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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Tame Corruption County

Tame Corruption County
The Palm Beach Post - EDITORIAL - May 28, 2009

The grand jury report released Wednesday by State Attorney Michael McAuliffe offers a progressive, practical way to start a makeover that can turn Corruption County back into Palm Beach County. The report, correctly, aims not to single out any politician for wrongdoing but to proclaim that no politician or bureaucrat is above the law. "The status of ethics in governance," the report said, "is a concussion on the body politic which needs attention and follow-up care to heal." The report endorses creation of an independent inspector general's office to ferret out corruption and waste. It also calls for creation of an ethics panel, criminalized ethics laws and changes in how Palm Beach County buys land and picks bond underwriters. Commissioners opposed to an inspector general say that it would duplicate existing audit and police functions and would cost too much in a tough budget year. Not only are they wrong and shortsighted, as the report shows, but they look like obstructionists interested in preserving a corrupt system. The recommendations have no appeal for entrenched business interests - the insiders who profit from the system, often at the public's expense - because they are the report's targets. A business climate tightly controlled by insiders carries a cost for the entire community. The need to end that approach and welcome new, unaffiliated businesses recently was listed as a priority of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County. Corruption is the wrong image for an area trying to develop new industries, such as biotechnology. To rebut opposition over the cost of setting up an inspector general's office, the report makes the enlightened recommendation that commissioners convert what remains of their "discretionary" accounts, more than $1 million a year distributed until last year to every commissioner for projects of their choice. The accounts contain $3.4 million. That would be enough to start. Ultimately, the inspector general would survive on a dedicated tax source. The report recommends the Miami-Dade County model, a small tax on every vendor contract. It also cites the savings in Miami-Dade: more than $160 million in 10 years. The report correctly dismisses expanding the role of the county internal auditor, which focuses on policy, not criminal acts. Insiders have mastered the art of following policy. The question is whether the public is being ripped off. Additionally, the 21-member grand jury rejects a proposal for Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock to be the watchdog. The clerk is the county's chief financial officer, an inherent conflict, and an elected official who should not monitor other elected officials. Mr. McAuliffe set up and guided the grand jury's broad-ranging study. Previously, the state attorney's office was silent while the U.S. attorney's office used the federal honest services law - there is no state version - to put politicians in prison. With this report, Mr. McAuliffe and the grand jury seek to change the focus from "Who's next?" to "How does this end?" The work recommended in this report can't start soon enough.

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