PART3: Cracks Show in Howard Brown’s Indiantown Pedestal
WHAT HAPPENED TO INDIANTOWN’S GRAND VISION?
PART 3: Cracks Show in Howard Brown’s Indiantown Pedestal
Almost everyone walks away from his or her first meeting with Indiantown Village Manager Howard Brown Jr. with a positive impression. He’s articulate, charming, and underscores his marketability by speaking Spanish, important to a community where Hispanic ethnicity, including Guatemalan Maya, eclipses white, Black, and a smattering of others, including Seminole descendants of those who first settled Indiantown.
As a result of his personal qualities, Brown stood out among the other seven candidates who were interviewed by village council members Nov. 25, 2019. His resume was just as impressive. Only rhinestones could have sparkled more than the words that described his seemingly meteoric rise in public administration.
He ended 2013 as a department head, a community development director at Opa-Locka, and two years later, he was pulling down a $192,000 annual salary, plus benefits, as the city manager for Bell, Calif.
Still, Brown was not ranked one of the top-five candidates selected by Dan Kleman, of the Florida City/County Managers Association, who conducted the search for Indiantown.
Neither was he an alternate candidate; nonetheless, Brown skated through the selection process as an “also available” prospect with no more than an apparent cursory search of his credentials, which verified that he did, indeed, hold a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in public administration and was a certified planner.
Everything else seems to fall into the category of either wishful thinking, extreme exaggeration, or deliberate misrepresentation.
BROWN MARKETS HIMSELF TO INDIANTOWN
Most of Indiantown’s five village council members, seated in March 2018, had not ever attended either a city or county commission meeting before being asked to run a government. They evaluated nine resumes for the village’s top post within months of taking office, after they found that a part-time administrator who worked in the office only two days a week seemed insufficient.
“It was a matter of responsiveness and accountability,” explained then-Mayor Susan Gibbs-Thomas, who spearheaded the move to hire a full-time administrator six months after the council took office.
They chose seven of the nine candidates for personal interviews and a day-long public meeting, before making their selection.
All the candidates’ resumes followed a standard format, except Brown’s, who titled his, “VISIONARY LEADER – TURNAROUND EXPERT | City Manager | City Administrator | Chief Administrative Officer | Chief Executive Officer” and an ICMA credentialed manager.
Council members did not know, because no one checked, that Brown’s ICMA (International City/County Management Association) credentials had been expired for three years first awarded in 2015 after only one year as a manager at Muskogee, Okla., instead of the required seven years.
ICMA officials said they base the certification also on the number of ICMA courses Brown had taken, fees he had paid, and recommendations and references from supervisors, which likely came from Opa-Locka, where he’d been employed for the previous five years.
(The value of ICMA credentials, which are expensive to obtain without years as a city manager, seems to be most important to those who do not have much experience, because the credentials verify at least some training and a commitment to the profession, according to an uncredentialed, yet highly experienced city manager from the Treasure Coast.)
Brown’s resume goes on to say, “In my current position as City Manager of the City of Bell, California, my peers, staff, and superiors have described me as ethical, intelligent, resourceful, loyal, and a passionate team builder.”
Except, he was no longer employed at Bell. Was it unethical not to update his resume, or was it just an oversight?
Three months earlier, Bell commissioners told Brown they did not intend to renew his contract, a separation agreement was signed in September 2018, and Brown would receive a carefully crafted letter of recommendation from the commission chairman listing his completed projects.
Brown applied for the city manager’s job at Tallahassee and at Miami Lakes, moved back to Florida in 2018, launched his private government consulting firm in October 2018 in West Palm Beach from a FedEx shipping facility, before landing the village manager’s job in Indiantown in December 2018 – with four and a half years’ experience, spotty performance evaluations at Muskogee, rejected by the city of Bell, and with expired ICMA credentials.
Brown’s description of his wide-ranging role at the City of Opa-Locka, however, likely was the zinger for village council members to tap Brown as their manager.
He said as Acting Assistant City Manager for the City of Opa-Locka – a position the Opa-Locka Human Resources Department said Brown never held – he writes that he “directly supervised and managed Police, Human Resources, IT, Finance, Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Planning and Community Development, Code Enforcement, and Building and Licenses Departments.”
In a public records check, Brown’s name was not listed as a staff member attending any of the city’s council meetings for the previous six months prior to his resignation in December 2013. (Opa-Locka’s policy for meeting minutes lists every staff member present in council chambers at each meeting.)
Brown resigned as director of planning and community development at Opa-Locka in December 2013 with an FBI investigation already underway regarding suspected fraud, corruption (by the mayor and city council) and the city’s questionable financial practices.
Opa-Locka’s then-City Manager Kelvin Baker and Finance Director Susan Gooding-Liburd (currently Indiantown’s financial consultant) resigned in 2015 after allegations of mismanagement of city funds emerged, including moving $1 million in cash from residential water deposits to the general fund to balance the budget.
