city that has too much of it. This investigation will terrify loyal and hard-working employees who have done nothing wrong.

What makes it so outrageous is that the information provided to the reporter documented misspending by commissioners themselves. Whoever might have tipped off Sun Sentinel reporter Lisa J. Huriash to this gross misuse of money deserves a ticker-tape parade on Commercial Boulevard, not an inquisition by petty politicians.

Four commissioners were furious that details of a draft of a budget amendment memo by the city finance director, dated March 28, got to the newspaper even though the six-page memo said most of the spending had previously been approved by commissioners — over the lone opposition of Mayor Michelle Gomez.

This catalog of greed included $75,000 a year for the five officials to travel within 100 miles (in addition to local expense reimbursements and a combined $84,000 car allowance); $75,000 to hire aides; $50,000 to redesign their offices; $30,000 for new furniture; $30,000 for a “technology allowance”; $20,000 for so-called education reimbursements; and $50,000 for a multimedia outreach program. Other perks listed included $19,500 a year for each commissioner in deferred compensation, the maximum allowed under a federal plan, and full health benefits, on top of city salaries of $50,240 for part-time work.

Looking in dark corners

In an age of dramatically shrunken newsrooms, far fewer reporters are on the beat, especially in small cities. But local news still matters, and we continue to shine light in dark corners.

After Huriash’s story, Commissioner Mike Gelin determined to track down her source. Late at night at an April 28 meeting, he implied with no evidence that City Manager Michael Cernech was responsible, and has asked for a review of the manager’s performance Wednesday. The commission had already driven out Sam Goren, a respected former city attorney, who resigned in December.

“I don’t have any trust in the leadership staff in Tamarac right now,” Gelin said, calling Huriash’s obtaining of a public record “pretty disturbing.”

The witch hunt was Gelin’s idea. The renegade politicians who went along were Marlon Bolton, Debra Plasko and Elvin Villalobos.

The selection of the Fort Lauderdale law firm Kim Vaughan Lerner, which awaits a commission vote, was another lapse in judgment. The firm specializes in business litigation, employment discrimination and insurance defense and it was hand-picked by City Attorney Hans Ottinot. What makes this particular law firm the most qualified for this sensitive mission?

Like everything else in Tamarac, it doesn’t pass the smell test.

Government in the sunshine

According to Cernech, 30 to 40 employees had computer access to a portal where upcoming commission agenda items are reviewed before reaching commissioners, but he said the memo was released “without authorization.”

Someone with access to the memo saw an injustice and told us in confidence. That took courage. The fact that officials want that investigated is a disgrace. Florida’s broad public records laws promote open government, and Huriash’s source respected that tradition. Tamarac should honor its employees, not intimidate them. Some targeted employees belong to a labor union, so their legal rights will be at issue.

As Huriash reports, the spending increases were initiated by Bolton, a flamboyant pastor known as “Prophet Fire.” His World Outreach Church hosts political leaders such as County Commissioner Dale Holness, who in a YouTube video at the church fist-bumps Bolton and calls him “my very good friend,” wishing him “many, many, many more years of service to this community.”

Holness wants to represent Broward in Congress. We call on him, here and now, to denounce Bolton’s irresponsible actions. Silence will imply Holness’ approval.

Tamarac has undergone dramatic demographic change in recent decades. For years, it was the prototypical retirement community, where retirees played bridge and canasta before enjoying their early bird specials. Today’s Tamarac is young and diverse, a majority-minority community with working families and kids and a vibrant parks and recreation system.

The other change is that Tamarac’s once-sedate politics are steeped in chaos and conflict, and there’s a lack of citizen leaders who have the time or interest to challenge the shenanigans at City Hall. Tamarac needs some concerned citizens willing to say, Enough!

What if, weeks or months from now, Tamarac’s gang of four finds its hand-picked law firm can’t solve this mystery and stronger measures are needed? Will they seek a search warrant from a judge to seize employees’ personal phone records? Or find which employees had access to the portal and surreptitiously tail them to see where they go after work? Or secretly open their mail? Maybe track down their neighbors and interrogate them, too? It’s unlikely, but this is the path that a majority of the Tamarac City Commission has recklessly started to travel.

Commissioners need to do the right thing for once and stop this horribly misguided witch hunt before it progresses any further.

The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, Steve Bousquet and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email letters@sun-sentinel.com.