Firing Squad

A whistleblower is gagged before he's offed in quaint Plantation Acres

When the Plantation Acres Improvement District had an emergency government meeting on January 5, no agenda was posted. But everyone in attendance knew exactly what was going to happen.

They were going to fire Lee Hillier, manager of the $1 million, tax-subsidized district that oversees water drainage in the Acres.

Hillier walked into the little district building on the corner of Hiatus Avenue and Sunrise Boulevard, saying hello to a handful of his supporters who stopped by for the show. He was stoic on his march to the guillotine — and the firing was about as lawful and just as a Robespierre execution.

The special meeting itself was illicit, the result of a violation of district rules and the state's Sunshine Laws. It began with a phone call last month from board member Jim Davis to Chairman Nick Parris.

Parris tells me Davis said, "We need to fire Lee."

Parris says he now realizes that Davis was violating Sunshine Laws with that phone call. Members of the same elected body are forbidden to discuss official business together unless it's in the public eye. The phone call most definitely wasn't in the public eye, and the firing of the PAID manager was most assuredly official business.

Parris told Davis that a special meeting would need to be called if he wanted to fire Hillier and that calling a meeting would require a consensus of three of the five board members. Parris, an old friend and supporter of Hillier's, wanted no part of it.

But at least two supervisors wanted to terminate the manager, Davis and his good friend Ron Adams. Hillier, after all, had discovered that both men had too-cozy ties to district contractors and had accused them of violating water codes on their own properties.

Davis told Parris — again on the phone, outside public purview — that board Supervisor Dave Hawkins also was in favor of calling a special meeting to fire Hillier.

"Jim [Davis] was calling me on and on with his problems with the district...," Parris says. "I try really really hard to be diligent about [the Sunshine Laws]. I always say 'Stop talking' when he brings up government business."

Based on Davis' assurance that Hawkins was also requesting the meeting, Parris called it for January 5. The meeting was called to order at 7 p.m. At a table near the board's dais were two PAID lawyers — the regular district attorney, Jeff Siniawsky, and a specially hired outside counsel, Ed Pozzuoli, former chairman of the Broward County Republican Executive Committee. Although most everyone was dressed casually, the plump-faced Pozzuoli was wearing his standard-issue GOP monkey suit — a navy coat with a power-red tie.

Here's how it went down:

Parris called the meeting to order, and Adams quickly made the blind motion to terminate Hillier's employment. After a pregnant pause, Davis seconded Adams' motion.

Then Hawkins asked Parris how the meeting was called.

"This meeting was requested by three board members," Parris explained.

"I was not one of them, right?" Hawkins asked.

"Actually, sir, I was told you were the third member," Parris said.

"Not to my knowledge," Hawkins verified.

Davis sat silent.

Then Hawkins said he wanted to ask Hillier some questions. PAID attorney Siniawsky clearly didn't like the idea and said any answers the manager would provide might not be relevant. He asked Adams, who made the motion to fire the manager, "Is the motion with cause or without cause?"

Adams clearly had no clue.

"Hmm, either one," he muttered.

"The motion would have to be with cause or without cause," Siniawsky pushed.

"Without cause," Adams decided.

After some back and forth, it was decided that Hawkins could state his questions and then they would determine if they'd let Hillier answer them. "My question is, if we want the district manager to be a team player, why are you bringing up old news in an article in New Times?"

This was a reference to my December 29 column, which, incidentally, was the first and only story ever written about PAID's recent problems.

"Actually, I'm agitated about it," Hawkins said of the column.

(Note to self: Mission accomplished.)

Parris eventually ruled that the questions weren't material to the argument and that Hillier — who is widely regarded as the hardest-working and most dedicated manager the 24-year-old district has ever had — wouldn't get to talk. Just before they were about to vote, Hillier's attorney, Randy Fleischer, stood up in the manager's defense. He pointed out that they were giving no reason for the firing and that his client had had no chance to answer the charges against him.

"Which is hard since he doesn't even know what they are," he continued. "There's no reason for his termination other than in retaliation for blowing the whistle on Mr. Davis and Mr. Adams... There will be a lot of liability on this board... and ultimately, Mr. Hillier is going to be reinstated."

The board then voted 3-2 to fire Hillier, with Parris and Supervisor Flanigan voting against. Davis was the decisive vote, and again, he allowed an extended pause before he lowered the ax with the third "yes." It might have been dramatic if it weren't so obvious which way he was going to vote.

That paved the way for Fleischer, a Democratic activist and former director of the Broward County Human Rights Board, to help get some investigations rolling. Last week, he filed a whistleblower's complaint on Hillier's behalf with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, which could vote to reinstate Hillier with back pay. Hillier has also complained to the Plantation Police Department and is asking for an investigation by the State Attorney's Office.

Since the chairman of PAID, Parris, readily admits that Sunshine Laws have been broken, prosecutors — even those working for Michael Satz, the corruption-friendly Broward state attorney — shouldn't have too hard a time making a case.

Davis quickly left the meeting hall after the vote and didn't return requests for an interview. But he couldn't leave fast enough to escape the condemnation of Plantation Acres resident and Hillier supporter Mary Cote, who ended the meeting with a fitting rebuke: "This is a disgrace to this community! Shame on you, Mr. Davis! Shame on all of you."

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman