Sunday, July 14, 2024

A Shake-up for Delray’s Election & OSS Makes it on the Agenda

An editorial in the South Florida Sun Sentinel has become a big issue in Delray Beach’s March 14 election.

The headline of the editorial, which appeared online Monday and in print Tuesday, is “The long, hidden reach of developers in Delray Beach.” The subject is Rob Long, who is challenging City Commission Seat 2 incumbent Juli Casale.

(Full disclosure: I wrote a column and editorials for the Sun Sentinel from mid-2014 until last December.)

The editorial criticizes Long for voting, as a member of the planning and zoning board, on development projects for which Bonnie Miskel was the presenting attorney. Long owns a company called Door 2 Door Strategies, to which Miskel has referred work.

Casale immediately highlighted the editorial in an email because it played perfectly into her campaign. In a Jan. 4 email, she cited Door 2 Door Strategies, saying Long “makes his living working for politicians and developers. Casale promised to “stand up to development that is not right for Delray.” She cited Long’s votes to recommend approval of “controversial projects” that Casale voted against.

Not surprisingly, Long’s supporters consider the editorial a hit piece. It ran as mail-in ballots are going out. Long said the paper’s editorial board is scheduled to interview the candidates next week to decide whom to endorse.

The controversial part of the editorial is its portrayal of a near-conspiracy. “Delray voters,” the paper writes, “deserved to know about this cozy relationship, but they didn’t, until now. An assistant city attorney, William Bennett, helped keep it quiet.”

Let’s examine that accusation.

The editorial focuses on the July 20, 2020 planning and zoning board meeting. Before the board was Aura Delray, a 292-unit apartment on Atlantic Avenue near Congress Avenue that required a rezoning. Miskel represented the developer.

Before the meeting, Long contacted Assistant City Attorney William Bennett to ask if he should recuse himself, based on those referrals from Miskel. Long had no financial interest in Aura Delray, then or now.

Bennett replied that he saw no conflict, assuming what Long presented was accurate. Long joined the unanimous recommendation that the commission approve Aura Delray.

Before the vote, however, Long publicly disclosed his contact with Bennett and his business relationship with Miskel’s firm. So when the Sun Sentinel writes, “The business connection between Long and Miskel is being reported here for the first time,” that’s true only in the journalistic sense. Long did not make a secret of it. He did the opposite.

According to the editorial, Bennett did not seek guidance from the Florida Commission on Ethics, which might have recommended that Long recuse himself. Also according to the editorial, City Attorney Lynn Gelin has changed office policy to require more research on requests.

Long “did the right thing,” Gelin told the Sun Sentinel. Her comment seems to undercut the premise of the editorial. She also said, however, “I think my office could have done a better job.” I wanted to ask about those comments. Gelin did not respond by deadline for this post from a call to her office, a voicemail on her cellphone, a text message or an email.

I also asked Casale for comment. She did not reply to a voicemail on her cellphone.

Long and I spoke on Tuesday. He estimates that Miskel-represented projects came before the planning and zoning board “maybe three or four times” when he served. Long resigned last year when he became a commission candidate.

None of his company’s work, Long said, was for projects within Delray Beach. None of his work has been for Miskel or her firm, Boca Raton-based Dunay, Miskel and Backman. How many referrals did he get? “A handful.”

Why didn’t he go ahead and recuse himself anyway? “You can’t recuse,” Long said, “just because it’s a good idea. Then you’re not fulfilling your duty ethically.”

Of the editorial, Long said, “The facts are accurate. But the fact that I was proven to be acting ethically didn’t fit a certain narrative.” He “appreciates” Gelin “saying I did nothing wrong.”

Casale and Mayor Shelly Petrolia, who recruited Casale for her successful 2020 campaign against Bill Bathurst, have been after Long for some time. In 2020, they sought to remove him from the planning and zoning board after Long raised valid claims about Delray Beach’s water quality.

Long’s company worked for Bathurst. It also has worked for city commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel. With Shirley Johnson, they usually form the majority in approving projects that Casale and Petrolia oppose.

One of those was Aura Delray, which passed along those lines. The only member to oppose it when it came before the planning and zoning board a second time was Joy Howell, an ally of Casale and Petrolia.

“Long, hidden reach of developers” is a damning headline. It also seems to be a vast overstatement.

Old School Square deal makes it on the agenda

old school square
Cornell Art Museum in Old School Square; photo courtesy of the Delray Beach DDA

The agreement between Delray Beach and the Downtown Development Authority on Old School Square finally is before the city commission, but the agreement remains far from final.

As the memo from Assistant City Engineer Jeffrey Oris explains, city staff and DDA representatives remain “unable to reach consensus” four months after the commission asked the agenda to operate the cultural complex. This agreement covers just the Cornell Museum. The commission hopes that the DDA eventually will operate the Crest Theater.

Oris said four issues remain: marketing, special event permitting, revenues and insurance. Those four, however, amount to almost every big issue. I’ll go into those disagreements in detail for my Tuesday post.

Correction

In previous posts about Old School Square, I have written that Marusca Gatto previously ran the Cornell. Gatto works for the DDA, and Executive Director Laura Simon has said that Gatto would be the director under the DDA’s operation.

Bill Branning emailed me to ask for a correction. Branning is a board member of Old School Square for the Arts, which founded the complex. Petrolia, Casale and Johnson ended the group’s lease in August 2021, which is why the city still is looking for an entity to run Old School Square.

According to Branning, Melanie Johnson was the Cornell’s director from 2013 until the lease termination took effect in February 2022. Gatto, Branning said, had the title of director of operations, “but she was never running the museum or in any way in charge of any major decision-making at the museum.”

Delray to hear presentations for golf course renovation

delray beach golf club
Photo from Delray Beach Golf Club

At Tuesday’s workshop meeting, the city commission will hear a presentation on the six companies seeking to renovate Delray Beach’s municipal golf course.

As I wrote previously, six companies submitted bids. All are proposing residential development on a portion of the course in exchange for upgrading and, in some cases, managing the facility. Commissioners asked for proposals rather than spend roughly $15 million in city money on the course.

I’ll have a breakdown in my Tuesday post.

Boca approves settlement offer in beach house suit

I wrote last week about Boca Raton’s offer to settle the lawsuit over the property at 2500 North Ocean Boulevard. City council members approved the offer Tuesday after the matter was added to the agenda very late.

The council acted quickly because the case is set for trial next week in federal court. Boca is offering the owner $950,000—his purchase price—in exchange for the owner deeding the property to the city.

The owner obtained state permits to build a four-story house close to the ocean. Council members, however, denied a city permit on advice of the city’s consultant, after which the owner sued. Alan Kipnis, who represents the owner, has said his client will reject the offers.

Army Corps of Engineers completes Lake Okeechobee project

For those who despair that government doesn’t do anything right, here’s evidence to the contrary.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers just completed a hardening of the 143-mile dike on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee. Though the work took nearly 20 years and $1.5 billion, that was three years ahead of schedule and $300 million under budget.

The original dike dated to just after the 1928 hurricane that killed nearly 2,000 people when the storm pushed water out of the lake. With the work finished, the debate will begin about how much water the lake should hold.

West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County want the level high because they use the lake as a backup water source. Environmentalists want the level low because excessively high levels damage lake flora that sustains marine life and risk causing polluting discharges when the water gets too high.

Boca Raton and Delray Beach take water from underground coastal wellfields. The threat to wellfields is saltwater intrusion from sea level rise. Having fortified the dam, the Corps will set rules for how high the water can be.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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