ST. LUCIE COUNTY — An independent audit released Tuesday found the Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department spent $14,832 of taxpayer money to throw a wedding reception for St. Lucie County Clerk of the Circuit Court Joe Smith and his wife, Assistant County Attorney Heather Smith, at the Havert L. Fenn Center in Fort Pierce.
The Smiths paid the county $1,801 to have their May 28 wedding reception at the Fenn Center. The audit found the county undercharged the Smiths $1,332 when comparing some of the charges to another wedding reception and the county’s established fees.
County Administrator Faye Outlaw said Joe Smith and his wife, Heather, whose maiden name is Lueke, have reimbursed the county for the $1,332 undercharge.
Outlaw also has put Parks, Recreation and Facilities Director Debra Brisson on probation and has asked Assistant County Administrator Lee Ann Lowery to conduct a comprehensive review of the management structure and operations of the parks and recreation department.
“Overall, from the findings in the report, it is clear the current procedures and practices for booking the Fenn Center events are flawed,” Outlaw wrote in an Oct. 10 letter to the St. Lucie County Commission. “The system must be overhauled and stronger procedures put in place to ensure all future events are handled in a consistent manner and appropriately charged. I intend to issue oral and written reprimands where deemed appropriate.”
Outlaw noted in her letter to the County Commission that the report found no misuse of taxpayer money or illegal activity.
Brisson said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday: “I am thankful for the independent examination, which supports no county funds were misused, and I accept the disciplinary actions recommended (by) the county administrator. As the director, I take full responsibility for the findings of the report. This was not Mr. and Mrs. Smith fault. (sic) They were presented with a bill and paid it in full. I will be working with county administration to create operational procedures to address and correct this and all other issues arising from the independent examination.”
County Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky said he’s calling for a complete policy review of how the Fenn Center operates.
“We need to make sure we don’t have any of these issues come forward ever again in the future,” he said. “In hindsight, it certainly may have been inappropriate judgment.”
County Commission Chairman Chris Craft, who was a groomsman in the Smith wedding, issued a prepared statement Tuesday that said in part: “It’s reassuring to see there was no misuse of taxpayers’ money, and I’m confident that Ms. Outlaw and her staff will continue to do what’s best for the residents of St. Lucie County.”
The county hired its independent auditor, Berger, Toombs, Elam, Gaines & Frank of Fort Pierce, to investigate allegations in a Sept. 23 letter made by former parks and recreation executive assistant Carol Strobert to Outlaw. Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers first reported on the allegations on Sept. 28.
In that letter, Strobert, who resigned Sept. 9 after six years with the county, accuses her boss, Brisson, of misusing $30,000 of taxpayer money to throw a wedding reception for the Smiths. Among the allegations:
The Smiths were charged $1,801 for a reception that would normally cost a member from the general public $4,655.
The Smiths didn’t sign a rental/lease agreement to rent the Fenn Center as is required to have an event there.
The county bought chandeliers, candles, goblets, ceiling sheers, LED lights, plate chargers, mirror centerpieces, live trees, flatware and purple and white material for the reception and did not charge the Smiths for it.
The county used 15 employees with salary ranges from a high of $40.33 per hour to a low of $9.51 per hour and contract labor to set up the wedding reception. Some employees received overtime and at least one temporary employee got a 50-cent per hour raise;
The county used state prison inmates from the Martin Correctional Institution to help set up a private wedding event.
A couple that subsequently booked the Fenn Center for a wedding reception was charged more and did not receive the same special services.
County staff constructed two large portable bars for the reception. Labor material was provided by the county.
According to the findings of the audit, a true cost comparison of the Smith wedding and the wedding of the private couple could not be determined because “the county was not sticking to established prices in booking these events. Many items were either provided at no charge or were simply provided and not mentioned.”
According to the report, the Smiths came to the county to rent the Fenn Center, and county staff considered it an opportunity to showcase the Fenn Center as a premier location for a wedding event. County officials, including Outlaw, have said many of the items purchased for the Smith wedding could be used by anyone who books an event there. Outlaw