By Dan Moffett
Town Council President Sue Thaler says Briny Breezes got its “wrist slapped” in December when the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General released a report criticizing how the town does its business.
But it was really more about the Briny handshake than its wrist.
For years, the town has kept it informal when hiring vendors, often using word-of-mouth instead of advertising and renewing contracts with little more than a phone call.
Though the town prides itself as a friendly, easy-going place, the inspector general says it is still a governmental entity that must use more than a handshake when doing the public’s business.
The county auditors specifically cited the town’s hiring of Harvel Utility Construction, the water and sewer system maintenance company, and Jim Phillippi, Briny’s meter reader, as failing to “comply with the town’s procurement policy” because there was no competitive bidding. The auditors also criticized the town for allowing Harvel to work without a signed contract.
The inspector general’s report has raised collateral issues with the status of Deputy Town Clerk Lesa Shoeman, the town’s only employee, who technically really isn’t one. Shoeman has worked as an independent contractor since taking the part-time job in September 2012, but Town Attorney John Skrandel believes she should be made an official employee of the town to satisfy Internal Revenue Service regulations.
Skrandel said he’s been contacting other municipalities around the state, searching for an independent contractor arrangement similar to Shoeman’s, but hasn’t been able to find one.
“From my research, there’s not another town who’s using a contractor in this fashion,” he said. “Everyone is using employees.”
Town leaders have been clear that their response to the inspector general is about process, not people. No official has raised any performance complaints about Harvel, Phillippi or Shoeman. Quite the contrary, each has won praise from council members.
But the auditors’ report can’t be ignored. “We’re trying to comply with purchasing procedures,” Thaler said. “We’re not going to try to change personnel.”
With Aldermen Barbara Molina and Jim McCormick exiting the May 22 meeting early, the remaining council members unanimously approved tabling a motion on Shoeman’s job, but agreed to begin advertising the position, with a description as a town employee.
Skrandel got a verbal commitment from Phillippi during the meeting to continue reading meters as an independent contractor. The attorney said he would try to explain to the inspector general that the town should continue its current arrangement with Earl Harvel, owner of Harvel Utility, without seeking bids, because it’s worked well for many years, and the town doesn’t want to lose him.
“He’s the type of guy who likes to do his job, but he doesn’t like these little nit-picky, technical issues,” Skrandel said.“He might not bid and just say forget it if there’s a bid requirement.”
In other business:
• The commission agreed to postpone work on a 10-year water plan to satisfy a mandate from the South Florida Water Management District. Commissioners want to see if they can draw from the plans of neighboring communities, particularly Boynton Beach where the town gets its water, and avoid paying a consultant.
Planning and Zoning Board Chairman Jerry Lower said he was “very confident” his committee could produce a plan quickly, if needed.
“I’m all about saving money for the town,” said Thaler about avoiding the cost of a consultant. “I can’t even tell you how I feel about having to spend money on a plan that we really don’t have any control of, but we have to do it.”
• Commissioners set budget workshop dates for July 8, 10 and 11, with each session tentatively set for 1 p.m.
Note: Lower is publisher of The Coastal Star.
By Dan Moffett