Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober confirmed Friday afternoon that he has asked federal and state authorities to investigate allegations that City Manager Cameron Benson used city employees who were personal friends to accept gifts from a company seeking the city’s garbage collection contract.The allegations wee made in two typed, unsigned letters City Commissioners received last week.One letter claims that two years ago, when Hollywood privatized its garbage collection services, “...Benson spearheaded this transition, using several of his close, personal friends, to guide and direct WastePro representatives and lobbyist (sic) during the period when the City’s ‘Cone of Silence’ ordinance was in effect. During this period when City employees are prohibited from actively promoting or otherwise providing bid information to potential vendors,” Wade Sanders and Charles Lassiter, two Hollywood public works employees and purported friends of Benson’s, were wined and dined by WastePro.The letter says Sanders was given a gift card and money order for home improvement services at one of the meals, and that he used them to buy items for Benson’s vacation home in Nova Scotia, Canada, then personally drove more than 2,000 miles to deliver the items to the house.“It is common knowledge that Wade Sanders brought several items for Cameron Benson’s second home in Nova Scotia with the money order and gift card received from the WastePro group,’’ the letter stated. “In fact, many of these items were driven to Mr. Benson’s Nova Scotia home by Wade Sanders during one of his recent trips over the last year.’’WastePro ultimately landed the city contract, and Sanders was promoted to a supervisory position in the city’s Public Works Department.The letter also claimed that Benson ordered Hollywood Police to buy several generators using city money and had an officer deliver one of the generators to Benson’s parents’ Lauderhill home following Hurricane Wilma in 2005.Sources close to the investigation said Friday that Benson has acknowledged asking a police officer to deliver a generator to the home of his father, longtime community leader and current Lauderhill Commissioner Hayward Benson. But, the source said the city manager adamantly denies that city money was used to pay for the equipment.Benson, through a city spokeswoman, declined to comment Friday, citing the ongoing investigation. And efforts to reach Sanders and Lassiter were unsuccessful.A spokesman for WastePro denied the allegations in the letters and suggested the anonymous charges are being made by opponents of the company’s efforts to secure further garbage contracts with other Broward municipalities.Bober said Friday that he had no choice except to seek outside help to investigate the claims against Benson. The day before, he asked the FBI for assistance.He also sought help from the Broward State Attorney’s Office. Hollywood Police Chief Chadwick Wagner wrote Satz’s office as well, to inform Broward prosecutors that he was requesting investigative assistance from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.“I hope none of this is true, but given Hollywood’s history with prior scandals involving public office, and my promises of transparency when I campaigned for this office, I had to ask the question: Would the residents of Hollywood accept the city investigating itself in this matter or would it be more appropriate to have an impartial party do so,” Bober said.While the letters’ anonymity bothers him, Bober said, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not credible.“I have seen circumstances in which employees would like to complain about superiors but don’t because they fear that if they’re identified they could suffer repercussions,” said Bober, a labor attorney. “As unfortunate as the situation is, we have to take these claims seriously.”Corruption claims are not new to Hollywood.In 2000 former Police Chief Rick Stone filed a RICO (Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization) lawsuit against police union bosses, alleging they helped facilitate criminal behavior on the part of active cops.In 2007, four Hollywood Police officers were busted for acting as guards and escorts for cash and jewels being shuttled through the city by FBI agents posing as mobsters. The bust was part of an FBI sting aimed at rooting out corrupt cops. That federal investigation was cut short, after then police chief James Scarberry exposed the investigation - a move federal authorities said may have tipped off other cops who might have gotten caught on the take. Scarberry resigned a short term later.That same year Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom was removed from office after a jury convicted him of misconduct for pushing other comissioners to award a multi-million sludge clean-up contract to a company with whom he’d secretly cut a side lobbying deal.
