Law and Disorder
City Officials in Cooper City say there's nothing wrong with getting together for drinks and dinner before city commission meetings, on the taxpayers' tab, but not everyone agrees. See I-Team Investigator Mike Kirsch's reports and decide for yourself.
View the complete special report by clicking this link - This is the initial investigative report:
Law & Disorder
Mike Kirsch Reporting
(CBS4) COOPER CITY The CBS4 I-team has been investigating the pre-meeting dinners held by members of the Cooper City commission, and CBS4 Investigative reporter Mike Kirsch has caught on camera conduct which could raise eyebrows in the small Broward community.
CBS4 undercover cameras captured Cooper City politicians gathering for dinners before city commission meetings, dinners at which alcohol was consumed, causing some community activists to be critical of their actions.
Mayor Debby Eisinger, Commissioners Linda Ferrara, Elliot Kleiman, Bart Roper and John Valenti were all shown on tape, as well as City Manager Chris Farrell.
Some citizens confronted the mayor and commissioners about drinking before attending a public meeting, but commissioners did not talk about the topic.
Mayor Eisinger declined an interview at a commission meeting where the dinners were discussed, and did not respond to additional interview requests
Farrell sent an email to CBS4 investigator Kirsch stating "Nobody's ever gotten intoxicated at these events."
Commissioner Kleiman was quoted in The Miami Herald saying that the whole purpose of these events --events he admits are paid for by taxpayers -- are "to develop our image."
Law And Disorder: Governor Reacts
Mike Kirsch Reporting
(CBS4) COOPER CITY
This week we reported how for two months we secretly videotaped Cooper City's mayor, some commissioners and the city manager, billing taxpayers for their visits to local bars and restaurants. Immediately afterward they drove to commission meetings to vote on issues concerning taxpayers. On one occasion they were seen consuming alcohol before voting themselves a hefty pay raise.
Cooper City's leaders continue insisting they've done nothing wrong, but CBS4 News just received a copy of a letter sent by Florida Governor Jeb Bush to Mayor Debbie Eisinger. It requests an explanation for the issues raised in our news reports and for complaints from citizens after watching our hidden camera investigation.
Our reports showed angry citizens confronting commissioners about it at this recent commission meeting.
City leaders have since said they've had these pre-commission meetings for years and were not intoxicated. They were simply out—according to one commissioner—"to develop their image."
"Their poor image..what type of image are they going to develop," said Arthur Donovan, a citizen.
Some Cooper City citizens were picking up students at a school next to City hall. They gave commissioners a failing grade after seeing these hidden camera images from our report.
"I think they should resign or be removed from office," said Marie Dittebrand.
Following our report, city leaders have declined to meet with us for comment. They have previously insisted by email they did nothing wrong, and are not guilty of any crime. They have said, however, they will no longer hold these pre-commission meeting events.
"If they think they're guilty, of course they're going to stop it," said citizen Sheri Pollack. "What else you going to do?"
City leaders have gone to one newspaper dismissing the two citizens who questioned them at this meeting as activists with an agenda.
One of them is Cooper City resident John Sims.
"I think it's just a spin," said Sims. "I was never an activist. Now I'm an activist for the citizens of Cooper City. Yes, I'm an activist for doing the right thing."
See the full video report here:
Jeb Bush enters Cooper City dining fray
BY BREANNE GILPATRICK
Gov. Jeb Bush wants Cooper City Commissioners to explain allegations that they gathered privately at bars and restaurants before meetings, eating and drinking at taxpayer expense.
In a letter today to Mayor Debby Eisinger, Raquel A. Rodriguez, general counsel for the governor's office, asked for detailed written information about allegations commissioners and city staff drove and conducted meetings under the influence of alcohol.
The letter also requested information on possible violations of Florida's Government in the Sunshine Laws, which generally bars commissioners from discussing city business in private meetings.
''The Governor will consider your response in deciding whether to request a formal law enforcement investigation,'' Rodriguez wrote.
The letter asks the city to respond within three business days.
Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4 documented some of the dinner meetings in a two-month hidden camera investigation. All five city commissioners -- Eisinger, Linda Ferrara, Elliot Kleiman, Bart Roper and John Valenti -- City Manager Chris Farrell and other senior city staff members were shown on tape before commission meetings in local restaurants and standing around bars, some holding wine glasses. BSO District Chief John Hale, who was in uniform, also was shown, but he was drinking soda.
City leaders have said the dinners are a long-standing city tradition meant to develop relationships with each other and with county and state leaders. The city also has rejected claims that anyone at the dinners was intoxicated or discussed city business.
''At no time have I ever witnessed a violation of the Sunshine Law or seen any member of the Commission or staff members consume an inappropriate amount of wine or any other alcoholic beverage,'' Farrell, said in a form e-mail to angry residents.
Earlier in the day, city leaders received strings of nasty e-mails asking for resignations, apologies and taxpayer reimbursements for the ``city commission dinners.''
Four recent dinners cost taxpayers almost $1,000 in total, according to receipts from the city.
''I think they should resign, or they should come up with a good explantion for it,'' Cooper City resident Sonia Jones said.
Former commissioner Gladys Wilson said her phone was ringing constantly once residents heard the allegations Thursday night.
''I was contacted by about 10 different residents,'' she said. ``And they were all very unhappy about it.''
Wilson, who served on the commission between 1989 and 1992, said the dinners didn't exist when she was in office. Other former commissioners said the meals began in the mid-1990s, and they were in place before the current commission was elected.
But not every call or e-mail attacked city leaders. Some residents e-mailed to say they thought the allegations were ''biased'' and ``sensationalist.''
''As you know, you and I have not always seen eye to eye on every issue, but be assured that I respect you for your high moral character and solid leadership,'' said Steve Carl in an e-mail to Eisinger. Both Eisinger and Kleiman said only a handful of the e-mails they received today were negative.
Kleiman said he has told residents he would be happy to meet with anyone who is upset about the allegations. He said he isn't even considering resident demands to apologize and resign.
''If you don't do anything wrong, what do you apologize for?'' he said. ``I am sorry that they're upset. That's about as much as I can say.''
Eisinger said she won't let the scandal interfere with running Cooper City: ``I will continue to give my 100 percent effort. I will not let this in any way prevent me from performing my duties on behalf of the residents.''
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
Before a commission meeting Mayor Debby Eisinger has some wine with commissioners at a local bar. "
Check out their hefty tabs...
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.