With overwhelming support from voters, Miami Beach creates a watchdog for City Hall

Over the years, Miami Beach has had its share of City Hall scandals.

The city’s former chief building official was charged with unlawful compensation and conspiracy in 2018 for allegedly accepting free and discounted rooms from a hotelier who got permits and approvals from the official’s department. (The former official has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.)

Two years before that, $3.5 million was stolen from a city of Miami Beach bank account. It was weeks before the finance department noticed the missing money, although the city found no evidence to suggest its employees were involved.

In 2015, the city’s former procurement director pleaded guilty to racketeering, money laundering and bribery charges for selling information to businesses trying to win public contracts. In 2012, the FBI caught seven fire inspectors and code compliance officers taking bribes from an Ocean Drive nightclub.

And that’s just the past decade.

It’s easy to see why Miami Beach residents and city officials might want an extra set of eyes at City Hall. In November, voters overwhelming supported amending the city charter to create an independent inspector general’s office.

On Wednesday, the City Commission unanimously passed an ordinance that defines the inspector general’s role and lays out the selection process.

The City Hall watchdog will be tasked with making city government more efficient and will scrutinize public contracts, programs and spending — including a $439 million general obligation bond program, which voters approved in November. The inspector general will also investigate complaints from residents and city officials and will have the ability to subpoena witnesses. He or she will be required to notify law enforcement agencies of corruption and fraud investigations.

“There’s a great expectation in our city that we will have honest government with the best practices available and the purpose of this is to make government smarter and more honest and more efficient, and I think our citizens really want that,” said Mayor Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor who campaigned on the creation of an inspector general’s office.

The new initiative has been applauded by advocates for good governance.

“Whenever a municipality is going to commit resources and personnel to act as a watch guard in their community, that’s a positive,” said Jose Arrojo, the executive director of the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.

Anthony Alfieri, director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami law school, said the creation of the inspector general’s office “is an important public policy initiative particularly in advancing the values of government accountability and transparency.”

But Alfieri said he does have one concern about the City Commission’s authority over the inspector general’s budget. The City Commission has to approve the city’s annual budget, which will now include funding for the inspector general. Although the ordinance stipulates that the commission “shall provide sufficient funds” for the office to operate, Alfieri said the annual budget process could lead to conflicts.

“Nonetheless, a recurrent concern in even the best policy initiatives concerns the lack of a multi-year budgetary commitment and the risk that the commission will use its budgetary authority as a means of chilling future investigations,” he said.

Miami Beach has budgeted $484,000 for the office’s first partial year of operation. The new office could cost the city as much as $1.1 million a year, depending on the number of staff, but Miami Beach may add a surcharge to city contracts to help cover the costs.

Commissioner Mark Samuelian, who has pushed for the inspector general’s office, said he thinks the initiative will end up saving the city money over the long run.

“One of the main functions of the inspector general is to help the city government work more efficiently, so if you think about it, even if the inspector general would identify just 1 percent efficiencies, that’s $6 million a year,” he said. “If you ask me if I’d spend $1 million to save $6 million? Any day of the week.”

In an effort to save the city money and avoid duplicating work, the City Commission opted to combine the city’s existing internal audit department with the new inspector general’s office. A former Miami Beach fire inspector, David Weston, said he thinks the audit department and the inspector general’s office should be separate entities.

Weston went to the audit department when he worked for the city to raise concerns about fire inspectors, but he said he was told to “back off or get fired.”

“I chose the latter, was fired and then went to police,” Weston said in an e-mail. His concerns were proven correct in 2012 when the FBI caught inspectors taking bribes.

But city officials and experts consulted by the Herald said they think putting the audit department under an independent inspector general will strengthen its role.

“The internal audit function already performs a lot of important reviews of city operations and has qualified staff so by putting them under the inspector general it will give them a measure of independence that they did not have before,” said Ron Starkman, a member of Miami Beach’s audit committee.

The inspector general will be selected by a committee that includes the Miami-Dade state attorney, the county inspector general, the director of the county’s ethics commission and Miami Beach’s city attorney. The candidate has to be approved by the City Commission. He or she will serve a four-year term and can be reappointed.

Gelber said the selection committee will likely pick a candidate for commission approval within the next few months.

Miami Beach United, a nonprofit residents group, supports the creation of the inspector general’s office but raised concerns about the City Commission’s ability to remove the inspector general. The seven-member commission had considered requiring a five-sevenths vote in order to remove an inspector general, but opted to make the threshold a four-sevenths vote instead.

Although an individual inspector general could be removed by the City Commission, the office can’t be dissolved unless a majority of voters opt to do so in a citywide referendum.