By Dan Moffett
When Palm Beach County voters overwhelmingly approved the creation of an Inspector General’s Office in 2010, they made a binding contract with cities and towns that requires them to help pay for the new watchdog.
That is the centerpiece of Circuit Judge Catherine Brunson’s 11-page ruling in the four-year legal fight between the county and a coalition of 14 municipalities over how the IG office should be funded.
In her March 12 decision, Brunson sided with the county on almost every point of contention in the lawsuit. She dismissed the cities’ claim that the county was imposing an unlawful tax. She rejected the notion that municipal residents were victims of double taxation. She gave no weight to complaints about interfering with budgeting. She threw out the argument that sovereign immunity prohibits the county from interfering in how cities and towns govern themselves.
Brunson, after deliberating nearly eight months since the August trial, sent out a relatively simple message to the plaintiff municipalities: The voters have spoken. Now deal with it.
“The court ruled essentially that voters, by approving the referendum, executed a valid and binding contract on behalf of their municipalities to pay for the countywide program,” said Manalapan Town Attorney Keith Davis. “The court said the payments are not an unlawful tax but are in fact a user fee which the municipalities could have opted out of at the point of the vote on the referendum.”
Delray Beach City Attorney Noel Pfeffer said there was “a lot of legal nuance” in the judge’s decision, as well as “both policy and legal overtones” that could impact the way governments interact with each other.
“This ruling touches on four or five cornerstones of local government law with respect to cities’ municipal powers,” Pfeffer said. “There’s a lot for elected officials to consider.”
Pfeffer said he intends to discuss the ruling with city commissioners during their first April meeting to find out whether they want to continue as a plaintiff and pursue a probable appeal.
Davis has already received the go-ahead from his Town Commission to stay in the case.
“As we’ve said all along, we truly believe that the law is on the side of the municipalities,” Davis said. “I don’t think anybody truly believed this would be resolved at the lower level. The belief was it would ultimately go through the appellate process so the law can be decided once and for all.”
On March 26, the cities petitioned the court for a rehearing on the grounds that Brunson, to make her decision, went beyond the issues discussed during the trial. The motion is unlikely to be granted.
Davis said West Palm Beach has committed to continue “doing all the heavy lifting” and paying for the appeal case, making the decision to stay in the suit easier for the other plaintiffs. Coastal communities Boca Raton, Gulf Stream, Highland Beach and Ocean Ridge appear likely to remain in the group of 14. Other members include Riviera Beach, Lake Park, Jupiter, Palm Beach Gardens, Tequesta, Palm Beach Shores and Mangonia Park.
The cities aren’t challenging the existence of the IG office — just how to pay for it.
“That idea could set in motion a dangerous set of events,” Elliot Cohen, a spokesman for West Palm Beach, said of the ruling. “If a public referendum can give any county the right to reach into any cities’ pockets and collect any amount of money it claims is needed, it not only violates the sovereignty of the cities, but it wreaks havoc with the cities’ ability to properly and predictably handle their budgets.”
Brunson disagreed. “The municipalities overstate the extent of their discretion with respect to establishing a budget as it relates to this issue.” She said the voters’ approval of the IG office overrides the authority of towns and cities to spend tax dollars as they see fit.
“Each municipality’s power to make a budget is not a purely discretionary function as its discretion may be modified or restricted by the electorate through its referendum powers,” she wrote.
The plaintiffs also lost the argument that taxpayers living in municipalities were paying twice for IG services compared with taxpayers who live in unincorporated areas and have no local government to pay. Brunson said residents of towns and cities can take advantage of distinct benefits from the IG office in their own communities.“The municipalities and their citizens have the opportunity to file complaints and receive investigations, audits and reviews of their own governing body,” she wrote. “This is clearly a real and substantial benefit uniquely provided to the municipalities.”
Perhaps most compelling, Brunson shot down the idea of sovereign immunity — that towns and cities inherently have the autonomy to set up their own governments and run their communities as they want without interference from the county.
“The municipalities present no persuasive legal authority to support these assertions that sovereign immunity invalidates the vote of approval by their respective citizens,” she wrote, again pointing to the ballot box as the ultimate authority.
Gulf Stream Town Manager William Thrasher said voters didn’t have all the information they needed when they went to the polls. “The IG was a good idea and there is great need, but it was very vague in the referendum language,” Thrasher said. “I think there is justifiable reason to argue against the funding method presently being used.” Ú
By Dan Moffett