The Palm Beach Gardens City Council is on the verge of giving its city manager far more purchasing power than other top administrators in the county.
The proposal backed in October on first reading by the council would empower City Manager Ron Ferris to approve contracts for goods and services worth $1.18 million without council review, up from $65,000.
Palm Beach County’s threshold is $200,000. In Jupiter, it’s $50,000. In Boca Raton and Boynton Beach, it’s $100,000. Delray Beach is $65,000.
Two council members, Marcie Tinsley and Mark Marciano, questioned the proposal on Oct. 6, with Tinsley the sole vote against it. It returns for second reading Dec. 14.
While three council members praised the proposal, one independent government watchdog said it removes an important check on the power of the city manager.
“Taxpayers are best served with wise and prudent checks and balances,” said Dominic Calabro, founder and CEO of Florida TaxWatch in Tallahassee. “It’s not based on what the city manager wants. It’s based on what the elected officials — the City Council — permits. They should not permit unilateral control. It’s not the system of governance we have in America.”
And one frequent council critic said the action further weakens a weak council.
“What this does is it removes the fig leaf of pretense that we have a council because they no longer will have any issue under $1 million in front of them,” said Ballenisles resident Sid Dinerstein. “They’ve given up the power of the purse.”
Contractors can’t wait
City officials argued for the higher cap out of concerns for efficiency. Since the council meets just once a month it slows down the award of contracts, which can cause problems when prices rise rapidly. Contractors don’t want to lock down last month’s prices for approval a month later.
At times, City Attorney Max Lohman explained, city staff has been forced to sign letters to assure nervous contractors that their bids would be accepted.
“What that has done is put the staff in a position to make promises that we couldn’t necessarily keep that were dependent upon whether or not you guys approved it,” Lohman told the council.
Buf if speed is the issue, Calabro said, the council could assign two or three of its members to a committee to meet publicly when contracts must be approved, retaining council oversight without slowing city functions.
‘Giant leap’ for city procurement
The public review, however, is not needed because council members already sign off on the contract amounts when they approve annual budgets every September, purchasing director Km! Ra told the council.
Calling the $65,000 threshold “ludicrous,” he explained that industry best practices regard council review as a deficiency when it hands out industry excellence awards.
“It costs us 10 points out of a potential 200 points because it is not a best practice,” said the Jamaican-born official, whose name means “a part of the sun.”
Referring to Neil Armstrong’s comment upon stepping on the moon, Km! Ra suggested a giant leap in this case would be for the council to have no approval over contracts at all. “That would make us very progressive,” he said.
He also offered a philosophical take, reminding council members that it’s understandable to be uncomfortable with change.
“Change is the only constant in the universe,” he said. “If we didn’t make changes, we’d still be living in caves. We’d not have moved forward. And we would not be able to call our city a progressive city.”
‘Can’t put a dollar amount on that’
Tinsley suggested a cap of $325,000 or even $500,000 but said “I strongly feel that $1.1 million is too much.”
It’s about accountability and transparency, she said.
While Km! Ra suggested the contracts would still be published on the city’s vendor list, Tinsley countered that most residents never look at the vendor list.
“It’s our fiduciary responsibility, in my opinion, to know what’s being purchased, when it’s being purchased and for how much it’s being purchased,” she said. “And to me that’s just a big transparency and you can’t put a dollar amount on that. The public hearing agenda is the best way to keep that transparency.”
Marciano asked what other cities do but didn’t get a precise answer. PBGWatch.com first reported on the levels of other Palm Beach County governments, including the county, Boca, Boynton and Jupiter.
“When you see a change from $65,000 to a million dollars that just raises a red flag,” Marciano said.
Countering the argument that the council already approved the cost of the item in its annual budget, he added, “I like to consider myself a budget person and I couldn’t tell you all the line items that we possibly approved in a year because there’s a thousand of them.”
‘Put big boy pants on’
The proposal immediately won the support of Councilmember Carl Woods. “I’m good with it,” he told his colleagues. “We ought to put big boy pants on and let the city do their business.”
He later added that if the council isn’t happy with the city manager’s decisions, the council can fire the manager.
“I just think that it just helps the city run more efficient,” he said, “and if you guys get into the weeds of it you’re not going to know what line items were approved anyway.”
Ferris, 76, has been city manager for 22 years. He receives unanimous support from council members during annual evaluations, in which they shower him with praise. At the last public report, his contract called for him to be paid $314,000 a year and had no end date.
Mayor Chelsea Reed, who won a second, three-year term when no one filed in November to run against her, pointed out that the city lists contract awards on its website within a month. “That to me sounds like transparency,” she said.
Councilmember Rochelle Litt seemed satisfied with that approach as well. “We can’t afford to slow things down and come back to us for stuff we’ve already approved,” she said.
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.