Hollywood Faces Budget Crisis Surprise; City Manager Hit with Corruption Investigation
|The Miami Herald|
He's known around City Hall as someone who's tight-lipped and sometimes unhelpful. Even his supporters on the City Commission have to accommodate his reclusive nature: "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," Commissioner Dick Blattner told the Miami Herald.
Answers seemed to be in short supply last Wednesday, when the city's budget director revealed at a commission meeting (agenda PDF) that the city will face a projected $8.5 million budget shortfall by the end of this fiscal year.
This was the first time the dire projections were made public. But as the citizen activists at the Balance Sheet noticed, the city's budget office made the prediction in a spreadsheet back in March. (Take the final number in red ink and multiply by 1,000).
Was Benson's hush-hush attitude applied to the bright-red numbers on the spreadsheet while managers figured out how to present it? Was somebody figuring out how the public would react to these numbers while the city breaks ground on an $8 million fire station on the beach and funnels additional money to add a digital clock and thermometer to the city's water tower?
The mayor promptly responded in a Sun-Sentinel interview by saying he wanted to fire Cynthia Forrester, the city's budget director (whom sources familiar with City Hall say works closely with, and in deference to, Benson). Necessary housecleaning, or shooting the messenger?
The announcement certainly wasn't a surprise to everyone. "I've always been the doom-and-gloom guy. But people don't want to hear the facts until it hits their pocketbooks," city activist Mel Pollack told the SS.
All this would seem to be very bad news for Benson, the city manager. But the budget news may be the best thing that's happened to him all month, as it distracts from the news of an FDLE and FBI investigation into allegations of corruption on his part.
On May 6, Mayor Bober confirmed that he had asked the agencies to look into allegations, contained in anonymous letters sent to the City Commission, that Benson had unlawfully accepted bribes in the form of gift cards from WastePro, which went on to win a lucrative waste-removal contract from the city. The letters state that he then had a city employee, Wade Sanders, buy furniture with the gift cards and personally transport the purchases to Benson's vacation home in Nova Scotia.
Sanders was later promoted to a supervisory post in the public works department.
The letters also allege that Benson used city money and police department labor to buy a generator for his father, Lauderhill Commissioner Hayward Benson, after Hurricane Wilma. Then there were implications of sexual harassment.
"I won't go into details about his behavior with female subordinates, as the point of this letter is not to be salacious," the person wrote to the commissioners. "But I'm sure you have observed this behavior for yourselves."
Bober said he asked the state and federal agencies to look into the allegations out of a concern that the public wouldn't fully trust the city to take care of the investigation internally.
We'll update with details about the investigation and comments from City Hall as we have them.
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