Cash Cow

A group of political opportunists is cashing in on the rural town of Southwest Ranches

Fisikelli, who knows the town and its government as well as anyone, doesn't like the mansions or the political machine. He's leading a group of vigilant villagers in a bid to take the town back. They say the town government has become little more than a shell game. And they want to bring something to their little western outpost that has been missing for way too long: a little law and order.

Fisikelli and his comrades in arms have a grave mission, but that doesn't mean they lack a sense of humor. It's evident in the name they've given themselves: "Ranchers for Better Government... and World Peace." In addition to the former vice mayor, there are about a dozen other hard-core reformers, most notably Holly Hugdahl, a freelance government consultant who serves as the group's financial expert. There's also organizer Fred Cox, a former Federal Reserve Bank employee and avid equestrian who recently hurt his back when he was thrown from a horse. Serving as the group's unofficial historian is Marcia Larkin, who was an enthusiastic town booster before realizing the experiment was going terribly awry.

Town Attorney Gary Poliakoff tutored Southwest Ranches commissioners on public records laws. They didn't learn, apparently.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Town Attorney Gary Poliakoff tutored Southwest Ranches commissioners on public records laws. They didn't learn, apparently.
Councilman Maines says the plan by Southwest Ranches officials to take over the new city of West Park is outrageous.
Colby Katz
Councilman Maines says the plan by Southwest Ranches officials to take over the new city of West Park is outrageous.

In trademark tongue-in-cheek fashion, Cox states one of the group's basic gripes: "The Canadians have taken over the town."

He's not talking about invaders from the north. To understand what he means, you need only peruse a list of town employees. At the top is John Canada, the administrator. The clerk is one Shari Canada. And a Pat Canada serves as finance director.

Shari is Canada's daughter, and Pat is his wife. It's called nepotism, and it's against the law. Florida forbids public officials from employing a relative in "a position in the agency in which the official is serving or over which the official exercises jurisdiction or control."

John Canada, however, considers himself a private official, since the town contracts not with him but with the company he formed to run Southwest Ranches, John Canada & Associates. In effect, Canada's argument is that a private contractor hired to act in place of a governmental body is immune from the state's ethics laws.

It is a dangerous and apparently unprecedented notion. Bonnie Williams, long-time executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, says she's never heard another municipality make a similar case. "Nothing is ever cut and dried, but it's reasonable that the town should abide by the conflict-of-interest laws and that the arguments the town may have against it are spurious," the ever-circumspect Williams said. "If someone filed a complaint in this case, it could be decided once and for all."

But Canada doesn't stop there. The Florida Constitution forbids anyone from holding two distinct offices within any municipality. Yet John Canada & Associates, a single entity, is serving as both town manager and town clerk, two distinct offices. In other words, Canada checks and balances Canada.

This apparent law-breaking, however, may seem like only a minor transgression compared to Canada's colossal compensation. When he retired as the $125,000 budget director of Broward County to become the town's first administrator in 2000, his inaugural contract paid about $350,000 a year. Canada was doing quite well considering the small size of the town and the fact that, other than a single clerk, he was the company's only employee. (He hired his wife and daughter and a few additional employees, sans benefits, in 2002). By contrast, the average town administrator in the United States makes about $92,000, according to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). For a small town like Southwest Ranches, ICMA reports that the average pay is in the $60,000 range. Canada's windfall seems even more inflated when you consider that he was almost certainly making more than his former boss, Broward County Administrator Roger Desjarlais, who oversees a $2.5 billion budget and nearly 2 million residents. Desjarlais earns about $200,000 annually.

This year, the Southwest Ranches administrator's already rich plum got even sweeter. The council canceled the final year of his contract, which was supposed to pay $378,000, and replaced it with a four-year deal. In 2005, he'll receive $655,000, with healthy raises scheduled through 2008, when he's slated to bring in a whopping $759,000. For that giant pay increase, he agreed to hire a new assistant town administrator and two more employees. In other words, he has received nearly $280,000 in extra pay to hire three people (again without providing pension or benefits).

So how much is Canada really making? Well, he won't say -- and his secrecy is another clear violation of the laws of Florida, specifically the "Government-in-the-Sunshine" statutes. He won't even provide the information to the council. Last year, Town Councilman Don Maines, a guarded critic of the administration, asked the administrator to reveal his employees' salaries. "I said we should have the right to what he is paying out," Maines explains. "It would help to know what it really costs to run the town. But he basically told us that it's none of our business."

Canada, who has been publicly criticized in the past for failing to return phone calls, didn't respond to requests from New Times for interviews. But when questioned at a recent town hall meeting about his refusal to turn over the information on his employees, he said simply: "It's not public information because we're not a public corporation."

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