Friday, July 12, 2024

Delray Attorney Finds DDA Appointee Ineligible; Local Orgs Feel Funding Cuts

It’s a cliché, but it applies in Delray Beach: You just can’t make this stuff up.

On Thursday, City Attorney Lynn Gelin emailed the city commission her conclusion that Mavis Benson—whom the commission appointed last week to fill a vacancy on the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board—is ineligible to hold that position because she doesn’t have a valid business lease within the agency’s boundaries.

For those who have been following the drawn-out drama of the DDA, this is the same Mavis Benson who last October filed an ethics complaint against Rick Burgess—whom the previous commission named to the same board seat last June. Benson alleged—wait for it— that Burgess didn’t have a valid business lease within the agency’s boundaries.

It gets even better. Gelin was responding to an email a day earlier from—wait for it—Rick Burgess. He detailed what he considered Benson’s ineligibility. Among other things, Burgess noted, correctly, that the state shows no record of Benson’s business, Avalon Gallery.

Indeed, the state shows no record of Benson being the agent of any business in Delray Beach. There is no record of any John M. Terry owning a business in Delray Beach, even though the gallery’s website calls Benson and Terry “gallery owners.”

In her application, Benson submitted a handwritten letter from Carl Wells, the gallery’s landlord at 425 E. Atlantic Ave. Wells states that Benson and Terry have been tenants for 20 years “and are continuing to be our tenants for the foreseeable future.”

Not surprisingly, Gelin told the commission that the note “fails to satisfy” the requirement for an actual lease. An actual lease, she wrote, is not for “an indefinite period of time.” Benson must obtain “a formal extension.”

Despite the violation, Gelin correctly pointed out that the commission has “sole discretion” to “determine the sufficiency” of an application. Though Burgess received a letter of reprimand from the ethics commission for submitting a false application, the city commission could have found that—under the state law that created the DDA—Burgess’ action was not grounds for removal. The ethics commission did not recommend removal.

Of course, allowing Benson to fill out the two years of Burgess’ term would reek of hypocrisy. Commissioner Thomas Markert nominated Benson, having said of Burgess that lying is an automatic disqualification. Only Mayor Tom Carney voted against Benson, saying he wanted “new blood” on the DDA. Benson had served previously on the board.

Whatever happens at the commission’s next meeting on July 9, this issue again calls into question the system for vetting DDA applicants. Burgess claimed that the city clerk’s office “missed” the lease problem. But it remains unsettled whether the city or the DDA has responsibility. A lease issue caused the first pick to succeed Burgess to withdraw her application. Another candidate turned out to be facing foreclosure. So far, at least, no problems have turned up with the two other board appointments the commission made last week.

Since the DDA began operating part of Old School Square two years ago, this agency with just a $1.7 million budget and a previously limited mission has taken up an inordinate amount of the city commission’s time. When routine appointments get so snarled so often, something’s wrong.

DDA board infighting

Even without a full board, the DDA board is in discord.

At this month’s meeting, Chair Brian Rosen asked about changes to the bylaws that would prohibit board members from identifying themselves as such in public and making comments that the full board had not approved. He was referring to Vera Woodson going before the city commission and referring to Old School Square Center for the Arts as “bad people.”

Woodson didn’t address the accusation directly. She sought to turn it back onto Rosen, saying she supported such changes to ensure that Rosen “doesn’t speak for me.”

To understand the exchange, understand that Rosen was appointed by the previous commission, which wanted the DDA to work more with Old School Square Center for the Arts. Woodson’s sentiments are aligned with the current commission, which wants no role for the group that created Old School Square and ran it for more than three decades.

Woodson was nominated for the DDA board in 2022 by then-Commissioner Shirley Johnson. She and then-Mayor Shelly Petrolia voted with Commissioner Juli Casale to end Old School Square Center for the Arts’ lease of the complex.

At that meeting, Rosen also asked the DDA’s attorney for an opinion as to whether Woodson has a conflict by running a flea market at Old School Square that the DDA advertised. Woodson responded that the agency advertises all events and that the goal of what she calls Fleamingle is to support local charities and offer a platform to local crafters.

After mocking the question as a “full-blown FBI investigation of me,” Woodson said she would end the event—on which she claimed to lose money—if necessary. Both items are expected to be back before the board at its July 8 meeting.

Local organizations affected by DeSantis budget vetoes

I wrote recently that The Center for Arts and Innovation managed to secure a $1 million budget appropriation from the Florida Legislature toward its proposed performing arts complex in Boca Raton. For almost all other cultural groups in Florida, however, this year was a disaster.

Gov. Ron DeSantis didn’t just veto a few grants. He vetoed essentially the entire line item with $32 million worth of grants for cultural organizations statewide. “I am hot mad,” said Mary Csar, executive director of the Boca Raton Historical Society. “All the groups are up in arms.”

Mary Csar, photo by Aaron Bristol

According to a list in the Sun Sentinel, the society lost $42,300. Csar said the groups aren’t sure what their amount will be from year to year because grants are “scaled,” based on the total amount available. The state also assigns a scoring system to groups on the list.

Based on that report, the Boca Raton Museum of Art lost $70,500. So did the Creative City Collaborative, the Delray Beach-based group that operates Arts Garage. The Boca Raton Symphonia also lost $42,300. Other groups that lost out were Boca Ballet Theater ($58,570), Delray Beach’s Spady Museum ($27,244) and the Centre for the Arts at Mizner Park ($11,750.)

Csar noted that the historical society also performs a business service. “We keep all the old city records. Nobody else does that.”

What now?

“We just won’t hire another person. We use that money for salaries.”

With his action, Csar said, DeSantis has placed Florida last among states in spending on culture. “This is the worst year for local groups ever.”

Arts Garage President/CEO Marjorie Waldo said the governor’s action came as a surprise and will force “some venues” to close. As for Arts Garage, Waldo confirmed the cut of $70,500 and called it “significant.” The money represents about 3.5% of the group’s roughly $2 million budget.

Waldo said Arts Garage will respond in two ways. The group will step up fundraising efforts to make up the difference. For the budget year that begins Oct. 1, Waldo will shrink, but not eliminate, some offerings. Example: There will be three theatrical productions instead of four.

Most at risk, Waldo said, will be free programming that showcases aspiring artists and has helped Arts Garage reach roughly 30,000 patrons a year, 25,000 of them paying. “One of our missions is to make art more accessible.”

Waldo has run Arts Garage for eight years. Like Csar, she said DeSantis’ omnibus veto is unprecedented. All the numbers had gone through the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. The cuts represented roughly .03 percent of the $116.5 billion budget. DeSantis offered no explanation for his action.

Palmetto Park Road bridge finishes construction

Construction on Palmetto Park Road bridge

Nearly three years after the work began and two years after the first promised completion date, the new bridge over the El Rio Canal in Boca Raton is done.

Traffic began moving last week in all four lanes of Palmetto Park Road west of downtown. There are temporary lane markers until the county can add permanent striping. That detail won’t matter to drivers who have endured backups for much longer than anyone anticipated.

Clarification

I wrote last week that Craig Ehrnst and Erin Wright had won new terms on the board of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District. I should have added that incumbent Steven Engel also was re-elected without opposition. Engel has been on the board since 2012.

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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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