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Mystery over why Vero hired Lawson continues to grow

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of July 7, 2011)

The mystery over why Vero Beach hired Cynthia Lawson as its new finance director – choosing her over 55 applicants despite the fact that her office in the Village of Islamorada is currently occupied by the Florida Auditor General – continues to grow as more details emerge.

When Vero first posted the job of finance director in February, 59 applicants applied. Of those, 12 were interviewed and the city did seven background checks. Two people were offered the job but both declined.

So at the urging of the Vero Beach City Council, the job was again posted May 12 and 56 people applied.

Of these 56 people, nine were CPAs. Of the four marked "were considered," none was called for even a phone interview. All had substantial government accounting experience.  All four had master's degrees from major universities in Florida.

One was a CPA and one was a certified government finance manager. The average experience was 17 years.

On June 15, Lawson became the only second-round applicant interviewed, her background check was completed June 16 and she was selected June 17. Interim City Manager Monte Falls announced June 21 she had been hired.

A request for documentation that Lawson's professional references were checked has not been fulfilled by the
City of Vero Beach. Lawson noted on her application that it was not OK to contact her current employer, the Village of Islamorada.

Lawson is not a CPA, a certified government finance manager or a certified government finance officer. She has 10 years of experience. She has a bachelor's degree in systems engineering from the University of Virginia and an online MBA in accounting from the University of Phoenix.

By comparison, the Town of Indian River Shores has a CPA with 25 years of experience as its town treasurer. Indian River County has three CPAs in its office of management and budget and the county also has three certified government finance officers on staff, including County Administrator Joe Baird.

Even the City of Fellsmere, population 5,061, has a certified government finance officer as its finance director.

Once on board at the end of the month, Lawson will be the boss of Vero’s recently hired Assistant Finance Director Javier Gonzalez. Gonzalez is both a CPA and a certified government finance officer and has 31 years’ experience in government and municipal utility finance with entities much larger than Vero Beach.

Lawson will earn $108,000 per year; Gonzalez is paid $85,000.

"This doesn't pass the sniff test with me, there's something else going on here," said Councilman Brian Heady, adding last week that he may ask Mayor Jay Kramer for a special call meeting to discuss the issue in public and get the full story from the staff.

But it's unclear what the City Council might be able to do, even if a majority of the members disagree with Lawson’s hiring.

"At this point, I'm not certain what I'm going to do about it," Heady said.

Under the city charter, the Vero Beach City Council only has direct supervisory authority over three employees – the city clerk, city manager and city attorney. All other personnel decisions come under the jurisdiction of the city manager.

Any direction or even discussion by the council questioning this hire would be seen as undermining Vero’s newly hired City Manager Jim O'Connor, who is set to be on the job July 25. He interviewed Lawson over the telephone, reviewed her qualifications and made the decision to hire her, jointly with Falls, according to city officials.

Should the council come to a consensus to direct O'Connor to reverse his first major decision, there could be political fallout as well as potential legal questions of elected officials attempting to overstep charter boundaries.