Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Absentee Ballot Game, Neil de Jesus Walks, and More on the Coronavirus

Absentee ballots made the difference in Delray Beach’s mayoral election two years ago. That may happen again in this year’s election.

Last week, I began hearing talk about so-called “absentee ballot harvesters” working the city’s Haitian-American neighborhoods for the Seat 2 and Seat 4 city commission races. Absentee ballots once were reserved only for those who could not get to the polls on Election Day. In the last two decades, however, both parties have relied on them more and more, to the point where Florida now calls them “vote-by-mail” ballots.

With that growth have come stories from this state and others about abuses. During the 2000 presidential election, Republican operatives in Martin and Seminole counties illegally filled out absentee ballot applications. Only the voter can do that. A lawsuit unsuccessfully attempted to have all absentee ballots in those counties thrown out. Neither county prosecuted those who broke the law.

In 2016, The Palm Beach Post reported two local candidates and their campaign workers went into homes to help voters complete their ballots. State Rep. Al Jacquet and County Commissioner Mack Bernard, both of whom are Haitian-Americans, represent districts that include Delray Beach. They focused their absentee campaigns in minority neighborhoods.

The Post noted that there was no consensus on whether those actions were legal or illegal. The state attorney’s office investigated and filed no charges. Jacquet’s and Bernard’s opponents believed that the election had been unfair.

Despite the obvious need for reform, the Legislature has refused to tighten state laws on voting by mail. Former Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher believed that perhaps 300 fraudulent absentee ballot applications went out in 2016, but she could do nothing about it.

Jacquet and Bernard both lost at the polls. Their winning margins came from absentee ballots. Both are seeking reelection this year.

On Sunday, Seat 2 challenger Chris Davey sent an email from his campaign account asking, “Is There Voter Fraud in Delray?” Davey accused incumbent Shirley Johnson of “taking a page out of the Al Jacquet campaign playbook” by using campaign donations to pay operatives who are collecting absentee ballots.

“Many in our Haitian community,” Davey wrote, “are not knowledgeable about voting laws.” He added, “Shirley Johnson has shown she is willing to do ANYTHING to keep her seat.”

Davey’s critics might find irony in his outrage.

Davey is an ally of Mayor Shelly Petrolia, who is campaigning against Johnson and Seat 2 incumbent Bill Bathurst. In 2018, Petrolia used absentee ballots to defeat Jim Chard and stirred her own controversy.

Like Jacquet and Bernard, Petrolia lost at the polls, by 392 votes. But she beat Chard by 809 votes in absentees.

A post-election report found that in seven precincts— all in neighborhoods with large numbers of Haitian-Americans—there was a disproportionate increase in early ballots from 2017. Turnout was higher everywhere in 2018, but the rate was much higher in those precincts. Every notable absentee ballot case in Florida has arisen from minority areas.

One day after Davey’s email, Johnson responded with one of her own. Johnson called the email “desperate” and Davey’s claims “baseless and unsubstantiated.” She noted that the Post and the South Florida Sun Sentinel had endorsed her, each criticizing Petrolia’s maneuvering to help her favored candidates—Davey and Juli Casale.

Johnson added, “If Chris Davey was in the NW/SW neighborhoods talking with voters firsthand, it would be resoundingly clear that voters are enthusiastic about our message and are proud of my ability to listen to our community, create jobs, return to community-oriented policing, and provide workforce housing.”

This mean, fractious election season—unprecedented in Delray Beach’s recent history—ends Tuesday. By the end of next week, we should see the individual precinct totals and know whether mysterious absentee ballots again made the difference.

De Jesus resigns

neal de jesus
Neal de Jesus during his tenure as fire chief

Delray Beach Fire Chief Neal de Jesus has resigned.

De Jesus notified City Manager George Gretsas of his decision in a memo on Monday. De Jesus cited the two recent accreditations that, he said, placed Delray Beach among the fewer than one percent of all departments to have achieved such standing.

Former City Manager Don Cooper hired de Jesus nearly four years ago. It’s hard to believe now, but at the time Delray Beach was debating whether to retain its own department. The opioid epidemic, not the coronavirus, was the health issue of the moment and was straining resources.

Soon enough, however, de Jesus resolved a dispute with the city’s contract to service Highland Beach and otherwise shored up the department. His performance impressed city commissioners so much that they twice named him interim city manager.

During those stints, Assistant Chief Keith Tomey filled in for de Jesus. Gretsas has named Tomey to be the acting chief “until further notice.”

De Jesus said he was resigning “to focus more on my family” and could do so now because of the “stability and leadership that (Gretsas has) already instilled in the city and staff.” Under the release agreement, de Jesus will get six months of salary and three months of insurance coverage. He also waives any claims against Delray Beach.

Will virus affect turnout?

Another issue in Delray Beach’s election is whether the coronavirus pandemic will affect turnout. Might voters —especially older ones—be inclined to stay home?

Rick Asnani is the campaign consultant for Bill Bathurst. This week, he said, “So far, we haven’t seen any reason to think the virus will impact voting.” A bigger factor, he said, is whether Democrats still are excited about the remaining presidential candidates. Delray Beach’s election aligns with the statewide primary, which usually produces higher turnout than normal city elections.

“I think if Florida had more cases or if our county had a big number of cases, it might keep people from voting,” Asnani said. “There aren’t big crowds at the polls, so people shouldn’t have much to worry about. It’s like going to the grocery store or to run an errand.”

Venues take extra precautions

The Wick Theatre

Speaking of the coronavirus, the Wick Theatre, Arts Garage and the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts were the latest venues this week to advise patrons about increased safety policies.

CEO Judy Mitchell said the Kravis has hired an outside janitorial service to supplement its staff. Workers are sanitizing all “touch points.” President Marjorie Waldo said Arts Garage is taking “significant precautions” and is telling staff who feel ill to stay home.

With the virus especially affecting older people, Marilynn Wick diplomatically noted the “mature demographic” of her audience and stressed the new safety procedures. None of the venues has cancelled any performances. Wick said, “The health concern has not gone unnoticed, but the show must go on.”

St. Patrick’s Parade Cancelled

The City of Delray Beach has officially cancelled its 2020 St. Patrick’s Day Parade & Festival, which had been planned for this Saturday, March 14. In a statement, the city said that the decision was made “as a precautionary measure to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19.”

Polling places move

Despite Wick’s sentiment, Elections Supervisor Wendy Sartory Link has moved voting on Tuesday from four polling places in and around Boca Raton that are at assisted living centers.

The four are at St. Andrews Estates North (Precinct 4178) and South (4174), Edgewater Pointe Estates (4208) and The Encore at Boca Raton (4180.) The St. Andrews precincts have some of the heaviest turnout in the city.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Link had not named alternate sites. Voters in those precincts should check the supervisor’s website. Early voting in Boca Raton is available through Sunday at the Spanish River Library.

Ice rink approved

ice rink
Boca Ice Rink (Rendering by RLC Architects)

The Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board unanimously approved the rezoning and site plan for Boca Ice, a skating/performing arts facility proposed for a site near Congress Avenue and Interstate 95.

After two neighbors expressed fears that traffic would leak onto their residential streets, the developer agreed to post signs that would direct people to the facility. The project could go before the city council for final approval as soon as next month.

Ocean Strand update

At its Monday meeting, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District will discuss the vacant, 15-acre Ocean Strand property. The district has owned it for more than a quarter-century but has had no money to develop it.

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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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