Hospital rehab project was ‘giveback’ by fired attorney

PAHOKEE — The old Pahokee hospital building underwent a much-needed cleanup during the two weeks between City Commission meetings in April, organized by now former City Attorney Gary Brandenburg. The Pahokee City Commission fired him on a 3-1 vote April 23.

Mr. Brandenburg, who’s represented the city for a decade, wrote an open letter to the community about the real reason for his firing (see related story) that has been widely circulated and is prompting citizen outrage on social media sites started by dissenting critical voices in Pahokee. One of those is the Facebook page “A Better Pahokee.” The attorney cited a report he had placed on the agenda for April 23 recommending the commission take several immediate actions to fix city hall oversight inadequacies, a lack of engineering advice, inadequate documentation and construction delays, glitches, hangups and mistakes.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
The old Everglades Memorial Hospital building was cleared of truckloads of detritus and trash last month.

On April 9, he had proposed and the commission approved his renovation and reuse plan for the former Everglades Memorial Hospital building that called for volunteers to be assembled to help gut the inside, clean out the structure, which is still sound, and haul away trash. Mr. Brandenburg then proceeded to get it done.

But the reason that City Commissioner Benny L. Everett III cited April 23 for moving to fire Mr. Brandenburg was that he’d brought in, as a volunteer, a person to help with the project who is also a contractor employed by the city (although Mr. Brandenburg points out that City Manager Chandler Williamson forgot to inform Mr. Everett of that fact). That person, Mr. E. Perez, who owns a local demolition business, is also involved in a current lawsuit against the City of Pahokee over a separate, unrelated matter, which Commissioner Everett declared unacceptable in making his motion to terminate the city attorney’s contract.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
The cleanup project, evidenced by two mounds of garbage outside, was spearheaded by former City Attorney Gary Brandenburg and has ceased since he was fired April 23.

The Lake Okeechobee News interviewed Mr. Brandenburg May 7. Some of our questions:
So the reason stated actually involved your altruistic effort to make the hospital building into something the community might be able to use?
“Yes! In two weeks I had done more on that hospital than has occurred in the last 15 years. I’m just at a loss for words about how disappointing it was.”

Do you know whether any of the city commissioners actually read your report?
“Have no clue. They obviously didn’t want to hear what those documents said.”

Shouldn’t the commissioners have shared with the public what you put in that report?
“I agree with that or I wouldn’t even be talking to you.”

Mr. Brandenburg had set out his plan, which was approved by the Pahokee City Commission on April 9, to clear out the old, dilapidated hospital building and grounds — the city owns it — and turn the site into space for city government offices, then rent out unused space and possibly other city facilities for a new income stream.

On April 23, Commissioner Everett said:
“There’s never a good time for tough decisions … I have taken the personal privilege of even deactivating my Facebook page … (there are) persons sending very inflammatory statements via email and Facebook … that should be protecting the interests of our city … this is getting in the mix of the foolishness that is pervading in our community. I am offering a motion that we sever the relationship that the city has with our current legal staff.”

When Vice Mayor Clara “Tasha” Murvin asked for a second, there was none. (Mayor Babb was participating via speakerphone, and it’s not even clear whether a vote cast by telephone is legally binding under Florida law, so a second would be just as iffy).

Ms. Murvin then set down the gavel next to Commissioner Regina Bohlen and said, “I’m passing my gavel, and I second the motion,” and the vote was taken.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

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