North Miami Beach commissioners push for audit, question errors on federal funds distribution

NORTH MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Political change in North Miami Beach comes with a stronger push for accountability, as city records show what some city commissioners fear could be possible mismanagement of federal taxpayer funds.

Late Wednesday afternoon, after refusing to answer questions on camera, Arthur H. Sorey III, the city manager, sent a memo to commissioners to explain errors made while the city handled more than half a million in pandemic-related aid.

“A series of technical difficulties were present that compromised the accuracy of the data for our systems to trigger duplicates,” Sorey wrote in the memo about one of the errors.

The commission’s new majority put Sorey under pressure to provide detailed records. In November, North Miami Beach voters reelected Commissioner Fortuna Smuckler and elected two former veteran commissioners, Phyllis Smith, and Jay Chernoff. They joined commissioners Michael Joseph, McKenzie Fleurimond, and Daniela Jean.

Chernoff unseated Paule Villard, a former commissioner who faced accusations that she had allegedly used the distribution of $525,000 in taxpayer-funded Publix gift cards to campaign for reelection in October. The Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust took notice.

Smuckler said the record-keeping was questionable: “It was all done on some type of software program.”

Sorey has refused to answer questions on camera about the handling of the $525,000 since October, months after the former commission passed a resolution allowing for the purchase of the $150 Publix gift cards with federal funds that were meant to help North Miami Beach residents to deal with the difficulties of the pandemic.

In December, Mayor Anthony F. DeFillipo and the new city commission had their first public meeting. Smuckler, Smith, Chernoff, and DeFillipo wanted answers from Hans Ottinot, the city attorney, and Sorey. As they demanded Ottinot step down and pushed for an audit, Fleurimond and Jean walked out. Joseph did not attend the meeting.

City records show there were 1,157 distributed, but it lacked specifics on 343, a value of about $51,000. And to add to the confusion, Sorey reported in his memo that 1,441 gift cards were distributed to the “NMB community” and 59 were “secured by staff and can be used for future community events and initiatives.”

In addition to the memo, Sorey also released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying a portion of the gift cards was mailed or delivered in person to homebound residents.

“There were 15 duplicates plus 3 unaccounted-for gift cards,” Sorey said in the statement. “There were also 3 non-residents who received cards which resulted in an approximate 1.8% margin of error based on the sample size of 1,158.”

Records show the one-per-household rule was violated and cards went to residents outside of the city limits. Also, the city did not have the recipients’ proof of pandemic-related hardship. In his new memo, Sorey also included a memo from the city’s information technology department that attributed some of the errors to “technical issues.”

Smuckler is not convinced. She said she wants clarity and accountability.

“As with everything that happens in our city, (the buck) should stop with him,” Smuckler said referring to the city manager.

Related records

Memo from city’s IT

City NMB record (NMB)

USPS tracking results

City manager’s memo to commissioners

Local 10 News Assignment Desk Editor Wilson Louis contributed to this report. Reporter Glenna Milberg worked on the on-air story.

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