Part4: A Village Manager’s Lessons in Loyalty
What Happened to Indiantown’s Grand Vision?
Part 4: A Village Manager’s Lessons in Loyalty
Indiantown Village Manager Howard Brown Jr. avoided the divided loyalties most new managers face by ensuring every member of his staff – which extended also to certain critical consultants – would be loyal to him. Perhaps, only to him.
Easy to do, since Brown was the first and only employee when he arrived in Indiantown.
Over the next two years, Brown carefully hand-picked only employees with no connections to the Indiantown Independence movement, including the Indiantown Chamber of Commerce, and in one case, to the South Florida Water Management District where Kevin Powers, an Indiantown native and incorporation leader, had served eight years on the governing board.
That particular applicant was so well qualified that in order to discourage her, Brown offered $8,000 less than the advertised salary, giving her grounds to file a gender discrimination complaint, had she so desired.
In fact, Brown hired no Indiantown residents, likely because he wanted no “misplaced loyalties” committed to Indiantown’s original vision, opposite of his own grand plan.
The only exception to his no-Indiantown-connection practice was the village clerk, Susan Owens, Brown’s first hire, who had worked at ITS Fiber in Indiantown briefly in the two years following her previous clerk’s job.
After Owens reached out to Brown in early 2019, he told her she had the job, but Brown could not provide a start date until after he had posted the position, according to their personal email exchange.
Owens told Brown then that her credentials as a municipal clerk were expired; subsequently, part of her employment agreement is that the village will cover the expenses associated with her municipal clerk association credentials.
Susan Owens likely is loyal to Brown for life, cemented by renewed credentials and by a $10,350 raise in less than two years.
Perhaps the village’s reputation as a close-knit community despite its diversity fueled Brown’s reluctance to hire from the local pool of talent, rather than the implication that the village did not have suitable talent at all; however, it seems the council members should have seen that hiring only “the best of the best,” as Brown told them repeatedly, could also have been a smoke screen for other motives.
The council, although questioning Brown at times about the practice, never considered requiring a certain percentage of staff positions be filled by village residents, or even be given priority, which would have benefited residents directly.
It also would have recirculated tax dollars in Indiantown’s local economy to help their struggling, small-business community.
LOYALTY BEGETS LOYALTY
Brown stepped into a position, therefore, without fear of encountering mixed loyalties and found, at the same time, he could repay previous loyalties shown to him.
Laudatory recommendations by the former Opa-Locka city manager, Kelvin Baker, and former finance director, Susan Gooding-Liburd, likely contributed significantly to Brown’s appointment in 2014 as city manager for the City of Muskogee, particularly since he’d never previously been a city manager, yet he was already claiming status as a “turn-around city manager.”
Perhaps in recognition of her loyalty to him, Brown hired Gooding-Liburd within three months of arriving at Indiantown as the village’s “interim” finance director. She had resigned from Opa-Locka in 2015 after the FBI investigation of Opa-Locka corruption began and the year before Gov. Rick Scott ordered the state to assume control of the city’s finances, according to 2017 reports in both The Miami Herald and the Miami NewTimes.
No criminal charges ever were filed against Gooding-Liburd, and she had not benefited personally from her alleged bookkeeping errors.
The consulting fee to G&L Accounting, owned by Gooding-Liburd with her husband, Adrian, was $80,000 per year, identical to the fee the village had been paying the Carr, Riggs, & Ingram accounting firm in Stuart.
CRI had agreed to assist the village with its accounting needs as a favor to Indiantown’s interim village attorney, Paul Nicoletti, until the new village conducted a search for their own municipal accountant – no urgency, CRI officials said, just don’t consider them Indiantown’s long-term accounting solution.
Brown did not conduct a search.
Instead, he immediately hired Gooding-Liburd on an “interim” basis, without informing council members of the still-ongoing FBI investigation. Three months after Gooding-Liburd began her consulting work for Indiantown, Brown boosted her salary by $30,000 to $110,000 with council approval.
In December 2020, Brown boosted Gooding-Liburd’s fee again by more than $57,000, to compensate her for keeping track of the village’s 1,380 water and sewer customers. Her total compensation now is $167,000.
The $57,000 boost in pay comes from the utility’s revenues, rather than the village’s general fund; however, ratepayers are also Indiantown taxpayers, because the utility does not serve customers outside of village boundaries.
Gooding-Liburd is Brown’s only oversight as to how he spends money. She controls also how funds are accounted for.
Some vendors have not gotten paid on time, according to Brown’s emails, and the public does not receive copies of the village’s line-item budget prior to the council’s approval of the village manager’s annual Power-Point budget presentation – less conducive to close examination and comparisons by the council or the public.
The state requires an annual audit, which was conducted last year for both the first year and second year of incorporation. The auditors, chosen by Brown instead of a council-appointed committee, as required by state Statute 281.391(2), reported no findings in the first year and “repairable” findings in the second year.
In December, Brown hired a new finance director from New York as a full-time employee at $80,000, after a two-year national search, according to Brown, which yielded nine resumes. He continues to pay Gooding-Liburd; thus, the total that Indiantown now pays annually for financial services is $247,000 – $22,000 more than what is budgeted this year for road and drainage repairs (excluding a $2 million allocation from the state).
