Ethics
5:35 pm
Fri October 4, 2013

Why Privatizing City Functions In West Palm Beach Is Raising Some Eyebrows

West Palm Beach City Hall
West Palm Beach City Hall
Credit Creative Commons via Flckr wallyg

UPDATE 5:10 p.m. Oct. 4, 2013: Six firms have responded to the RFQ before today's deadline, among them Kim Briesemeister’s Redevelopment Management Associates.

A board of both city employees and people outside of government will rank the companies, though no timetable is in place for the review process.

------------------

As communities change, so too must the institutions that govern them. One change in particular has raised a few eyebrows.

Until now, the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) has been tasked with revitalizing the waterfront area of downtown, improving the landscape of run-down neighborhoods and making the community more livable.

But last week, CRA issued what they call a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), which formally reaches out to private companies about assuming responsibilities currently undertaken by CRA, in other words, privatizing government functions.

Leading the privatization effort was former CRA Director Kim Briesemeister. During her tenure as director, she simultaneously ran and co-owned a private firm called Redevelopment Management Associates (RMA) based in Broward County. RMA is the very same type of firm that West Palm Beach is seeking to hire, and indeed, RMA intends to submit a bid.

Conflict Of Interest?

Though Briesemeister was not involved in crafting the RFQ and will not be involved in the selection process, some critics like Bob Jarvis, a legal ethics expert at Nova Southeastern Law School, are grumbling.

“It just looks slimy... [Privatizing the CRA] might be the right thing to do. Maybe it brings greater expertise to the city, maybe it brings lower costs, maybe it's a good thing. But obviously there is at least an appearance of impropriety when she is suggesting, 'let's go to the private sector' and, 'oh by the way, I’m in the private sector,'” Jarvis said.

A representative from the West Palm Beach Ethics Commission said they only offer opinions on cases where a formal complaint has been made. The ethics code governs conflicts of interest and misuse of position in government.

"When there are practices that undermine the integrity of the institution and the public starts to distrust their government, that is the definition of institutional corruption." -- Carla Miller, president of City Ethics

Carla Miller is president of City Ethics, a non-profit based in Jacksonville, Florida. The organization looks at ethical situations in municipalities all over the country. Miller said that the question of legality only addresses part of the issue at hand.

“You need to always be considering the trust and the confidence of the citizens in the process that is going on with outsourcing this... We’re always trying to put things in a legal box. 'Well, is this legal, is it illegal, well, I guess if it's legal people can do it.' No, because some of the things that we can actually construct in government can be perfectly legal, but they still show favoritism,” she said.

Miller, on top of helping municipalities navigate ethical conundrums, is a fellow at The Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and an expert in the phenomena of "institutional corruption."

"When there are practices that undermine the integrity of the institution and the public starts to distrust their government, that is the definition of institutional corruption," said Miller, adding that it is this public trust, not necessarily the law, that is of paramount importance.

Briesemeister defended her involvement, arguing that there is nothing that provides her an advantage over any other firm.

Eliot Cohen, a spokesperson for West Palm Beach, echoed comments made last week by the mayor of West Palm Beach, Jeri Muoio.

“The reality is we’re going to hire the best firm that's out there to fill the role," said Cohen, "it may be her (Miller) firm, it may not be her firm. If there is someone that does it better than she does, then that's who’s going to get hired.”

Although he said there is no timeline in place, the city's RFQ will be open until early October.