I'm a firm believer in the concept known as, "Follow the money."
When it comes to reporting on the activities of public officials, following the money is the Yellow Brick Road that leads you to whether or not these officials are employing best practices, transparency or even honestly in how they spend our tax dollars.
That's why several weeks ago I started asking for a copy of a draft budget in advance of the Budget Workshop that was held on March 30th, and why I articulated my concerns to the Council at the March 21st meeting where I stated that I considered a failure to provide any sort of documentation in advance of a "workshop" to make the workshop little more than a Budget Chit Chat.
THE VILLAGE BY THE BAY
LACK OF ANNUAL PERFORMANCE EVALUATIONS RAISES QUESTIONS AS TO HOW DO FOLKS WHO WORK FOR THE VILLAGE GET MERIT RAISES OR FIRED WITHOUT THERE BEING AT LEAST AN IMPLICATION OF SUBJECTIVE DECISION MAKING, AND ALSO EXPLAINS HOW THE VILLAGE COMPTROLLER MANAGED TO STEAL AT LEAST $493,879.51 FROM THE VILLAGE OVER A PERIOD OF AT LEAST 5 YEARS
APRIL 17, 2017
A CRESPOGRAM SPECIAL SERIES
While the response to my request was that there would be no 2018 budget information available for residents to peruse at the meeting, this turned out not to be exactly true.
You see, even while I was asking for information and being told there would be none, the Village Manager, Finance Director and staff were hard at work putting together a 19 page Powerpoint presentation that provided a great deal of information on the 2016-2017 budget, and also provided items that the administration was considering for the 2017-2018 budget, including "Anticipated Projects," "Department Needs," "Expected Property Value Increase for FY 2018," and other information that was of value in a serious discussion of any future budget.
Unfortunately, neither the Village Manager or the Council revealed that this document was in the process of being prepared at the March 21st Council meeting, which they could have done by simply saying, 'Mr Crespo, we won't have a draft budget, but we will have a packet of information available that you and other residents to review that might provide some insight and guidance as to what the budget might look like.'
Worse, they failed to post the document on the Village website prior to the meeting so residents could have an advance opportunity to review the information.
When you're talking about a $28 million dollar budget, the notion that folks unfamiliar with the finer intricacies of a Village budget would be able to look at such a document before the workshop for 5-10 minutes at best, and then be able to wade in with knowledgable and in-depth questions about the budget reveals just how unwilling the Village Manager was, and is, to provide the residents with more, not less information on which they can make informed decisions about how their tax dollars will be spent.
A Village Manager and Council who really wanted, or welcomed public input and discussion would have made an effort to make this document available in advance of the meeting to allow residents the opportunity to really read and digest the information in the document.
The key to citizen participation in the decisions that government makes - especially when it comes to issues like a budget, is not that a public meeting claiming to be a workshop is held, but that the citizens are provided enough information from which they can ASK INTELLIGENT QUESTIONS AND MAKE INFORMED DECISIONS,
The operative word is INFORMED.
The tone of the meeting was set early on when I raised the question about the failure to make this powerpoint document available, and was told by Mayor Burch that,
"Mr. Crespo, the only way we can have a dialogue is if,
first of all this is not a question and answer session. We're
here to hear from you. So, so far I've heard from you that
you wanted that document ahead of time. You did come
in a little bit late, Mr. Benton did go over the entire document
with everyone, and there's a print out for you to look at.
We are ready to take your questions at any time. as you
Mayor Burch has on numerous occasions told residents at Village Council meetings that neither she or the other members of the Council are there to answer questions, and it seems that answering questions at any public meeting is something that she is opposed to both in principle and practice because if the Budget Workshop had indeed been a "workshop," then the following definition of what constitutes a workshop would have been in play:
"A meeting at which a group of people engage in intensive
discussion and activity on a particular subject or project."