To avert Opa-Locka’s potential bankruptcy in 2016, Gov. Rick Scott ordered the state to take control of Opa-Locka’s finances. (In an almost eerie similarity to Indiantown, Opa-Locka purchased an historic building for nearly $8 million in 2015 to renovate as their city hall. Within two years, its 60-year-old water utilities plant was spilling raw sewage into city streets, according to 2018 Miami Herald and 2019 Miami NewTimes reports.)
In 2019, the Florida Auditor General’s Office reported 91 findings in a 231-page report of mismanagement and sloppy accounting practices for Opa-Locka, which dated from 2013, the time period that the FBI’s investigation also began.
The AG’s report shows also no vacancy existed in the assistant city manager’s office in 2013, which might have necessitated Brown’s appointment as the “acting assistant manager.” A vacancy did not arise in that position until 2015, according to the report.
Brown resigned from Opa-Locka in December 2013, after five years. He likely should not be claiming a direct-oversight role at that Miami-Dade County city, considering the AG’s findings.
Brown’s first official day on the job at Indiantown was Jan. 14, 2019; and he sat in on the Jan. 10 village council meeting. By then, Brown had reapplied for city manager credentials from ICMA.
His Indiantown contract provides that the village pays all expenses to maintain those credentials, including a trip to Toronto this fall.
Council members were dazzled at first by Brown, and many are still dazzled, although they now know that Brown “fudged” the facts on his resume. They still tout Brown as “the most-qualified city manager in the county” to guide their decisions, apparently because he gives them what each desires most: mounds of accolades, all-expense paid trips to attend conferences in Orlando or Tallahassee (and perhaps other unknown conferences unrelated to Indiantown) – and job benefits.
THE COST OF OPERATING BROWN’S GOVERNMENT
The cost of Indiantown’s legislative arm – the five council members alone – soared from $55,000 total projected for 2019-20 fiscal year for all five at $10,000 each to a projected budget this year of $121,915 – more than $24,000 apiece – due to those benefits initiated by Brown.
The council is just as generous to Brown, authorizing a mid-year budget presentation less than three months after Brown arrived in Indiantown to increase his 2019 annual retirement benefit from $12,000 to $20,000.
The move immediately added $8,000 more to Brown’s retirement in less than 90 days on the job, with most days spent in Palm Beach County, since his contract does not require his presence in Indiantown.
When considering retirement plans for village employees, Brown provided no cost comparisons to other retirement plans, or the long-term impact to Indiantown’s finances for the retirement pension plan he “sold” to council members – the Florida Retirement System – for all employees of the village, including himself, the clerk, future employees, including all part-time employees, and the five council members.
The first six months required a budget increase approved by the council of $75,000 for council members alone, and an additional $305,000 for Brown and the village clerk.
The following year, the budget for retirement pensions alone was nearly $1 million, and it doubled the following year. Few, if any cities, the size of Indiantown offer FRS to employees, outside of unionized police and fire service employees.
“It’s just too expensive,” said former Dade City Clerk Leslie Porter in a 2019 interview. Dade City, about the size of Indiantown, is in the Tampa Bay region of Pasco County.
“We are pulling out of FRS, except for our unionized police officers,” she said, “and replacing it with a 401K retirement plan.”
And none of Dade City’s council members receive retirement.
BROWN GETS MAJOR SALARY BOOST
In addition to increasing his retirement benefit, the council also increased Brown’s salary after the first year by $26,000, from $115,000 to $141,000.
Their decision was based on their own near-perfect evaluations of Brown’s performance, plus a survey of city manager experience levels and salaries that Brown compiled himself – despite the obvious conflict of interest – and of just Martin County municipalities, none of which have demographics similar to Indiantown’s.
Rife with misinformation, including that the Ocean Breeze city manager’s contracted salary is $192,000 annually, instead of the average of $20,000, Councilman Anthony Dowling held the faulty salary survey aloft to argue for an even greater salary increase for Brown.
“He’s the most-qualified, the most-experienced city manager in the county,” Dowling said, “maybe even in the state.”
The other council members initially rejected the $145,000 or so that Dowling wanted for Brown; however, Brown got that and more eight months later after his next evaluation in January this year.
Kleman, himself a retired city manager with 20 years in that position at Tallahassee, recommended a salary range of $90,000 to $115,000 for a city with Indiantown’s population and other demographics. Nearby City of Okeechobee with a similar size as Indiantown pays its city manager a salary of $90,818.
The City of Sebring, slightly larger at 11,000 residents but with similar demographics, pays its city manager $99,000, and Pahokee, a city of 6,000, pays its city manager $118,000.
The wider question is the village’s choice in how they’re spending their revenues.
The only comment on this year’s village manager evaluations came from Councilwoman Susan Gibbs-Thomas, who questioned Brown’s generous habit of taking others to lunch. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” she wrote.
The same could be said of Indiantown’s spending habits: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
– Barbara Clowdus, Publisher
Next in the 5-part series, WHAT HAPPENED TO INDIANTOWN’S GRAND VISION? will be PART 4: A Village Manager’s Lessons in Loyalty
Watch for it Thursday, April 1.