The city has been holding ceremonies lately to celebrate new and shiny things.Last month there was a groundbreaking for a $7.9 million fire station on the beach. Last week, the signature water tower was unveiled after $680,000 in renovations.And next month, 1990s musical acts Exposé and En Vogue will be in town for free concerts to mark the grand opening of a $5 million amphitheater in the nearly completed ArtsPark in Young Circle downtown.For visitors, Hollywood's newest trophies create the aura of a city overcoming a down economy. But for residents who closely follow the city's budget, the new additions gild with rose paint a much more drab portrait of a city in dire financial straits."You look at all these new things, but we are not progressing at all," said activist Sara Case, who for years has edited an online watchdog newsletter about city finances. "The city is going backwards."On Wednesday, city commissioners were forced to dip into the city's rainy-day bank account after learning that staffers are predicting an $8.5 million shortfall by the end of this fiscal year. Staffers said the city is bringing in less money than predicted, and spending more than expected.Commissioners responded by pulling about $7.3 million from the reserve fund, a move that leaves only about $2 million for such emergencies as a hurricane.Staffers are looking at slashing a total of about $2.1 million from nearly every city account. That includes cutting membership fees, uniform costs, overtime pay and even sums spent on pens and pencils. Commissioners also declared a "financial urgency," allowing the city to strike new deals with its unions.On Thursday, Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober told the Sun Sentinel he wants the city's budget director, Cynthia Forrester, fired for making bad revenue and expenditure projections."In a year of financial budget crisis, you just can't be off by a number like that and expect to still be working for the city of Hollywood," he said. "They get paid for one thing, and one thing alone, and that is to make those projections. We can't afford to be wrong."In a written statement issued Thursday, City Manager Cameron Benson said he is looking at "addressing all aspects of the city's finances, from staffing issues to a reorganization of the budget office and other departments."City activist Mel Pollack, a retired accountant, said he is not surprised by the financial mess."I've been talking and writing about this for years," he said. "I've always been the doom-and-gloom guy. But people don't want to hear the facts until it hits their pocketbooks."In a video of Wednesday's city meeting, Forrester and other budget staffers attributed the shortfall to the very same problems other Broward cities cite for their budget woes: a down housing market and lucrative pension deals for workers.Staffers also said they are getting less than anticipated from the city's red light-camera program, a gambling revenue-sharing compact with the Seminole Tribe, and a number of state funds. Forrester vowed to keep a closer eye on every expenditure, no matter how tiny."We will be looking at every pen and pencil," she told commissioners. "We can't continue to spend, spend, spend. We don't run our checkbooks at home like that."City officials on Thursday defended as necessities the fire station construction, the amphitheater and the renovations to the water tower. Much of the funding comes from grants and fees, they said. They said the long-anticipated improvements did not lead to the current fiscal crisis.At the same time, Bober said, some expenditures approved over the last few months would have been more closely scrutinized had staffers alerted the commission sooner to the budget shortfalls.That includes the water tower.Commissioners approved spending $590,000 in July 2010 to fix, paint and install new lighting at the 50-year-old water tower on Sheridan Road just west of Interstate 95.Five months later, the commission approved spending $86,000 more on the tower for an LED screen that flashes the time and temperature. The funds were generated by rising rates of water and sewer fees.Activist David Mach said he understands spending money on things such as revamping the water tower to attract tourists and give the perception of a happening city. However, he believes city staffers and commissioners need to plan better."You still try to do your best to keep the tourist even in a bad economy," he said. "But you have to do this with proper management."
