Report to commission behind Brandenburg’s ouster

By Chris Felker
Lake Okeechobee News

PAHOKEE — The day before being abruptly ousted from his position as city attorney April 23, Gary Brandenburg had placed on the city commission’s meeting agenda — and emailed to each commissioner — a four-page report he’d produced that recommended they take immediate actions regarding several issues in the city.

Gary Brandenburg

But it’s a report that City Manager Chandler Williamson and a commission majority wouldn’t allow to be heard at the regular public meeting that night, and those four prevented Mr. Brandenburg from airing it there for discussion by firing him before the city attorney’s portion of the agenda came up.

Commissioner Regina Bohlen, who just joined the body after the March election, cast the sole vote against terminating his contract. Mayor Keith W. Babb Jr. (via telephone), Vice Mayor Clara “Tasha” Murvin and Commissioner Bennie L. Everett III voted in favor.

That did not deter the attorney from sharing his report with the public; it is, after all, a matter of official record, as he states upfront in the memo. He submitted it to the five commissioners, with corresponding copies to Robert Lambert, chief of the Everglades Reserves Holdings LLC investment partners who are under contract to take over operation of the city’s leased Lake Okeechobee-fronting marina, campground and restaurant/office buildings, and to a Palm Beach Post reporter. Mr. Brandenburg also sent it to the Palm Beach County Inspector General’s Office (IG) and the Commission on Ethics, which already had been conducting their own investigation into some personnel actions taken by Mr. Williamson without commission approval and recently produced their report. (See related story.)

‘Deeply disappointing’
As the attorney stated in an interview Tuesday, May 7, “It was so deeply disappointing that the city would so obviously break the law and the Sunshine requirements to try to stop me from presenting things that were clearly in the city’s best interest.”

Mr. Brandenburg also charged: “It was all set up in advance, orchestrated by the city manager. It was just so blatantly obvious, I can’t believe that they thought such a childish effort would stop the truth from coming out,” he said.

His report advised five specific courses of action, regarding these topics:
• Agenda — that commissioners seize control of the process of setting the commission’s agenda for regular meetings, requiring a motion to affirm the process as set forth in city ordinances.
• One-on-one meetings — that commissioners should immediately cease having private meetings with and receiving information privately from City Manager Williamson due to Sunshine Law concerns. (Mr. Brandenburg also provided a Government-in-the-Sunshine manual distributed by the state.)
• Inspector general — that commissioners should take advantage of the free resource offered under the voter-initiated Palm Beach County IG ordinance and move to contact the IG’s office directly to initiate a management audit of procurement and fund disbursement procedures.
• City engineer — that commissioners have not been getting appropriate and required engineering advice on major projects regarding the lake front property improvement work, on which some $1.2 million in state grant money already has been committed or spent.
(Mr. Brandenburg listed 11 serious issues regarding the project that could have been avoided had the city sought the appropriate professional advice, and called for the city to advertise a “Request for Qualifications” that he prepared for municipal project engineers, and also to form a selection committee of experienced reviewers.)
• Old business — that commissioners review nine pending issues that have gone ignored while deadlines are being missed and work on the marina project languishes.

Brandenburg’s side
Later, Mr. Brandenburg wrote an open letter to the citizens of Pahokee, detailing from his perspective what happened to prompt his firing:

“Dear Pahokee residents and taxpayers,
“On April 9 during the City Commission meeting, under my comments, I indicated I wanted to give something back to the city, as it has been my client for 10 years. I volunteered to head up an effort to clean up the old hospital and turn it into a government center. The audience and the commission loved the idea and unanimously, by motion, authorized me to proceed. My one condition; Chandler could not be involved — for obvious reasons!

“The plan — all free of charge and volunteers only. Get all professional services donated. Get the cost of the project paid by others who have benefited from Pahokee. (No, not football players, who are asked to do everything.) House all city business in the one location and rent out extra space to other agencies. The project to be paid for upfront with donations and grants so all rent could be used by the city for other purposes.

“Two weeks later: Volunteers came forward; eight-man crew working 10-hour days, seven days a week, cleaning out the old hospital and hauling away the garbage, in huge dump trucks, to make it ready for renovation. The sheriff’s office cleaned out the addicts who had made the structure their home and outhouse. The very best planner and landscape architect, who works worldwide, donated the design for a Memory Garden and water fountain. The most recognized and celebrated architect in Palm Beach County, with respect to historical renovations, produced preliminary elevations (copy attached). A renowned engineering firm, that specializes in municipal work, donated a survey. An engineer and scheduling specialist produced the first draft of scheduling for the project. In two weeks, more progress than has been made in 20 years.

“What happened?

“The commission terminated my contract!

“Why?

“Commissioner Everett indicated he did not like E. Perez donating his time, money and effort. Cheered on by Chandler, he did not want someone who was suing the city to donate anything. Chandler forgot to mention to Benny, that Perez’s company is one of two demolition companies under contract with the city. The company was hired by Chandler, and is currently doing work for the city. (Not the real reason.)

“Commissioner Murvin: I do not believe she wants anyone to know that she passes the wreck at the old hospital every day, complains about it all the time, but does nothing! (She wants everyone to come together.) It is city property; perhaps she should have thought about asking the city manager to do his job and clean it up. (Again, not the real reason.)

“Commissioner Babb: Twenty-plus years on the commission, and everyone is still waiting for Keith to do something, except talk about all the great things he is going to do. Perhaps it was his trip with the city manager to Las Vegas, with the taxpayer’s money.

“(Still waiting for the real reason?)

“The Real Reason: I had placed on the agenda a report, and distributed it to the commissioners and IG the day before the meeting, showing at least 20 examples of, in my opinion, gross negligence and incompetence with the use of tax dollars.

I recommended the city ask the Inspector General to do a complete audit of the city procurement process and requested the commission consider agreeing with the recommendations made by the IG regarding issues outlined in his recent report (you will learn more about this in days to come).

“The city manager had to find a way to keep this out of the public, so he looked to Babb, Everett and Murvin for help and got it. But we all know that the TRUTH always comes out. The TRUTH will set you Free. It sure set me free!

“Pahokee is now in my rearview mirror. I do not believe the once beautiful and thriving city will ever improve until the residents stop this disaster.

“They work for you, you do not work for them! This has nothing to do ‘with a divided city that has to come together’ (we have been hearing that for 10 years). This is about basic competence.

“Gary B.”

City Commissioner Regina Bohlen said on Wednesday, May 8, that she had been blindsided by the other commissioners and was dumbfounded by their actions, which also included hiring another attorney to be acting city attorney for a stated period of 48 hours. She said she was not certain yet how to respond but that she was researching the issues.

The other four city commissioners did not reply to emailed requests for comment. City Manager Williamson did respond to the same email, on Monday, May 13. (To view related stories, visit pahokee-manager-cites-positive-projects, inspector-generals-report-confirms-pahokee-improprieties, pahokee-city-manager-williamson-answers-queries2, and hospital-rehab-project-was-giveback-by-fired-attorney.)

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

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment