Jess Santamaria on an Independent IG
This article appeared in the Wellington Town-Crier on 11/27/09. In it he asks concerned citizens to attend the County Commission Meeting at 10:00 am on Tuesday 12/1 in the Council Chambers on the 6th floor of the county building in West Palm Beach, and speak up for an Independent Inspector General.
Santamaria: Support Independent Inspector
Ron Bukley — 11/27/2009
Waste and corruption in Palm Beach County proves the need for an independent inspector general, County Commissioner Jess Santamaria said at his monthly community forum on Wednesday, Nov. 18. The inspector general’s position will be discussed by the Palm Beach County Commission on Tuesday, Dec. 1, and Santamaria urged people attending the forum to get involved.
At the forum, Santamaria recalled his first three years as a county official.
“This month, I will complete three years in office,” Santamaria said. “There’s a lot of things that I knew what to expect, but a lot of the things I expected, I had to multiply by 10.”
Two issues that have made significant impressions on him have been discovering how much money the county has wasted, and how effective public participation can be to hold officials accountable.
The recent decisions about a new waste-to-energy plant and landfill sites show examples of both, Santamaria said.
On Wednesday, Nov. 18, the commissioners, acting as the Solid Waste Authority Governing Board, heard a presentation about a waste-to-energy plant that could dramatically reduce waste volume and extend the life of the county’s current landfill to the year 2045, he said.
One month earlier the commissioners were ready to purchase one of two landfill sites whose asking prices were millions over their appraised value. The SWA already owns a 1,600-acre site immediately west of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, which was later rejected as a future landfill site after environmentalists raised objections.
Six commissioners were at the SWA meeting Oct. 7, and they were very close to a vote in which Santamaria anticipated he would be the only negative vote against an overpriced land purchase. “I said we don’t have to pick either of them,” he recalled. “Throw them in the trash can. Start over, or get eminent domain and let the courts decide what is the true value.”
Commissioner Karen Marcus supported a motion to postpone the decision until the county can negotiate a possible land swap with the South Florida Water Management District. In such a deal, the SFWMD would take the rejected SWA-owned site in exchange for some of the land it plans to purchase from U.S. Sugar.
“That gave us six months to get word out about this crazy price,” Santamaria said. “We were able to generate an outcry. Three weeks after that, 30 or so residents finally screamed bloody murder. A lot of you showed up and spoke. We were able to talk commissioners into discarding the properties and waiting for South Florida Water Management District to proceed.”
The postponement also enabled the presentation about the waste-to-energy plant, he noted. “It is a more efficient way of getting rid of garbage, using special equipment that burns garbage so it reduces mass by 95 percent,” Santamaria said.
Santamaria said that if the county does adopt a mass burn program, it will alleviate the urgency to create a new landfill.
Santamaria wondered aloud where the county would be if he had remained quiet. “We would have another Mecca Farms,” he said, referring to the county’s ill-fated purchase of land north of The Acreage for the Scripps Research Institute, which was later relocated to Palm Beach Gardens after the Mecca property fell to a lawsuit by environmentalists.
So far the county has spent over $100 million on Mecca Farms, he noted.
“We knew about the lawsuit by environmentalists, and we started building the water lines for the infrastructure,” Santamaria said. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. We have a lawsuit, and you’re going to spend tens of millions of dollars to start putting in the improvements. When you have a lawsuit, you stop everything.”
Santamaria said people complain to their elected officials about taxes, but if there is dishonesty in government, complaining will not matter. He said getting honesty in government calls for the adoption of the grand jury’s recent recommendation for an independent inspector general to monitor government entities and the vendors that do business with them.
The current economic crisis was brought about by a combination of corruption, greed and waste, he charged. “It was a combination of the bankers, the mortgage companies, the appraisers and the Realtors, the flippers and the builders who kept raising the prices until the roof collapsed,” Santamaria said. “Now, we’re all suffering.”
Santamaria cited several other examples of what he views as waste, including a county-owned golf course in Delray Beach, the renovation of the historic downtown courthouse and moving county offices to the Vista Center.
“Why are we competing with private golf courses?” he asked. “Why did we have to spend some $14 million of your taxpayers’ money on a golf course when we have golf courses going bankrupt?”
Spending $49 million to move employees to the Vista Center on Jog Road off Okeechobee in 2006 was wasteful when the workforce is now so much smaller, he said.
“We’ve laid off a third of the employees because there’s not much work for them,” Santamaria said. “Why are taxes so high? Because we have a debt of $1.3 billion. Why are taxes so high? Because we’re giving away lots of money.”
The grand jury recommendation to establish an independent inspector general is a necessary step to keep people honest, Santamaria said.
The county commission is in the process of formulating an ordinance to create such an office, and Santamaria stressed that the position must be independent. However, under the current proposal, the position would not be, he said. Ultimate control still lies with the commissioners — and with three commissioners being sent to jail since 2006, that type of arrangement is not appropriate, he said.
“They are going to hire, fire and fund the inspector general,” Santamaria said. “My question, of course, is that independent?”
Several groups have been gathering petitions, speaking out, sending e-mails and writing letters to the newspaper, saying that the inspector general’s position must be completely independent, Santamaria said. “I’m asking those of you here to do the same thing,” he said, adding that he has petition forms for people to pick up and have signed.
The petitions must be filled out by Dec. 1 when a public workshop will be held for the draft ordinance to be discussed and the public will be able to speak. Final approval is scheduled for Dec. 15.
“It’s most important to show up at the Dec. 1 meeting to say we have to have an independent inspector general,” Santamaria stressed. “I don’t think you’re going to have honesty in government until you put some pressure on some people and force them to be honest.”