Brown also says he intends to hire an accounting manager, according to a March memo to council members, but the job is yet to be posted on the village’s website. He may already have someone in mind.
ENSURING LOYALTY FROM EMPLOYEES
The village’s lowest paid employee is $17 an hour, and even part-time employees receive retirement benefits and 13 paid holidays. On top of Indiantown’s exceptional pay scale in a place where the typical wage is around $11 an hour, the village increased its employee benefits after the village purchased the privately owned Indiantown Company water utility in September 2020.
Most of the utility company employees became village employees, keeping their current salaries as agreed in the village’s purchase agreement; however, they had expected the same in benefits, too. The village’s benefits were more restrictive and less generous.
To solve the discrepancy between village and utility company employee benefits, Brown determined the best solution was to increase village employee benefits to match Indiantown Company’s:.
- The new boost for employees – and most costly to the village – is lifting the requirement that an employee must remain employed for five years to be eligible for payouts of unused vacation and sick leave. That’s no longer the case. After their probation period, employees now are eligible for unused leave payouts. In addition: vacation leave was increased from 40 paid hours to 80 hours for any employee during his or her first five years of employment. They also earn 80 hours paid sick leave annually, instead of 40.
- Sick leave and vacation leave may be rolled over into subsequent years with a cap for payouts at 250 hours for vacation and 200 hours for sick pay.
- Two personal leave days, 16 paid hours, now are allotted to each employee annually, but cannot be rolled over and is not eligible for pay outs.
The review of benefits prompted Brown (or gave him the excuse) also to hire a consultant, the H.R. Doctor, to review the village’s salary structure and create a formal Pay Plan to authorize salary amounts and titles for approved village positions.
The consultant proposed also that some senior management positions are equivalent to department head positions, Brown said in his memo to council members, thus qualifying them for monthly gas allowances, apparently to help compensate for their long drives to work since none live in Indiantown.
Some salaries were adjusted upward, but not all. The salary of the village clerk, who was hired at $60,000 annually, is now set at $70,350, in part because she has assumed the duties of human resources and emergency management, as well as acting assistant village manager, according to Brown, an interesting title since there is no assistant manager position..
No survey of other municipalities the size of Indiantown were included in determining the village’s Pay Plan, omitting comparisons to Okeechobee, Pahokee, and Dade City, for instance, which pay their clerks a range between $53,000 and $64,000, according to Florida League of Cities data.
Brown contracted the HR Doctor, Phil Rosenberg, to be the village’s human resources consultant on an ongoing basis, paying him $1,000 a month for his services. He is currently the human resources director at the City of Miramar, where the Interim Finance Director Susan Gooding-Liburd also is employed.
EXCUSING CONTRACTORS FROM COMPETING
After receiving criticism for not conducting standard searches or vetting village consultants, Brown instituted a procurement policy in the spring of 2020 that required RFPs and sealed bids, and included the process for ranking candidates and proposals.
The village council amended that policy in November 2020 to give Brown full authority – eliminating the requirement for RFPs or ranking of candidates – to select any firm of his choosing to meet the administrative needs of the village.
Since the revision, he’s selected firms for the village pay plan, impact fee studies, mobility fees, and retail analysis with no cost comparisons to other firms’ services or evaluating previous performances.
The state requires only competitive bids for construction and architectural contracts.
Brown announced at the March 11 meeting that he also intends to conduct a staffing survey to determine the number of employees required to staff suitably the village’s government functions, which he hopes to have done by Indiantown’s April 10 strategic planning session..
During the village’s 2019 budget hearing, Brown told the council that they should expect to hire 93 employees in the near future for a city the size of Indiantown. The City of Weston, on which the government-light premise for Indiantown’s incorporation was based, has 10 employees for a city of 60,000, because its public services are contracted to public and/or private vendors.
ENSURING LOYALTY FROM CONSULTANTS
No one is privy to the actual conversations that took place between Brown and his finance director, Susan Gooding-Liburd; however, the connection between the two former Opa-Locka officials is obvious, as is the advantage to Brown to have a former colleague in her position.
The same holds true with consultants who work for Brown. No one knows exactly what is said or agreed upon privately; however, patterns develop over time. Brown’s pattern shows favoritism to some consultants, whose contract shortcomings and deadlines are ignored, yet they are rewarded with additional contracts with the potential for even greater financial rewards.
The contract that raised the most questions among residents is the engineering firm that wrote Indiantown’s land development regulations, Calvin, Giordano & Associates. A well-established engineering firm in Florida, CGA was no stranger either to Indiantown or to its village manager, who had contracted the firm previously to rewrite Opa-Locka’s growth management plan.
The same planners that Brown engaged in Opa-Locka would also write the development rules for Indiantown. Brown stayed silent in the background, however, as the village council listened to three presentations by engineering firms, then deliberated vigorously before they made their decision.
At least, they thought it was their decision.
– Barbara Clowdus, Publisher
What Happened to Indiantown’s Grand Vision? concludes Friday, April 2, with Part 5: Brown Perfects his Sleight-of-Hand Shell Game