By Brittany Wallman
In a dramatic, courtroom-like session, a Broward commissioner and State Attorney’s Office employees accused the county Tuesday of downplaying mold and poor air quality at the courthouse.
The county has known about air quality problems in the courthouse and planned to tear down the building in downtown Fort Lauderdale just south of the New River, between Andrews and Third Avenues. But the new courthouse tower next to it is more than a year late in opening. Assistant County Administrator Alphonso Jefferson, the point person on the project, has not been able to say when it will be complete.
Tuesday, Commissioner Mark Bogen invited employees of the Broward State Attorney’s Office to the County Commission meeting. They claim the air is causing respiratory and sinus problems, and even breast cancer.
One assistant state attorney, Elizabeth Kata, told commissioners Tuesday that she developed a serious rash that sent her twice to the emergency room. She dealt with five doctors and had a biopsy and stitches, she said. Doctors said her skin was reacting to something; she said it was the air in the courthouse.
“It sounds to some like it’s not that big of a deal,” she said, “but it’s affecting our lives.”
Bogen, an attorney, called an expert witness to the podium to support his claim that complaints of illnesses caused by mold in the courthouse have been treated too skeptically by the county. And then Bogen called top county employees to the podium and grilled them on what they’d done about it, and when.
“We keep being told there’s no problem, that these people are making it up, they’re just exaggerating, maybe they’re looking to sue the county, to make a lawsuit, this can’t be real, of course. This is what we got Monday,” Bogen said, waving a 400-plus page air quality report citing visible mold, high dust levels and water damage. “I’m outraged by it.”
He said he didn’t think county staff cared about the health of courthouse workers, and concluded the lengthy session by calling the county’s response to the complaints “b——-.”
County Risk Management Director John Burkholder, Facilities Director Scott Campbell and County Administrator Bertha Henry said the county has investigated every complaint about air quality that has come in over the years. They said they’re in the process of deep cleaning the affected areas, and not for the first time, though they couldn’t say how many times they’ve taken action.
Burkholder disputed claims, including from Monica Hofheinz, the State Attorney’s Office’s executive director, that the county’s air quality reports “always come back as within the acceptable standards.”
“We have not said there’s not problems,” Burkholder said. “We’ve said some areas were within the [acceptable] ranges and some were not.”
Commissioner Barbara Sharief suggested employees in the courthouse were partially to blame, reporting that they continually cover air vents to prevent proper circulation. Campbell confirmed that was happening.
But Commissioners Lois Wexler and Tim Ryan said the county should be more proactive in addressing known air quality problems in the 1950s-era central courthouse.
“What can we do to get on top of this?” Ryan asked.
County staff said they’d come back with a plan.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4541. On Twitter @BrittanyWallman and @BrowardPolitics.