View Full Version : No amount is an inappropriate amount, dammit!

11-03-2006, 03:40 PM

Some Cooper City leaders defend billing meals to taxpayers
Cooper City commissioners were caught on tape drinking and eating together at bars and cafes before meetings.
Cooper City commissioners voted themselves hefty pay raises and approved a $40 million budget -- all after wining and dining on the taxpayer's dime, according to a hidden-camera investigation by Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4.
The two-month investigation, which was broadcast Thursday night, showed city commissioners and City Manager Chris Farrell at restaurants in Cooper City and Davie, having dinner and chatting while holding wine glasses and, in one case, what the report said was a beer bottle. Afterward, they drove to City Hall, where, before a room filled with residents, they passed laws and made decisions about expenditures involving taxpayer dollars.
After one such gathering, the television investigation showed, the commissioners voted themselves pay raises that will more than double their salaries next year.
All five of the commissioners -- Mayor Debby Eisinger, Commissioners Linda Ferrara, Elliot Kleiman, Bart Roper and John Valenti are on the tape, as well as Farrell. Ferrara and Valenti did not return phone calls Thursday. Roper declined to comment. Eisinger said the dinners have been a standard practice for years. Kleiman said the meetings are good for the city.
''As with any type of PR activity, it gets expensed to taxpayers,'' Kleiman said. ``The whole purpose was to develop our image.''
Farrell responded in an e-mail: ``At no time did any member of the commission, or any member of the city staff, ever consume an inappropriate amount of alcohol or ever become intoxicated at any of these dinners.''
For years, before most commission meetings, commissioners and city staff have been holding ''City Commission dinners,'' current and former commissioners said. CBS4 documented four recent dinner meetings between Aug. 22 and Oct. 3, which cost taxpayers nearly $1,000 in total. It wasn't clear if commissioners were discussing city business at the dinner meetings. If they were, the meetings would violate Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law, which requires commissioners to discuss city business in public.
And if they weren't discussing city business, some taxpayers are wondering why taxpayers are footing the bills.
''Why are we paying for that?'' Cooper City resident John Sims said. ``If indeed it is personal time, they should be paying for it.''
Even if the commissioners weren't intoxicated -- and there was no evidence they were -- Sims said any alcohol before a city meeting is too much. ''I don't care if it's one sip of beer or wine or hard liquor,'' he said.
During the CBS4 investigation, reporter Mike Kirsch followed Cooper City commissioners and senior city staff to restaurants. CBS4 then used hidden cameras to record the commissioners standing around bars and sitting down to dinner while talking to each other and to the city manager, BSO District Chief John Hale and other officials. Farrell and other commissioners were drinking wine and other alcoholic beverages, the report said, but Hale, who was in uniform, was drinking soda.
After a Sept. 27 dinner, the commission voted to raise the mayor's salary from $7,000 to $20,000 and they hiked each commissioner's salary from $6,000 to $15,000 a year.
One person who witnessed one of the dinners, Miami Beach police union president Bobby Jenkins said he saw the group on Aug. 22 while sitting at the bar at Landlubbers Raw Bar and Grill, in Cooper City.
Jenkins, who lives in Cooper City and has been a road sobriety test instructor for more than 20 years, said he was appalled: ``The fact that they were drinking, that was what shocked me more than anything. If I showed up to work that way, they'd fire me.''
Kleiman told The Miami Herald that the dinners were held to recognize employee accomplishments, which is why the meals were expensed to taxpayers. Eisinger said commission members and department heads have attended pre-commission meeting dinners for years.
''These dinners have been a customary practice of prior City Commissions in Cooper City for more than 15 years,'' Eisinger told The Miami Herald in an e-mail. ``I have been advised that these dinners are neither legally nor ethically wrong in any respect as no City business is discussed.''
Commissioner Kleiman's son, Scott Kleiman, a former city commissioner, confirmed the tradition.
''Maybe somebody had a glass of wine,'' he said of the meetings he attended. ``But nobody was sitting in a bar for hours drinking.''

11-03-2006, 03:46 PM