Thankfully, because the Mayor was inconsistent in following her dictum about not answering questions, she did on several occasions ask Tom Benton, the Village Manager, to answer questions which led to the following revelation on whether the Village conducts standardized performance evaluations.
Here is the portion of the audio tape of that exchange.
Putting aside the claim that Benton made regarding being advised by counsel about not doing personnel evaluations, there are a number of objective reasons why governments - excluding employees - would want to conduct annual performance evaluations on their administrators and departments - reasons that Tom Benton failed to address in his response, choosing to limit his comments to how he handles troublesome employees.
The best example of why the Village of Miami Shores SHOULD conduct annual performance evaluations on department heads and departments is the case of Carolyn Modeste.
THE COMPTROLLER WHO LOOTED THE VILLAGE IN RESPONSE TO A NIGERIAN EMAIL SCAM
Carolyn Modeste was the Village Comptroller who managed over a period of at least 5 years to steal at least $493,879.51, in cash payments made to the Village, and was sent to prison for 30 months.
According to a story that appeared in Miami New Times, Modeste fell for a Nigerian Mail Scam that was based on claims that, "Two orphans with a massive inheritance were stranded in Ghana and needed a benefactor to rescue them and their cash - with a hefty reward, of course, for the Good Samaritan.
"For five years, Modeste says, she sent every penny
she stole to the scammers, believing all along that --
once that darn paperwork was sorted out -- she'd
receive "maybe a million" bucks."
According to the news stories when Modeste was arrested, she was charged with stealing $203,000.00, but as the insurance payout reveals, she stole at least $290.000.00 more than the amount she was charged with stealing, and in talking with law enforcement sources, the odds are that she probably stole even more than that.
The importance of this story is that not only did this incident occur during the period of time that Tom Benton claims that he, nor anyone else in the Village was conducting annual performance evaluations, but that based on the comments he made in the above audio tape, he didn't need to do annual evaluations because he was more than capable of spotting a bad employee without any evaluations.
If you didn't bother to listen to the audio tape, here's what Benton said about his management style which he believes justified his decision to not conduct annual performance evaluations:
"I charge our department heads right now, making
sure that they have their people working up to par,
they come to work on time, they do all the things they're
supposed to do, and our managers and our department
heads look at these people every day. We're a small
organization, every body knows everybody, and it's
not like the City of Miami where you have people you
never see, sometimes in the course of a year. These
guys and gals know their people and they know who
they are. I come in contact with these people several
times every day. I know when they're not performing,
and if they're not performing, I get rid of them. They're
not here anymore."
This explanation by Benton that his vigilance and supervisory skills were sufficient to protect the Village against bad employees does not jibe with the ease that allowed Modeste to do what she did for at least 5 years - and I've been told by several old timers that there is a belief that she did not act alone in stealing cash payments.
Unfortunately, there is a belief that an opportunity continues to exist for Village employees who take cash money today at the Field House and the Swimming Pool because of a lack of adequate safeguards to follow in Modeste's footsteps. This in no way implies that anyone is taking money, but rather that the Village has failed to institute adequate safeguards to prevent someone from doing so.
Carolyn Modeste was banned from public service for life as part of the sentence she received, yet it seems that Tom Benton, who was ultimately responsible for overseeing her job performance, was never punished for his failures of managerial oversight or for his failure in establishing the kind of safeguards that would have limited her ability to steal all this money,.
Since Modeste's arrest and conviction Benton has seen his salary and benefits rise to $204,073.00. He also managed to acquires a $513,652.74 nest egg as a result of his taking advantage of the DROP Program, and unlike others who are forced to retire when the complete their DROP, he continues as Village Manager, while that DROP money remains in the city's bank account..
In short, while Carolyn Modeste was robbing the Village blind, the guy who was supposed to be making sure she didn't, not only failed to do his job, but in the years since has managed to make even more money that she stole in a retirement account that should have resulted in his retirement.
