Columbia County 5 Doesn't Need Rules
Spends Your Money Through Its Back-Door
Posted March 10, 2017 03:20 pm
COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – The Observer has been following Columbia County government for a decade. Florida statutes, opinions of the Courts and the Florida Attorney General require the County 5 (the elected Board of County Commissioners) to approve all County expenditures before sending them to the Clerk of the Courts for final approval. This is called checks and balances, one of the building blocks of America. Columbia County's good ole' boys don't approve the County expenditures before they are sent to the Clerk for his audit and signature and it appears it never has, but it does have an unwritten "back-door" policy.
A Little History
The County 5's Back-Door Expenditure Approval Policy
In February 2014, the County realized that its unwritten policy of having the "Commissioner of the Month" approve all the checks for the County's two week billing cycle was problematic. Some commissioners would show up when they felt like it and some wouldn't, thus delaying payment to vendors. The vendors, the folks who did the work, were not happy.
By the time the 2014 budget workshop rolled around, even the retired in the County were driven out of attending meetings. However, on the far left, both the SVTA administrator, Gwen Pra, and her sidekick Teresa Fortner found time to leave the TA and attend a County workshop.
During the February 2014 budget workshop, then County Manager Dale Williams brought up the topic of expenditure (check) approval, or what he called warrants: "We've got to find a way to speed up the process."
Commissioner Ronald Williams asked [as spoken], "Dale, I know Broward County, Dade County, Pinellas County, Hillsborough County got a better solution to do. Do they use the same method we do?"
County Manager Dale Williams answered, "They don't. What we need to do here is work with our external auditor [Dick Powell: external auditor – financial advisor – budget co-preparer], our internal auditor and the Clerk and find out what they believe is reasonable checks and balances that can help us speed this process up -- put it in the form of a policy."
The County Manager continued, "Let me make sure that everybody here understands that every check that's issued here in this county – a different commissioner on different months reviews each and every one of those checks... We're going to talk to those parties and come up with a policy that will maybe expedite that -- that everybody will agree to. That's the objective there."
This appears to be a clear violation of Florida's Sunshine Law, although Columbia County has called this fact finding, which is apparently how they do everything.
Three Months Later
During the May 2014 budget workshop, the County Manager's PowerPoint stated that the "drafting of the policy is in progress."
Unsurprisingly, there were no comments from any of the commissioners, who meet with the County Manager before the meetings for fact finding and other things.
County Manager Williams told the 5: "To be perfectly honest, everything we found is worse than what we do. I don't know that I can come up with a better suggestion as to how we approve warrants then what we are doing now."
"We did an extensive survey. We talked to other counties. Quite frankly, I don't think you are going to like any of that. I think just what you are doing now may not be the best thing to do, but we'll talk some more about it."
It is not known if the "extensive survey" was presented to The 5 during its fact finding with the County Manager.
Three Years Later
It's been three years. Neither the County 5, nor the County Manager mentioned the warrant policy in public again. However, confidential sources have explained that the County Commission's unwritten warrant policy is problematic.
The warrant policy did come up in March 2016, when your reporter requested that the check registers be put on the consent agenda for board approval. The suggestion was ignored.
The Law Requires The 5 to Vote to Approve County
Section 129.08 of the Florida statutes makes it clear:
The County 5 has chosen against transparency and does not vote.
The Clerk of the Courts
As far back as 1906, Florida Courts found that the Clerk has the authority not to approve a warrant (check) that is "clearly and patently unreasonable or an obvious abuse of discretion."
In 1958, the Florida Attorney General explained the "well settled" duties of the Clerk of the Courts:
In 2001, the Florida Attorney General wrote, "The county commission may not delegate its governmental duty to make a determination that an expenditure serves a county purpose. However, once such a determination has been made and the clerk of court finds that the expenditure is not illegal, the clerk may issue a warrant without further action by the commission."
The County Commission is not one commissioner approving expenditures of the County, in a back-room, before passing them along to the Clerk of the Courts for final review. It is five.
The Columbia County 5 has shown once again that it comes to spending money it doesn't need any constitution, laws, rules, the courts, or the FL Attorney General – it just does what it wants.
The Columbia County 5: the legend continues.