Fort Myers council fixes credit card issue

Posted: Sep 11, 2018 5:42 PM -04:00 Updated:

In 2017 the NBC2 Investigators uncovered Fort Myers city councilors using a taxpayer-funded, so-called "public relations fund" to donate to the nonprofits and charities of their choice. Following up on the investigation a year later, council members are no longer using taxpayer dollars for charitable donations.

From 2014 through 2016 Fort Myers city councilors spent more than $42,000 from the taxpayer-funded public relations fund.

More than $4,000 were donated to Greek organizations and another $2,000 to religious organizations.

Florida Tax Watch president Dominic Calabro called the practice unlawful.

"It's absurd, it's ridiculous, it's without any legitimacy," Calabro said.

Fort Myers mayor Randy Henderson said since the investigation city management has taken a firmer stance on how public officials use their city-issued credit cards.

"I think looking back over the last year we're doing better," Henderson said. "The excellent part about that is it stops our world. We turn and focus and we say, 'Is there a better way? Did we do something inappropriate? If we did let's fix it and let's document it and learn from it.'"

The records show city council members have learned. Their city credit card invoices for the past year had no donations to nonprofits or religious organizations.

Henderson said city employees and councilors now have annual meetings to go over what's allowed and what isn't on city credit cards. He also said they are receiving more professional help from city employees in purchasing, financing and legal departments.

"While we have moneys allocated to show that kind of empathy we are compelled to use it in very discretionary lawful appropriate ways. You can't let your heart get ahead of your head," Henderson said.

Council member Terolyn Watson spent the most from her PR fund in 2016, more than $5,000, including $700 to the Cape Coral Junior Football Association.

New records show she's no longer making donations to nonprofits but she's still getting creative to give back. In 2017 after the hurricane she organized turkey and toy giveaway for Fort Myers residents.

"It was after the hurricane so a lot of people needed help during that time," Watson said.

Card records from Watson's assistant show nearly $1,000 spent at food stores in December but at the same time, she received two donations from local business owners to cover those expenses so they wouldn't be from taxpayers pockets.

"If people would donate then I wouldn't actually have to use our taxpayers money it would be city people that's helping other city people," Watson said.

Watson said she plans on holding another giveaway to residents in need December 22 would like other city leaders to donate to help.

"I'll see who we can get to donate and go out and help in the community," Watson said.

"I don't think any public servant worth their salt would begrudge something being called out that's inappropriate if they're given a chance to acknowledge it correct it and ask for assistance," Henderson said.

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