Business on the Edge | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Business on the Edge

It wasn't so much the sight of the backhoe rolling down Broward Boulevard that raised the hackles of Lee Hillier, district manager for the Plantation Acres Improvement District (PAID), as much as the man riding shotgun on top of it.

"Shit, Davis is on that backhoe," he remembers thinking.

That would be Jim Davis, an elected supervisor at the taxpayer-financed PAID, which oversees water drainage on the edge of the Everglades. Hillier suspected that the backhoe was owned by the district. He knew it was going to be delivered to Davis' personal property, but he couldn't figure out why the supervisor would be riding the taxpayers' machine on the boulevard.

So he followed Davis and the backhoe north on 118th Avenue to the supervisor's expansive property, where he has a horse-boarding business. Then Hillier watched Davis and the unknown driver of the tractor spread a mound of dirt across a horse ring.

Hillier couldn't get PAID Chairman Nick Perris on the phone. He says he watched Davis operate the backhoe for an hour before Perris finally called and told him to find out what was going on.

Davis worked another 20 minutes before he got off the machine to greet Hillier. The official confirmed that the backhoe was district property, and he introduced the driver as Doug Holt, owner of the company that sold it to the public. Davis then told Hillier that he was simply "training" on the machine.

"It stank to high heaven," Hillier says now. "It was the district employees who needed the training, not Jim Davis. Davis had no business using it for personal reasons."

That incident, which occurred on December 27, 2004, marked the first major skirmish in the war between Hillier and the entrenched Good Ol' Boy network at PAID. Since that day, Hillier has uncovered rampant cronyism and apparent Sunshine Law violations by Davis and other supervisors. It all came to a head after Hurricane Wilma, when $125,000 in federal cleanup money fell into PAID's lap. Hillier claims that Davis and another supervisor, Ron Adams, tampered with the bidding process and pulled their public muscle for personal friends.

His muckraking has been impressive but also extremely hazardous to his career in public service. Davis and Adams, after all, are basically his bosses. On December 14, Hillier was suspended with no reason given. In a preemptive move, he went to the Plantation Police Department last week and accused Davis and Adams of criminal wrongdoing.

As wild as things have become, this kind of climax was easily predictable in the fall of 2004, when Hillier was hired for the $48,000-a-year job. This is the same man who, as a Plantation city councilman, proved a thorn in the side of former Mayor Frank Veltri and exposed the seedy side of the city's politics at every turn. In 2001, the established power elite went after Hillier with all cylinders. He was defeated at the polls.

At PAID, Hillier stumbled onto a political patronage system a bit less sophisticated than the one he found at City Hall. Like most of the 1,300 special taxing districts in the state, PAID, with a budget of about $1 million, has operated with little scrutiny from the public since it was founded in 1964.

Until now. Any façade of decency at PAID was blown down in the wake of Hurricane Wilma. The October 24 storm filled crucial drainage canals in Plantation Acres with tree branches and other debris. In the middle of November, the district accepted bids from three tree companies to clean them up, with the work subsidized by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.

Three companies put in bids. One, Phil's Expert Tree Service, had a track record at the district. The other two companies were out-of-town newcomers, Brooks Quality Tree Service, of Orlando, and a Gainesville concern called C&C Grind.

At a district meeting November 17, Supervisor Davis pushed hard for Brooks, explaining that the company had done work in his own yard. The company, however, had come in with the ridiculously low bid of $24,000 while the other two companies estimated about $125,000.

The supervisors voted to go forward with Brooks, despite the obvious price discrepancy. Then Supervisor Adams, a good friend of Davis', made a motion for the district to make C&C the backup company if Brooks fell through.

In fact, when Hillier explained the true scope of the work to owner Donald Brooks, he dropped out. Why? Because all he had known about the job before bidding on it had come from an informal conversation with Davis.

Davis acknowledged as much. "I said to Brooks, 'I sit on the Plantation Acres Improvement Board; would you like to bid on the canals?'" Davis explained. "I said, 'Walk up and down the canals.' I didn't even go with him when he did it. And then he put in a bid."