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Risky Business: County contractors stop work, decry payment blocks by Brock

County Manager’s emergency motion to force Brock to pay county’s bills set for Thursday court hearing

City Desk Naples-Marco Island, Florida
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Contractor complains about Brock blocking payment over 26 cents 

Risky Business: County contractors stop work, decry payment blocks by Brock

County Manager’s emergency motion to force Brock to pay county’s bills set for Thursday court hearing

By Gina Edwards

Naples City Desk


Doing business with Collier County under the threat of not getting paid has become too risky to some county contractors, many of them local small business owners.

Hundreds of businesses are owed more than $1 million in the wake of payment refusals by Collier Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock in recent weeks, a move Brock made ahead of a court decision on whether the county’s purchasing policy is illegal as Brock asserts in a lawsuit he filed in April.

Now the county’s sole ambulance parts supplier, under a statewide contract, has cut-off the county’s account for non-payment in the wake of Brock’s refusal to pay.

“We could face some very serious life safety issues if our account is completely shut down,” a county employee wrote in an email obtained by Naples City Desk.

County Manager Leo Ochs told Collier Commissioners about the ambulance situation in a July 10 email memo: “This blatant abuse of power by the Clerk is now placing the public's safety in jeopardy.”

The effects of Brock’s refusal to pay certain county bills is being felt across county government and the community. A program that feeds more than 100 seniors daily may have to shut or risk losing its grant for non-compliance, according to court filings submitted to support an emergency motion to compel Brock to pay the county’s bills. The registered dietician who is required to approve meals told Collier County government officials that she would no longer do work or allow her license to be used until she’s paid for the work she’s already done.

A builder, an air conditioning company and an elevator repair company, all locally based, have told Collier County they would no longer seek smaller contract work, like work done to provide emergency repairs and maintenance, because they don’t want to risk performing work and paying for materials with long waits for payments and reimbursements or flat-out refusals to pay by Brock’s Office, court filings say.

The sole state source for ambulance parts, Hall-Mark Fire Apparatus, told Collier County it has suspended the county’s contract because it’s owed money by Collier County. Hall-Mark, based in Ocala, supplies parts for all but 5 of the county’s 42 ambulances and all of the fire trucks owned by the county.

“In virtually every county in Florida it is understood that the power to enter into small contracts under a threshold amount is ‘administrative or ministerial’ in nature and thus properly granted to county officials under Section 125.75 Florida Statutes,” attorneys for Leo Ochs state in court filings that ask Judge James Shenko to force Brock to pay county bills.

A hearing on the emergency motion to force Brock to pay county bills is set for Thursday before Judge James R. Shenko at 1:30 p.m.

“The Clerk has no legal basis to refuse payment on contracts to which Collier County is legally bound through the exercise of the County Manager’s administrative powers,” according to court filings by Jamie Cole, Ochs’ attorney from the law firm of Weiss, Serota, Helfman, Cole & Bierman. “Until this court makes a final judgment declaring the county ordinance invalid that provision remains the law and the Clerk must follow it.”

Brock, who was first elected Clerk of Courts in 1992, says only elected county commissioners have authority to spend county money and that appointed officials like Ochs and Purchasing Director Joanne Markiewicz do not have discretion to make any purchasing decisions under state law.

Under the county’s purchasing policy and ordinance, voted on and approved of by a majority of Collier’s elected commissioners, the county manager or purchasing director can authorize purchases under $50,000 after staff obtaining three quotes. Over $50,000 requires competitive bidding and approval by commissioners. Spending for items under $3,000 can be approved by county staff.      

“The Clerk and public are irreparably harmed when the statutes that require the governing body of Collier County (the Board of County Commissioners) to make decisions regarding the County’s expenditures rather than appointed officials (like the Purchasing Director) are ignored or bypassed,” according to Anthony Pires, an attorney for Brock from the law firm of Woodward, Pires & Lombardo.

Brock’s attorneys counter in court filings it’s not Brock who is injuring the public and county government by saying: “It is the Purchasing Director’s position – allowing an unelected person with no personal liability for unlawful expenditures of the county’s money – that threatens fiscal injury and disruption of the government.”

Attorneys for Ochs say 65 of 67 county governments don’t view the state law like Brock does and Brock has paid bills under the same set-up for 15 years without complaint. “The Clerk denies that he has repeatedly paid invoices for contracts or purchase orders not authorized by the Board of County Commissioners as required by Florida Statutes Section 125.01,”  Brock’s attorneys write.

Since at least 2007 Brock has paid bills and then placed a list of disbursements on the Commission agenda for approval asking commissioners to declare a valid public purpose. However in mid-May, Brock stopped placing disbursement requests on the agenda, and instead told county staff all purchases have to be voted on and approved of in advance by commissioners.

In neighboring Lee County, commissioners there don’t see any contracts or purchases, even after the fact, for spending items under $100,000. Attorneys for Ochs say 28 counties have competitive bid thresholds that are higher than Collier’s $50,000  

Dozens of business owners have called county government in a panic asking if Brock will shut off payment. Brock sent letters to all 1,800 of the county’s vendors threatening to withhold payment for contracts without advance board approval, even to vendors who are not affected by his lawsuit. More than 90 percent of county contracts go to commissioners for approval in advance because the contracts that are larger than $50,000.    

In 28 counties the threshold is actually greater than $50,000.

 “It is also in the public interest to insure that thousands of vendors that have contracted with the county under decades-old practices, including many small businesses in the region, are paid for their services,” attorneys for Ochs say. “By contrast the Clerk’s present course is causing disservice to the entire population of Collier County. Ordering the Clerk to maintain the established process for County Administration in accordance with county law for the pendency of this litigation will ensure the public’s interests are protected.”

The court hearing is scheduled for two hours.

View the Court Filings


Ochs Motion to Force Brock to Pay Vendors


Brock Reply 


Ochs' Affirmative Defenses


Brock's lawsuit against Ochs


Date: July 15, 2015

Story Reporting by Gina Edwards for Naples City Desk




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