Cooper City leaders get an earful from residentsMore than 40 people turned out to express their disapproval of recent actions by Cooper City commissioners.
BY JERRY BERRIOS
ABSENT: City Commissioner Bartlett 'Bart' Roper was not at Tuesday's meeting. Cooper City residents showed discontent with their elected leaders Tuesday night, scolding them for several incidents that have drawn negative attention to the small city.
More than 40 residents crowded the City Commission chambers at the first meeting since Bartlett ''Bart'' Roper was arrested on DUI charges.
The arrest came after commissioners were already under a state inquiry for gathering at local bars and restaurants before commission meetings. The dinners were paid for with taxpayer dollars.
Hidden cameras from Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4 captured commissioners drinking alcohol during the gatherings.
Roper was absent from Tuesday's meeting. Reached at his home afterward, Roper said he had no comment.
On Nov. 28, Davie police said they found Roper slumped over the wheel of his truck on Pine Island Road in Davie.
When they roused him with a rap on the window, he flashed a vulgar gesture at paramedics, police said.
''I think it is an absolute disgrace that Bart Roper did not have the guts nor the dignity to show up tonight to face the citizens,'' said resident Diane Sori, one of half a dozen who criticized Roper or the commission as a whole. ``It just adds credence to the allegations that were brought forth about this commission last month.''
Last month, Gov. Jeb Bush requested a Florida Department of Law Enforcement inquiry into allegations by residents that the dinners violated Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law, which generally bars elected officials from discussing city business in private.
FDLE also is examining claims that city officials drove under the influence after those dinners.
Davie police said officers detected a ''very strong odor'' of alcohol when Roper emerged from the truck.
He was given a road sobriety test, which he failed.
City officials have called the dinners a long-standing city tradition and said they were neither intoxicated nor discussing city business
Watch the video here:
Some Cooper City leaders defend billing meals to taxpayers
Cooper City commissioners were caught on tape drinking and eating together at bars and cafes before meetings.
By BREANNE GILPATRICK
Cooper City commissioners voted themselves hefty pay raises and approved a $40 million budget -- all after wining and dining on the taxpayer's dime, according to a hidden-camera investigation by Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4.
The two-month investigation, which was broadcast Thursday night, showed city commissioners and City Manager Chris Farrell at restaurants in Cooper City and Davie, having dinner and chatting while holding wine glasses and, in one case, what the report said was a beer bottle. Afterward, they drove to City Hall, where, before a room filled with residents, they passed laws and made decisions about expenditures involving taxpayer dollars.
After one such gathering, the television investigation showed, the commissioners voted themselves pay raises that will more than double their salaries next year.
All five of the commissioners -- Mayor Debby Eisinger, Commissioners Linda Ferrara, Elliot Kleiman, Bart Roper and John Valenti are on the tape, as well as Farrell. Ferrara and Valenti did not return phone calls Thursday. Roper declined to comment. Eisinger said the dinners have been a standard practice for years. Kleiman said the meetings are good for the city.
''As with any type of PR activity, it gets expensed to taxpayers,'' Kleiman said. ``The whole purpose was to develop our image.''
Farrell responded in an e-mail: ``At no time did any member of the commission, or any member of the city staff, ever consume an inappropriate amount of alcohol or ever become intoxicated at any of these dinners.''
For years, before most commission meetings, commissioners and city staff have been holding ''City Commission dinners,'' current and former commissioners said. CBS4 documented four recent dinner meetings between Aug. 22 and Oct. 3, which cost taxpayers nearly $1,000 in total. It wasn't clear if commissioners were discussing city business at the dinner meetings. If they were, the meetings would violate Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law, which requires commissioners to discuss city business in public.
And if they weren't discussing city business, some taxpayers are wondering why taxpayers are footing the bills.
''Why are we paying for that?'' Cooper City resident John Sims said. ``If indeed it is personal time, they should be paying for it.''
Even if the commissioners weren't intoxicated -- and there was no evidence they were -- Sims said any alcohol before a city meeting is too much. ''I don't care if it's one sip of beer or wine or hard liquor,'' he said.
During the CBS4 investigation, reporter Mike Kirsch followed Cooper City commissioners and senior city staff to restaurants. CBS4 then used hidden cameras to record the commissioners standing around bars and sitting down to dinner while talking to each other and to the city manager, BSO District Chief John Hale and other officials. Farrell and other commissioners were drinking wine and other alcoholic beverages, the report said, but Hale, who was in uniform, was drinking soda.
After a Sept. 27 dinner, the commission voted to raise the mayor's salary from $7,000 to $20,000 and they hiked each commissioner's salary from $6,000 to $15,000 a year.
One person who witnessed one of the dinners, Miami Beach police union president Bobby Jenkins said he saw the group on Aug. 22 while sitting at the bar at Landlubbers Raw Bar and Grill, in Cooper City.
Jenkins, who lives in Cooper City and has been a road sobriety test instructor for more than 20 years, said he was appalled: ``The fact that they were drinking, that was what shocked me more than anything. If I showed up to work that way, they'd fire me.''
Kleiman told The Miami Herald that the dinners were held to recognize employee accomplishments, which is why the meals were expensed to taxpayers. Eisinger said commission members and department heads have attended pre-commission meeting dinners for years.
''These dinners have been a customary practice of prior City Commissions in Cooper City for more than 15 years,'' Eisinger told The Miami Herald in an e-mail. ``I have been advised that these dinners are neither legally nor ethically wrong in any respect as no City business is discussed.''
Commissioner Kleiman's son, Scott Kleiman, a former city commissioner, confirmed the tradition.
''Maybe somebody had a glass of wine,'' he said of the meetings he attended. ``But nobody was sitting in a bar for hours drinking.''
The city no longer hosts these dinners, Farrell said in his e-mail. The most recent credit-card charge was for a $200 dinner on Oct. 3.
One Cooper City resident e-mailed Gov. Jeb Bush about the dinners. The governor's legal counsel is reviewing the e-mail. At an Oct. 24 meeting, two citizens, including Sims, asked commissioners whether they had ever drank alcohol before their meetings. Commissioners said they didn't feel the need to answer.
According to Cooper City's code of ordinances, ''drinking intoxicating liquors while on duty'' is a reason for termination for city employees. The recall of elected officials is left to voters, according to the city charter.
It is not clear from the tape what the mayor and other commissioners were saying during these dinners. But the Florida Sunshine Law bars elected officials from discussing city business with one another in private. The law allows professional staff members to talk to each other or commissioners, but they can't pass messages between commissioners.
Jenkins said he heard references to the ''agenda'' and ''revenue'' at some of these meetings but said he did not know if it was city staff or elected officials discussing these issues.
The law extends to any discussion of city issues by elected officials, said Dan Paul, a retired First Amendment lawyer. It does not prohibit personal meetings. ''You don't have to show it had been on the agenda or schedule for discussion or anything like that,'' he said. ``Most Sunshine Law violations are things that never show up on the agenda.''
Sunshine Law violations are considered a misdemeanor, said Sandra Chance, executive director for the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. Penalties include up to six months in prison, a $500 fine and removal from office. ''If they were talking about issues that affect the city, then I think that crosses over to discussions that should be held in the sunshine,'' Chance said.