A Lawsuit of Another Stripe, Visit Florida’s Problems and an Office Space Shortage?

Photo by Mabel Amber

If you have wondered why Boca Raton stopped posting documents on its website, it’s because of a lawsuit the city settled this week.

The plaintiff is Juan Carlos Gil. He lives in Miami, was born with cerebral palsy, is legally blind, and competes in marathons. Last September, Gil wrote to the city, seeking to “learn about the governmental functioning of the City of Boca Raton through the documents you provide within your site.” To further that education, Gil asked for all budget-related documents from 2015 to 2018 and all city commission agendas and backup materials from 2018 to 2018. Gil wanted them to work with a screen reader, which aids those who are visually disabled.

Assistant City Manager Michael Woika wrote back, telling Gil that he had requested “a significant number of archived documents.” The city, Woika said, would contact Gil on the “timing and details” of the accommodation.

In January, Gil filed the lawsuit. According to news reports, he has sued nearly 200 government agencies and businesses over the same issue related to the Americans With Disabilities Act. Similar plaintiffs in South Florida have filed multiple similar lawsuits. Boca Raton previously had added closed captioning of meeting broadcasts, to aid the hearing impaired.

It doesn’t matter whether Gil actually did want to study the “governmental functioning” of Boca Raton or another city he sued. It doesn’t matter that Boca Raton had received no similar complaints about access to PDF files—the city’s document format—from similarly disabled people and has received none since Gil’s letter.

Under the ADA, what matters is compliance. So after the lawsuit, Boca Raton stopped posting backup material for city council and planning and zoning board meetings and purged the website of all such material in previous years. You still can see the material, but now it takes a public records request.

After Gil’s letter, according to a city spokeswoman, Boca Raton hired a consultant to begin teaching employees how to “remediate” documents and make them accessible. But the consultant couldn’t teach everyone during the first session because so many other local governments were defendants in similar lawsuits and had booked him.

The lawsuit accused the city of “gross negligence.” Under the settlement, Boca Raton pledges to make all PDF content on the website “fully accessible” to the visually impaired by March 2020. The city does not acknowledge liability and further states that the website does not violate the ADA.

Oh, and the city must pay Gil’s attorney nearly $14,000. That money is due in 20 days.

Over the next 11 months, Boca Raton will spend more on training and technology to comply with the settlement. Depending on your perspective, such lawsuits amount to proper government oversight or frivolous exploitation of the ADA. There is no timetable for when documents might again be accessible through the website for those who actually do follow Boca Raton government and will be paying to implement the settlement.

Planning forum for Delray proceeds     

Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

Boca Raton held the city’s goal setting meetings last week. Delray Beach will go ahead with its annual planning forum even through the city has not hired the manager whose job will be to carry out the goals.

It’s probably the right decision. Waiting three months likely wouldn’t change the goals, and the city commission dictates to the manager, not the other way around. Also, Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus has been here before. At the 2017 goal-setting, the once and future fire chief also was filling in, that time between the departure of Don Cooper and the arrival of Mark Lauzier, whom the commission fired six weeks ago.

As he did in 2017, de Jesus will ask the commission to “remain disciplined.” Between the five commissioners and members of the public, projects can pile up. Delray Beach needs many capital improvements.

In fact, de Jesus said, the city on average can pull off eight such projects a year. A typical project would be the first upgrades to the Thomas Street pumping station. Those improvements, which will reduce beachside flooding, will cost several hundred thousand dollars and take six months.

It’s tempting, de Jesus said, to focus on what’s above ground and “looks pretty.” He will cite the need to upgrade Delray Beach’s unseen public works network. Delaying those improvements may show when sewer and water systems fail during hurricanes and power failures.

De Jesus will say that if commissioners find that a new priority is more important than one on the list, they “can’t just keep adding.” They will need to replace something. Doing otherwise, he said, is what leads to the public complaining that nothing gets done.

Boca needs office space?

At a recent meeting, Boca Raton City Councilman Jeremy Rodgers commented on his conversation with Kelly Smallridge. She’s the director of the Business Development Board, the county’s job recruiter.

Councilman Jeremy Rodgers

Smallridge, Rodgers said, had noted Boca Raton’s lack of Class A office space—the type that Smallridge pitches to companies. The remark seemed to irritate Mayor Scott Singer. Of course, some in Boca Raton take offense at any suggestion that the city is lacking in any way.

So I asked Smallridge for her take. From her perspective, Smallridge said, cities tended to push multi-family housing after the Great Recession because that’s what the financing supported. She’s right. Atlantic Crossing in Delray Beach is just one example of projects that took on more residential because investors liked it.

“This is not unique to Boca Raton,” Smallridge said. Some local officials “don’t think holistically about jobs.” Yet every city wants new employers, and Boca Raton has lured many of them in recent years. The city has approved large residential projects, such as Archstone/Palmetto Promenade, Via Mizner, Camden and The Mark downtown and multiple smaller projects in the northwest.

West Palm Beach, Smallridge said, could have 600,000 square feet of new office space in the next three years. She had just come from a groundbreaking for one of those projects. If there isn’t new inventory for businesses, Smallridge said, “I will run out of land” to pitch.

Despite those gains in West Palm, Boca Raton remains an inviting target for recruiters. Maybe the city should ask Smallridge to discuss the topic during a city council workshop meeting.

Scooter ban on hold

Delray Beach declined Tuesday night to approve on first reading an ordinance that would have banned the sort of electric scooters that have bedeviled other cities.

Commissioner Ryan Boylston

City Commissioner Ryan Boylston considered the ordinance too broad, to the point where it might have banned all scooters. His main concern is vehicles that riders can leave anywhere when they finishing using them. Other rental companies tell users to return the scooters to a docking station.

So the commission will wait to see what comes out of the Legislature. Bills that would preempt local control of scooters or limit regulations have been moving.

Visit Florida under the gun—again

Speaking of the Legislature, there’s another needless fight in Tallahassee over the state’s tourism marketer.

Visit Florida took justifiable criticism in the last couple of years over its practices, notably a lack of accountability and a penchant for secrecy. Yet tourism also keeps setting records. Though most cities and counties don’t get money directly from Visit Florida, popular draws such as Boca Raton and Delray Beach get the benefits from county tourism groups that do receive money.

The stakes are especially high this year. Legislators aren’t just deciding how much money Visit Florida would get. They are deciding if Visit Florida will go away on Oct. 1. Previous legislation will “sunset” the agency unless the Legislature extends its life.

Tallahassee’s power players aren’t close to consensus. Gov. Ron DeSantis wants $76 million for Visit Florida. The Senate wants $50 million. The House wants just $19 million. In recent years, the House has been especially hostile to Visit Florida.

The best compromise would be to give Visit Florida closer to what DeSantis and the Senate want, please the House by adding another “sunset” provision—perhaps eight years—and forcing Visit Florida to be as transparent as possible. Abolishing Visit Florida likely would create a problem rather than solve one.

Boca CRA looks at downtown transportation and parking

The Boca Raton Community Redevelopment Agency will hear presentations on Monday regarding two persistent issues—a downtown transportation system and parking.

A consultant will ask the city council—in its role as the CRA board—for authorization to ask downtown property owners whether they would pay for such a system through assessments. Previous private operators of advertising-based systems pulled out because they couldn’t make money. The CRA has declined to spend public money, as Delray Beach does.

If the survey reveals little interest, the issue will come back to the CRA. If the owners are interested, a city spokeswoman said, a referendum could follow.

Another consultant will explain to the CRA where the city plans to add downtown parking meters. Some will go west of Federal Highway and others will be near Royal Palm Place.

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