A year and a half after a slew of former Winter Springs officials refused to comply with subpoenas from the then-current City Commission regarding water issues in the city and alleged hidden problems with a reclaimed water plant, the state is now auditing the city’s finances. According to the current mayor, the audit was pushed by “paid political operatives.”
A wastewater spill that led to a fish kill in 2021, just before the resignation of former Mayor Charles Lacey, went under scrutiny at a meeting in Tallahassee last Thursday as the recently reconvened Joint Legislative Auditing Committee (JLAC) voted to look into the city’s finances.
At the time of that 2021 wastewater spill the city’s wastewater facilities were more than 40 years old and had suffered “decades of neglect,” City Manager Shawn Boyle said. Potential problems mentioned by State Sen. Jason Brodeur at the Jan. 26 JLAC meeting included possible errors by the city in hiring Veolia Water, which market analyst PW Consulting identified in 2021 as the top water treatment firm in the world, with more than 180,000 employees globally. Veolia was hired to fix some of the city’s water issues. Brodeur said he wants to find out if the city’s contracting practices are complying with state statutes, calling the bid process “curious.”
“If it’s legal it’s legal,” said Brodeur, a Winter Springs native who, citing complaints from residents, asked the JLAC to audit the city’s finances. “But I need someone from outside of this area to just go in so I can say to everybody that complains that we’ve looked at it and it’s fine or we’ve looked at it and here’s the corrective action plan.”
Winter Springs Mayor Kevin McCann, who said he’d only learned of the JLAC meeting 36 hours before it was set to begin and only received the agenda for the meeting a day ahead of it, traveled to Tallahassee to state the city’s case against requiring an audit. He said that, based on information he’d seen and the lack of transparency, the push for the audit, which came from within Winter Springs, appeared to be politically motivated, saying it had been launched by “political operatives.”
Brodeur had received an unsigned letter from a group identifying itself as “Winter Springs residents” outlining why the city should be audited.
Brodeur also said a former Seminole County Commissioner, later identified as John Horan, had said he’d made a public information request to the city regarding several issues and had been told it would cost more than $1,000 to process. McCann said that Horan’s request would have required “more than 80 hours” of city staff time to research and compile.
“Yes we have the right to charge him that 10 cents a page or a nickel a page or whatever when he asks for it, if he’s asking for something that’s going to absolutely lock down our staff,” McCann said.
McCann said he only discovered that the city’s fate would be discussed in an open meeting in Tallahassee when a journalist called to ask him about the audit.
“Our city knew nothing about this,” McCann said. “We’ve had no way of responding. No way of putting paperwork together. No way of addressing this. How about a phone call? Simply reach out to us. We’re an open book. We’ve had audits. The Department of Environmental Protection has everything in writing.”
Trying to assuage McCann’s worries, Florida Sen. Jason Pizzo, chair of the JLAC, said that McCann, who was appointed mayor in mid-2021 to finish Lacey’s term and won his first election in November of last year, did not appear to be to blame for what spurred the audit.
“You’re brand new,” Pizzo said. “You just got elected in November. Do you want to stand here before this committee and assume all responsibility for all of the acts of every contract and every performance of everybody before you got there? I don’t think you do. It’s not fair to you. What I’m trying to convey is this is not an accusation of you, of your work, of your public service.”
But McCann said that he’d been tied to the audit despite his short time on the Commission.
“The gentleman who wrote this brief for you continues to call for my resignation,” he said.
“Bringing this to light without allowing us to simply answer your questions and doing this 18-month thing that’s going to be released just before the next election, it’s disturbing,” McCann added.
At one point Florida Sen. Mike Caruso asked McCann pointedly if he considered the audit to be launched based on false information.
“Do you assert that those things and the items listed in the briefing are not correct or totally false?” Caruso asked.
“Overwhelmingly factually inaccurate,” McCann responded.
“Factually false?” Caruso asked.
“False,” McCann said, adding he could provide the JLAC with reports.
“But you did just say that there was a 100,000 gallon wastewater dump,” Caruso said.
“There were hundreds of spills similar to that in Seminole County last year,” McCann said. “Hundreds.”
The JLAC voted unanimously to proceed with the audit, with Pizzo saying he hoped to get it done as soon as possible.
“If there’s a faster way to get to the truth or the answer or resolution, we’re all for it,” Pizzo said. “So I make that commitment to you.”
“If in the interim, while this is in its normal course, there’s a way to resolve this issue and provide the information in two weeks or two months, I’m all for it,” Pizzo added.
Before he left, McCann said that he hoped that if it’s discovered the city has done nothing wrong, that something would be done about the “paid political operatives” who pushed for the audit.
“This body has a great deal of really valuable work to do,” McCann said. “I must say in my personal opinion, I’m not speaking for the city at this point, this is a pure weaponizing of this committee.”
“Mayor McCann, I’m going to tell you this: I was a homicide prosecutor,” Pizzo said. “I used to go after people that shot and killed kids, OK? If somebody’s screwing with you individually, and this is a vendetta, we’re going to find out … if somebody’s out to get you, I’ll get him. You understand what I’m saying? If you have larceny in your heart you’re going to hate me. If you don’t, you’re going to love me.”
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