Palmetto city staff seeks more spending power

myoung@bradenton.comMay 21, 2014 

PALMETTO -- It all comes down to trust between the city of Palmetto's elected officials and hired department heads, who are seeking more spending power to move projects forward that often get tied down in city commission debates.

Department heads are putting forward a proposed ordinance that would authorize them to enter into contracts up to $100,000 without commission review and the discretion to determine whether a contract requires city attorney or mayor approval.

It's not that uncommon, according to Tim McCann, public information officer for the city of Bradenton. McCann said Bradenton does not have a spending cap for department heads as long as it is within each department's annual budget.

"It's one of the reasons why we have workshops to review that kind of thing," said McCann. "If it's expensive enough, then it needs council approval, but there is no cap and we've never considered one. However, the city keeps an eye on everything that is proposed."

Some officials push back

It's that kind of trust Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant is wanting for her department heads, but it isn't coming easy.

Public Works Director Alan Tusing acknowledges that individual spending is open to abuse, but "it depends on the people that use this provision," he said.

Selling trust at a cost of up to $100,000 per contract is a problem for some commissioners, who say there were former staff members who crossed a line years ago, which is why the city is more restrictive.

Ward 2 Commissioner Tambra Varnadore said she opposes a department head being allowed to enter into a contract for that much money without commission review, and further opposes a department head having the discretion to consult the city attorney or mayor on a contract, which is also proposed in the ordinance.

Department heads, she said, "aren't legal experts. I think it requires approval from the mayor. Right now, every contract comes before the commission. Do we want to relinquish that control?"

That is what the mayor wants from the commission. Bryant pointed to a $285 contract to inspect the city's automated external defibrillators as an example of why every contract doesn't need to come before the commission.

"Some things are too mundane and if you put them up as an individual item, they want to analyze every detail," said Bryant, noting the commission's role "is legislative, not administrative."

While $285 is a long way from $100,000, Bryant said it's the same philosophy in trusting staff and moving projects forward. She said all spending is accounted for through the budget process, and any funds a department head is seeking to get their job done is already budgeted for them to achieve that goal.

"All we are trying to do is stop the bottlenecks," said Bryant.

The city has had spending restrictions in place since before 2009 when department heads were required to go out for request for proposal on any contract more than $25,000. It was changed at that time to $50,000. Commissioners eventually reached a consensus on the increase to $100,000, but the discussion bogged down in the details and an ultimate resolution became convoluted.

Trust issues in the past

At-Large Commissioner Tamara Cornwell acknowledged the city's past trust issues with employees, but said a checks and balance system needs to be in place. She sided with the increase, but said her approval would depend on some type of system in place that ensures commission knowledge of the spending.

"All documents need to be reviewed by the commission," Ward 3 Commissioner Brian Williams agreed. But he added that supports the increase to move projects forward more rapidly. Still, he supports a requirement that anything over $50,000 should still require a "request for proposal," or RFP, which is essentially what the city does now, but also free up smaller contracts from commission review.

The ordinance passed a first reading Monday night, but changes are expected before it comes back to the commission for a second time.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.

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