This fiasco should have been more than enough to cause the members of the Village Council at the time to demand annual performance reviews, were it not for the fact, that as it is today, the members of the Village Council act as little more than a rubber stamp for whatever Benton wants, or doesn't want to happen in the Village, which is a far larger problem than most Village residents either recognize or want to acknowledge.
THE CLASSIFICATION AND COMPENSATION STUDY
On September 30, 2013, a report was submitted to the Village by Evergreen Solutions, LLC, detailing the classification and compensation study they conducted with the Village employees. (The complete report is at the bottom of this story.)
Overall, the employees at the time had a number of good things to say about why they decided to work for the Village, and how they felt that the Village treated them. At the same time however, they raised a number of concerns, that reflect what continues to be concerns today about merit pay increases and even performance evaluations.
Here is just one example from the responses given over the issue of compensation.
The most significant result of this study was how, since release of the study over four years ago so few of the recommendations resulted in change. Again, this points to a failure of managerial leadership on the part of Tom Benton.
The evidence for this claim is in the documents I received from a public records request I made last week.
Next is the response from City Clerk Barbara Estep.
You would think that with only 120 - 130 employees to keep track of, the Village's Human Resource Director would be the logical person who, as part of their job, would be capable of maintaining a list of hired, fired and promoted and receiving merit pay increases.
You would be mistaken.
This in turn raises the question that if the Village isn't capable, or doesn't want to maintain adequate records to keep track of employees who they fire, or who they give pay raises to, then what else aren't they keeping records of? (You'll find out in upcoming stories.)
So what information did I get?
In the last 5 years, it turns out that of the 120 -130 Village employees, 1 individual got fired, and 4 individuals got pay raises separate from the annual COLA increases. (The documentation on these employees is also at the bottom of this story.)
On March 1st, I published a story about the way that Tom Benton, along with Village Attorney Richard Sarafan, renegotiated the lease with the Country Club that resulted in the Village loosing $585,980.60 in rental payments.
On March 3rd, I published a story that revealed how Tom Benton, again with Village Attorney Richard Sarafan went about the purchase of the Catholic Charities Building in a way that failed to divulge information - including what account the money for the purchase came from - that raised questions of not only a Sunshine Law violation - and also demonstrated a willingness to bypass the requirements of transparency and accountability.
On March 9th, I wrote about the failure of the Village to post the minutes of several Village Advisory Boards going all the way back to 2013 - a failure that has not been corrected - and the way in which the Council, led by Mayor Alice Burch consistently attempts to deny residents an opportunity to speak freely at Council meetings.
On March 20th, I revealed that Vice Mayor Steven Zelkowitz voted to award a contract to a company that, at the time of his vote, he and his law firm were identified as being paid consultant consultants to.
On March 21st, I published a copy of a letter written by Village resident and Miami Police Captain Dan Kerr, raising serious questions about the management of the Village Police Department.
On March 24th, I revealed the contents of a financial feasibility report on the redevelopment of downtown Miami Shores that provided recommendations need to entice a developer into an public/private partnership that included increasing the heights of building to a "minimum of 5 stories," " allowing for residential living downtown," "operating a new parking garage" and perhaps even giving the land that the Village Hall and Police Station sit on to the developer.
On March 29th, I wrote a story about the deficit of $2,688,079.00 that the Culture and Recreation Line Item in the budget has racked up in the years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016.
All of these issues, including the information in this story, and except the misbehavior of Vice Mayor Zelkowitz, can be attributed to the mismanagement and failure of proper oversight by Tom Benton, the Village Manager.
And I'm not through.
The first order of business of the next Village Council needs to be facing the fact that in addition to hiring a replacement for Village Clerk Barbara Estep, the Village needs a new Village Manager and a new Village Attorney.
When you go to the poll on Tuesday, keep that thought in mind. We can sort of the Community Center, and all of the other problems that will be facing the Village, but in order to do that, we need new leadership to insure that the examples of mismanagement that I've documented.