Distrust, bitterness mark relations between county, cities

Assistant County Attorney Andrew Meyers tells city officials they rushed to sue and should take a step back, in a case over millions in garbage system funds.

First there was bickering, then trust issues arose. The relationship grew bitter. Both sides lawyered up. The word "divorce'' was spoken.

This is the story of Broward County and its cities.

Relations have grown icy as the two sides engage in an unusual flurry of litigation that's sapping public resources and taxpayers' money and leading to intergovernmental gridlock.

"I think the level of trust between the cities and county is at its lowest level,'' said Broward Commissioner Stacy Ritter, a former state legislator. "At the end of the day, I think it's — as always — about money.''


Hollywood Doggie Beach Pictures

Last week, a lawsuit filed against the county by 18 cities brought at least 68 Broward elected officials, plus city managers and attorneys, to a dispute meeting in Sunrise.

More than one person lamented the cost to taxpayers as local governments lock horns with each other.

"You're spending their money to fight, over there. We're spending their money to fight, over here,'' Broward Commissioner Dale Holness said to the city officials. "It's a waste of money.''

Some said they've never seen things this bad.

The county's been sued by or is in pre-lawsuit talks with 22 Broward cities in the past year over garbage-system money, a regional 911 system, funding for redevelopment, and an annexation deal gone bad. In addition, it's fighting with most of its cities over ethics and affordable housing.

"This is the most acrimonious that I remember,'' said Sue Gunzburger, a 20-year county commissioner who previously served on the Hollywood City Commission. "I think a whole lot of things have come to a head.''

Weston Mayor Dan Stermer said he believes the cities have "grown up'' over time and are more capable of fighting back against a county that operates with a "top-down approach.'' The pack of 31 cities has evolved into a more formidable force, he says, and learned to work together.

"I hope it's not acrimony,'' he said of the city-county posture, ''but a growing respect for each other.''

Stermer said the county behaves like "a parent going to tell our children, the cities, what to do and how to do it.''

The discord — serious disagreements over tens of millions of dollars — weighs on the minds of some county commissioners when cities come asking for grants or approvals.

At her seat on the dais, Ritter has a list of the cities that are suing the county. On her office wall, she said, she has a framed sheet of paper listing the cities that are suing and those that aren't.

"I think about it a lot,'' said Ritter. "I look at the [County Commission] agenda on Tuesday and I see which cities are asking for what. It hasn't affected my vote on most of them, but it has on a couple.''

Gunzburger said she thinks about it as well. The head-to-head reminds her of her days as a therapist.

"When you're really angry and you have all these negative feelings, you can't hear what the other person is saying,'' she said, "and I think that's part of the problem.''

A synopsis of the issues:

• Eighteen cities are suing Broward County over the recently disbanded countywide garbage system. The cities argue that some $150 million in assets should now be shared with the 26 cities who were partners in the system. The county is holding onto the cash and landfills, saying they have a negative value when the liabilities of maintaining landfills is considered. The cities suing are Sunrise, Weston, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Lauderhill, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Lighthouse Point, Tamarac, Davie, Plantation, Coconut Creek, Deerfield Beach, Miramar, Margate, Coral Springs, Cooper City, North Lauderdale and Southwest Ranches.