Angry and disappointed, Hollywood commissioners have dipped into the city's reserve fund to cover what the mayor called "an absolutely unacceptable and completely inexcusable'' mistake."Somebody should be fired for this," Mayor Peter Bober said during the City Commission meeting.The city had expected to make money through its red light camera program, a gambling revenue share with the Seminole Tribe and increased occupational licensing.All are falling dramatically short."The forecast was not conservative enough. It was too rosy," Bober said.The city will now dip into its reserves and take $7.3 million, leaving $2 million in city coffers.The Commission unanimously voted to declare the city under "financial urgency,'' which will allow it to enter into discussions with city labor unions to renegotiate pensions and collective bargaining agreements.Matthew Lalla, the city's director of financial services, said the problem's largest source is a legacy of prior pension and collective bargaining agreements with city employees including fire and police."The situation didn't happen in a single year. The situation reflects seeds that were sown about 15 years ago," Lalla said.City leaders did not discuss layoffs at the meeting and city spokeswoman Raelin Storey said it is too soon to determine if layoffs or more severe cuts to city programs and projects will happen in the near future."It's really hard to say right now how everything will fall out,'' Storey said. "There is a lot of work to do.''Projects like the ArtsPark at Young Circle, the city's new firehouse and several historical projects that are in the construction process will be completed but all other non-essential projects or projects that have not begun will be reconsidered. Already, however, a 10-page list of cuts throughout city departments indicate slashes in items such as overtime, supplies, advertising, uniforms and tools.The list, which amounts to $2.17 million in cuts, includes $40,000 for the city's Fourth of July fireworks display and $70,000 in general special events.Cynthia Forrester, the director of budget and procurement services,suggested that the city stop all unnecessary spending and put all department heads on notice."We have advised everyone to be on alert for eliminating items from procurement,'' Forrester said. "Any purchases in progress will be halted."She said the departments tried make up for the $25 million shortfall it faced when balancing the 2011 budget by reducing costs across all departments without laying off employees or raising the tax rate.But, she said, increases in foreclosures and decreases in business in Hollywood continue to chip away at city revenue."If this mistake was just a little bit bigger we would be insolvent today ," Bober said. "If this were the private sector someone would definitely lose their job."
Canada's Weymouth North is a village the size of a postal stamp tucked amid rolling hills that follow the Sissiboo River in eastern Digby County, Nova Scotia. It is here in a large, 100-year-old Victorian vacation home that Hollywood City Manager Cameron Benson escapes the city's chaotic pace and blistering August heat.The home - a stone's throw from the rugged but picturesque coastline of St. Mary's Bay - may be a part of Benson's undoing.Investigators from the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and others are looking into allegations that Benson accepted gift cards from a waste company seeking a city contract. Then, he allegedly used the cards to purchase home furnishings, and asked a city employee to drive the items 2,000 miles north to deliver them to his Nova Scotia home.That allegation is a part of many others enclosed in two anonymous letters sent to City Hall charging that Benson, one of Broward's longest serving public administrators, abused his public position.Benson, 49, born in Hollywood but now lives in Davie, has pretty much remained unscathed during his nine-year tenure as manager. Appointed in 1995, he has shunned the limelight, often relying on a spokesperson to be the public face of the administration. He rarely speaks with reporters and his office on the fourth floor of City Hall is only accessible to those who have a special key card.He declined to comment for this story.His effort to isolate himself from the public and all but a few close administrators has led to criticism from both citizens and his employees."When you ask him questions at any city meeting, he just sits there and doesn't say anything,'' said Dan Kennedy, a longtime businessman and critic. "I ask him something and all he says is 'I'll get back to you' and he never does.''Benson's supporters, including City Commissioner Dick Blattner, acknowledged that the city manager is not always forthcoming with the public. Blattner says he and other commissioners often have to go to Benson on behalf of citizens with whom the manager has been unresponsive."I've heard the complaints, but that's his management style,'' said Blattner. "I would say to [his critics] that if they can't get an answer from him, come to me and I'll get an answer.'He shoulders a $300 million budget, negotiates contracts with powerful labor unions and has weathered the scandal and corruption that has plagued the city for decades.As manager, Benson, who earns $205,000 a year, generally sits quietly at city commission meetings, speaks to his bosses only when