In a debate shaped by an anonymous texting campaign to block “a dangerous plan” that “puts tax dollars at risk,” the Palm Beach Gardens City Council this month sharply reduced the city manager’s proposal to increase his spending authority.
The council cut City Manager Ron Ferris’ proposal in half, putting the threshold for staff to approve contracts for goods and services at 0.25 percent of the city’s budget, which amounts to $590,000, half of the $1.18 million Ferris sought. The threshold is still nearly 10 times the existing $65,000 limit and far higher than neighboring cities.
The council acted on Dec. 14 despite an impassioned plea from Ferris, who said he made the recommendation in the name of good government.
“It isn’t about power,” he told the council. “It’s trying to find the most efficient and effective way to deliver our services.”
Two council members who argued for a lower cap, Marcie Tinsley and Mark Marciano, voted against it after the council couldn’t agree on how to share real-time bidding information with the council and the public.
The council initially had approved the 0.5 percent threshold on a 4-1 vote in October, with Tinsley opposed and Marciano wavering. It would far exceed caps imposed by other local governments, including Palm Beach County, which is $200,000, and Jupiter, which is $50,000.
‘A dangerous plan’
The stage for the council’s final debate on the question was framed by two anonymous text messages, sent to an unknown number of residents, that sounded like campaign attack ads. Both were sent from the 561 area code.
One singled out Mayor Chelsea Reed and Vice Mayor Rachelle Litt, pointing out that they are paid $35,000 a year even though the council meets just once a month.
“Now they’re backing a dangerous plan to make it even easier on themselves,” the message said. “At tonight’s 6 pm city council meeting, they vote on a plan to give the unelected city manager the power to spend $1.2 million taxpayer dollars without public oversight. We elected them to protect us. Why are they passing the buck?”
The other text called the proposal “terrible,” saying it “empowers Ron Ferris — an unelected bureaucrat — to approve contracts for goods and services worth $1.18 million without council review, up from $65,000.”
Despite the text campaign, only one member of the community, former Councilmember David Levy, rose at the Dec. 14 meeting to speak against the proposal.
To counter fears of a power grab, Ferris’ purchasing director, Km! Ra, spoke for 15 minutes Dec. 14, explaining how he does his job and how he could work more efficiently if he didn’t have to wait for council review and approval of contracts.
Finance Administrator Allan Owens also spoke, showing the council that if the new threshold had been in place, 24 of 32 contracts last year would not have gone to the council, saving hundreds of hours of staff time preparing the matters for public review. The eight contracts that still would have been reviewed made up the bulk of the spending, he said, at $18.9 million out of $26 million.
‘This can save taxpayer dollars’
Then Ferris spoke for five minutes, saying he initially had been skeptical of the proposal. But his mind changed as he saw the effects of delays in the international supply chain, pointing out that he had to wait 12 months to get new furniture.
The proposal is not about power, he said, and wouldn’t really empower him.
“I don’t write checks. I don’t initiate purchases. I’m the tail end of the process. Everything that is purchased has got to be in the budget the City Council has already approved or it won’t even get to me.”
Instead, Ferris said, the proposal is about efficiency.
“It’s about the residents getting the services and facilities in the most efficient and effective way we can. We’re all on the same boat saving taxpayers dollars. I believe this can save taxpayer dollars.”
Ferris, who became city manager in 2000, pointed to areas where the council gave him authority to approve contracts without review, such as the building of the North County District Park. The result is that residents could begin enjoying facilities that otherwise would have taken longer to build.
He concluded that the criticisms in the text messages were off base.
“I don’t know what other agendas are being played out there. We’re getting some disturbing responses. I’m being called names — hurt my feelings — but It’s OK. People don’t understand what our intent is. Our intent is to do good.”
‘Silly text messages’
And council members rose to his defense, also dismissing the text messages.
“This has absolutely nothing to do with Ron no matter what the text messages said,” Tinsley said.
“I don’t care what people say in these silly text messages,” Marciano said. “I don’t know who’s sending them all out. The misinformation and disinformation bothers me because this is the city of Palm Beach Gardens. This is not Congress. And we don’t need that type of silliness and whatever political consultant that’s out there that’s crafting these languages, please stop. If you want to talk to any of us we are at the ballfields with you, we are at Publix with you, at the local restaurants. We don’t need this kind of nonsense.”
The aim of the text messages, Reed said, was to upset city residents.
“However, nobody got upset,” she said. “Mostly everyone was upset that someone got ahold of their cell phone numbers. The information that was being shared made absolutely no sense whatsoever.”
She said four of five emails she received on the topic came from “pretty much the same street,” one that a council member lives on. “So I can’t consider that an accurate reflection of our residents’ concerns,” she said.
Councilmember Carl Woods went further, calling the texts fabricated “bullshit” and signaling that he suspected a council member had been behind them.
“I would appreciate it if any council members are getting involved in these random texts or blast phone calls, please don’t do that because I for one would separate myself from that council member forever. It’s just divisive and we shouldn’t be involved in it.”
Marciano, sitting next to him, apparently made a comment, to which Woods replied, “I didn’t say you are, Mark.”
‘Not a baby step’
Still, Marciano, who leaves office in March, found the proposed threshold to be too high.
“Although I completely understand that all of the checks and balances are in place and they’re not going anywhere, the optics just are not good,” Marciano said. “This is not a baby step in the minds and the hearts of the people and the community who we represent.”
He and Tinsley said they would be happy with a 0.2 percent threshold, the equivalent of $472,000.
Reed proposed a 0.25 percent threshold with the procurement officer’s tracking spreadsheet available to the council and published on the city website.
But the council couldn’t agree on the terms of how to make the spreadsheet available.
Marciano suggested postponing the vote to work out the issue but Ferris said it wasn’t necessary.
“I know exactly what you want,’ Ferris said, adding that he just needed time to find the best way to share the spreadsheet. “If I had my way you’d have direct access.”
While the discussion focused on assuring the council access to the information, it did not address making it available to the general public.
Rather than continue the debate, Reed amended her motion to simply change the threshold from 0.5 percent to 0.25 percent and drop the requirement to publish the backup data.
It passed 3-2, with Marciano and Tinsley voting against it.
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.