By Susannah Bryan, South Florida Sun-Sentinel,
Hey, big spender.
That would be you, Fort Lauderdale.
Inquiring minds want to know how the city managed to blow $500,000 on a four-hour concert without commission approval — and who’s to blame.
“I’d like to know what happened,” Mayor Dean Trantalis said. “I believe there is more below the surface than we’ve been able to uncover so far. We still want to find out how this fiasco occurred .”
Part of the answer lies in a series of emails now being scrutinized by city officials.
In late June, Parks Director Phil Thornburg sent a frantic warning to then-City Manager Chris Lagerbloom saying he was “already WAY over budget for event entertainment” for the city’s Summer Jamz concert coming up on Aug. 19.
The concert ended up costing an astronomical $432,010 — not including police and fire services, which likely bumped it closer to $500,000. The event, which had no entry fee, drew a crowd of music lovers to Mills Pond Park. Somewhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people showed up, according to police and city officials.
Based on a flurry of emails, it appears Commissioner Robert McKinzie, with his commission assistant as the go-between, put pressure on city staff to approve the supersized budget along with the high-priced talent, city officials say.
‘Blame it on me’
The original contract referenced the following artists: Joe, Faith Evans, Ginuwine, Tamar Braxton, Christopher Williams and Ruben Studdard. The final lineup, with five national headliners and one local group, featured Tank, Mýa, Lil’ Mo, Christopher Williams, Ruben Studdard and the Deep Fried Funk Band.
But on Friday, city officials said they’re not sure the promised performers, with one or two exceptions, were the ones to take the stage.
“I am working with the auditor’s office to determine who was on stage,” said Greg Chavarria, who took over as city manager after Lagerbloom made his exit. “I’m asking him to verify that the right people were on stage.”
Lagerbloom, a city manager on his way out after taking another job, approved the expense in mid-July, just days before leaving for his new job.
“Go ahead and blame it on me,” he wrote in his response to the parks director.
But Lagerbloom, who could not be reached for comment this week despite several attempts, did nothing wrong under the city’s code of ordinances. Normally, he’d need commission approval to spend over $100,000. But not when it comes to hiring entertainers.
For some reason, there’s no spending cap that triggers commission approval when the city makes a deal with entertainers, Chavarria told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Chavarria is now calling for a spending cap on all city-hosted events.
He’s also asked Interim City Auditor Patrick Reilly to do a deeper dive into whether any policies or laws were broken.
The one guy who might be able to shed insight is in Ireland on vacation. That would be McKinzie, who appears to have helped choose the talent and maybe even the booking agent for the event, according to dozens of emails obtained by the Sun Sentinel. McKinzie’s commission assistant, Tracy Roach, sent an email on June 10 to the parks director that said: “Hi Phil, per Commissioner McKinzie, please see the talent requested for Summer Jamz. Jeffrey Osbourne, Mystical, Ruben Studdard.”
Sounding the alarm
But the lineup requests from McKinzie’s office kept on changing.
In another email, a parks staffer complained to his boss that McKinzie’s assistant was making yet another change to the lineup, adding $100,000 to an already bloated budget.
“So in all we would be paying $450,000 for artists/sound,” he wrote.
Six days before the concert, Chavarria sounded another alarm in an email to the parks director saying it looked like they were paying for A-grade talent but the lineup had changed. He wanted to know if the contract price had changed too — it had not.
It appears the city paid for top-notch talent it didn’t get, Chavarria said Friday. And some of the acts might have been switched out without proper approval.
The contract makes it clear that any change in the lineup of performers can be made only with prior written approval of the city manager, city officials say.
Now there’s talk of possibly clawing back the money if the city overpaid for the talent.
“From what I can see, we were charged for a certain level of talent,” the mayor said. “And by the end of the day, that level of talent was not available or did not appear and substitutes were made available at the same price.”
That’s one long VIP list
The trail of emails contains another interesting twist: A VIP list with 235 names. Somehow, the mayor and the rest of the commission did not make the list.
At least five employees did make it onto the VIP list along with four of McKinzie’s relatives, former state Rep. Chris Smith, Sen. Perry Thurston, former Police Chief Frank Adderley and Pamela Beasley-Pittman, who is running for the District 3 Commission seat now held by McKinzie.
McKinzie and his commission office likely came up with the list, Chavarria said, because Thornburg and his staff say they had nothing to do with it.
“This is absolutely scandalous that we spent half a million dollars on a party,” Trantalis said. “This event somehow mushroomed into a half-a-million-dollar event for one night. We could have employed 200 kids doing a summer jobs program with that kind of money. Instead we spent it all on a party.”
The entire budget for the year for all city-sponsored events comes to $1.529 million. With the Summer Jamz event eating up one-third of the budget, the parks director was forced to move $1.4 million from other funds to make sure he had money to cover other upcoming events, city officials say.
“So we had savings in water and sewer to throw a party?” Commissioner Steve Glassman asked rhetorically during a public meeting this week.
Somehow, that budget change did not show up on a commission agenda, Glassman told the Sun Sentinel.
“It looks like several departments were in on making sure none of this came to light to the commission,” he said.
The whole ordeal might have been swept under the rug if not for Glassman firing off a litany of questions to City Hall.
What tipped him off? A tweet from a McKinzie supporter urging people to “come to the free concert at Mills Pond in Fort Lauderdale, courtesy of Commissioner Robert L. McKinzie.”
People are watching
The concert took place four days before the primary election that saw McKinzie win a race for the District 8 County Commission seat. Between acts, he took the stage, mic in hand.
McKinzie plans to remain on the City Commission until Nov. 7 before taking a seat on the county dais.
Neither he nor Roach could be reached for comment despite several attempts.
“There needs to be a second pair of eyes looking over what’s going on,” Trantalis said. “It’s quite clear who took over this event and who used this event to benefit their own agenda. Were any laws broken? That’s what we are trying to find out.”
In the meantime, several locals were astounded by the astronomical cost of the Summer Jamz concert.
That includes Brian Donaldson, a longtime resident and chair of the city’s budget advisory board.
“I was as shocked as the rest of the commission when I heard the numbers,” he said. “We need to ensure that in the future this has a budget cap so it doesn’t happen again. We spent money on feeding people and entertaining them for free.”
Trantalis says there’s high interest among both residents and outsiders into how the city responds to this particular incident of freewheeling spending.
“There are people watching this,” Trantalis said. “In fact, there are people in other cities watching this. Everyone’s kind of watching how we’re going to navigate through this incident because they want to make sure it doesn’t happen in their own communities.”