spoken to and rarely mingles with residents. He has been lambasted for failing to attract development that would provide a strong tax base that would help improve the city's struggling downtown business district and poor blighted neighborhoods.Dawn Hanna,Ö a community activist for the blighted Royal Poinciana neighborhood, admitted that she has been tough on Benson. But, she added, he has been responsive."I certainly have been frustrated with the lack of action the city has taken on homeless issues and safety issues,'' said. "But it's very difficult to figure out where the breakdowns are."His supporters say Benson is a hard-working, no-nonsense manager who gets the job done. Though demanding, he is measured, hands-on and, in public, even-tempered. He has a good relationship with the city's powerful labor unions and has been able to keep the city ticking despite a free-fall in tax revenue."Is the problem the city manager?" asked Commissioner Patty Asseff. "This isn't a blame game. We all have to pull together. The city manager drives the bus, but we have the final say."Asseff, and most commissioners say Benson has accomplished much in Hollywood, particularly given the weak economic climate, cuts in staff and services.He is widely credited with helping to transform Young Circle, once a weedy patch of land at the center of the city, into a state-of-art park. ArtsPark cost the city untold millions, say critics, but it's all part of Benson's master plan to turn the city into a family-friendly community and world-class tourist destination.Commissioners gave him high marks on his past two annual evaluations, commending him for his handling of the budget, personnel and city labor contracts. His only criticism came from Commissioner Beam Furr who noted, "I don't feel that the contracts that were negotiated last year were beneficial to the citizens of the city in the long term."The anonymous letters, however, could threaten his career in public service, an advocation that runs in the family.Benson's father is Lauderhill Commissioner Hayward Benson Jr., 74, who has led a life of public service in various government posts.Unlike his father, young Benson's aspirations were to become a pro football player, a goal that fizzled in 1984 after he was cut from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Since then, he has earned a solid resume, including stints as a planner and economic development specialist with Broward County, the city of Fort Lauderdale and the South Florida Regional Planning Council before accepting the top administrative post in Hollywood, Broward third largest city."I had parents who instilled discipline and a work ethic in my life,'' he said in a 1995 interview.Yet, his successes have often been overshadowed by a city beset by corruption. In 2007, former city commissioner Keith Wasserstrom Öwas removed from office upon his conviction on charges that he secretly cut a side lobbying deal with a sludge clean-up company. That same year, four city police officers were snared in an FBI sting and later jailed for acting as guards and escorts for cash and jewels from FBI agents posing as mobsters.And last year, another scandal surfaced from a car accident when a Hollywood police officer rear-ended another motorist. In a recording taken while the motorist was arrested, officers are heard discussing how to twist the facts to make it appear that the officer wasn't at fault by saying a cat jumped out the motorist's car, causing the crash.Blattner admitted that the city has a tarnished image, but the commission is trying to change that. A group of 30 citizens has formed a "New Image Task Force,'' which aims to tout the city's pluses.Benson is now ensconced in what could be the city's most dire budget year. As of now, they are working to close a $25 million budget gap.He's had four difficult years in terms of the budget and falling revenues,'' Blattner said. "I think he's done a good job getting through one economic crisis after another.''
We've been noticing a series of management failures at City Hall. For example, new details about the complex, expensive and unworkable transaction described below raise troubling issues with fallout that has persisted for four years. See what you think.
Like the prophets of old, Commissioner Furr has been warning of Hollywood's impending budget failure for years, his detailed analyses falling on deaf ears. Instead of addressing the budget's growing structural imbalance, the City Manager found short-term ways each year to balance the budget, all the while digging a deeper hole down the road. As a result, the City is now facing the need for drastic steps to solve a financial crisis.At last week's City Commission meeting, the City Manager called on his Finance Director and his Budget Director to present the bad news. This is what we learned, only some of which was reported in the mainstream media.
Staffing Problems -- And The Fear To Name Them -- Hold Our City Back
Do we expect our elected officials to be proficient in the complexities of union negotiating, municipal budgeting, business development, communications technology, or property standards, for example? If we did, who would we find to run for office? We don't hold this expectation because our City Commission is meant to rely on professional staff to perform analyses and make recommendations based on their technical knowledge.