Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Appeals Court Denies Hearing for Conversion Therapy Ban in Boca

It took one paragraph for a federal appeals court to deny Boca Raton’s request for a full hearing on the city’s conversion therapy ban.

It took nearly 100 pages for judges on that court to comment on the decision.

To review:

In 2017, the city council approved the ban on Sex Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE), known familiarly as conversion therapy. It’s the controversial practice of seeking to change a person’s sexual orientation. The ban applied to minors. Palm Beach County and other cities have passed similar bans.

Two therapists, represented by the right-wing Liberty Counsel, challenged the ban. In 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Robin Rosenberg upheld it, citing “extensive credible evidence” that the practice is harmful.

A year later, however, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled Rosenberg. The city and county then sought a rehearing before all 11 judges. Last week, the full court denied the rehearing. There is no record of how individual judges voted.

Judge Britt Grant wrote a 15-page concurring opinion. She was part of the majority that overturned Rosenberg’s ruling. So was Barbara Lagoa. Donald Trump appointed both judges, who were known for their restrictive views on social issues. Trump appointed six of the court’s 11 active judges.

As she did previously, Grant cast the case as a free speech issue, rejecting Rosenberg’s argument that the case was about health care. “Fair-minded and neutral application of longstanding First Amendment law,” Grant wrote, “dooms the ordinances.” She acknowledged that “many” consider conversion therapy to be “wrong and even dangerous,” but cautioned against restricting even “dangerous speech.”

Adelberto Jordan, an Obama appointee, wrote a 16-page dissent. He accused the majority that denied the full hearing of ignoring the evidence that Rosenberg cited simply because the evidence did not support the majority’s argument. 

Jordan wrote, “what the majority did here—ignoring/revising the district court’s factual findings…is seemingly becoming habit in this circuit. If this trend continues, the bench and bar will be forgiven that a district court’s factual findings are only inconvenient speed bumps on the road to reversal.”

Robin Rosenbaum, another Obama appointee, followed Jordan with a nearly 70-page dissent. She began by criticizing the majority’s comparison of discussions with therapists to “political, social and religious debates.” Such reasoning, Rosenbaum said, could undercut any attempt to regulate mental health care providers, no matter how “incompetent or dangerous” they might be.

Conversion therapy, Rosenbaum said, “is not known to have any proven benefits but is associated with more than doubling” the risk of suicide among children who go through it. The rate of suicide among gay and lesbian children already is higher than that of their heterosexual peers.

Government, Rosenbaum wrote, has an interest in protecting children from dangerous treatment for which their consent “cannot be reliably obtained.” For that reason, she said, Boca Raton’s ban does not violate the First Amendment.

Ironically, no therapists in Boca Raton were practicing conversion therapy when the city passed the ban. Now the case is part of the wider legal debate on social/religious issues.

At the end of Tuesday’s city council meeting, City Attorney Diana Frieser said she would schedule a closed-door meeting of the council and its legal team. Boca Raton could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has trended far to the right on such issues, or rescind the ban.

Revisions to Boca building reinspections

Boca Raton may have to revise its reinspection program for older buildings.

Two months after the June 2021 condo collapse in Surfside, Boca Raton became the first city in Florida to adopt such a program. Local governments always had the option, but only Broward and Miami-Dade counties acted on it. And those requirements kicked in only after 40 years.

Boca Raton required reinspections of buildings that were at least 30 years old and three stories—or 50 feet tall—with single-family homes and duplexes exempted. The city adopted a four-stage schedule for those inspections, beginning along the coast and moving west, to be completed in May 2024.

In May, the Legislature enacted a law that also has that 30-year threshold. For buildings within three miles of the coast, however, the requirement kicks in at 25 years.

Mayor Scott Singer noted that the state law does not preempt local rules, perhaps because there were so few. But he said that 25-year standard may require the city to adjust its schedule in a way that conforms with the state law.

When we spoke, Singer said the legal department was analyzing the issue. He predicted that staff would bring the issue to the council in a workshop meeting this summer. The last meeting before Labor Day is next month.

Boca sets new property tax rate

Also at that Tuesday meeting, council members set Boca Raton’s property tax rate for next year.

Combining the levies for the operating budget and debt service, the rate will be $3.6784 for every $1,000 of assessed value. That’s about $1,800 for a home assessed at $500,000. City Manager Leif Ahnell said it would represent a “tiny” decrease from this year. Tiny indeed. The drop would be one ten-thousandth of a percentage point.

As I have noted repeatedly, though, most property owners will pay more because values have increased during the pandemic boom in Palm Beach County. But the city did keep the rate steady despite high inflation.

Ahnell also said the annual fire fee will increase $10, to $155, for homeowners. The increase will be higher for commercial property. Budget hearings take place in September.

Inflation’s local effect

Speaking of inflation, here’s another number to show how rising prices have affected local governments. City Manager Terrence Moore asked this month for an extra $400,000 in the budget just to cover the higher cost of fuel.

Rates increase for Delray trash collection

Photo by Gary Chan

Delray Beach residents won’t be able to enjoy artificially low trash collection rates much longer.

Last week, the city commission extended service with current hauler Waste Management through September of next year. Monthly rates will rise from roughly $11 to $13 and then closer to $20 as the extension ends. In August, the city will seek bidders for a new contract that would start Oct. 1 of next year.

“Rates will go up” under the new agreement, said City Commissioner Ryan Boylston. Southern Waste Systems, the original company, “low-balled” to get the contract. Then Waste Management bought the company.

Especially as inflation rose, Waste Management considered the monthly rate too low and asked to end the contract. A dispute over that termination went to mediation, out of which came the compromise to keep providing service through this year at progressively higher rates.

Boylston said rates countywide average between $18 and $20. He expects several bidders, with Waste Management likely being one of them. The deal to continue service will give the city more time to negotiate a contract and ensure debris removal if tropical weather hits.

Council unanimously approves new Boca ALF

I wrote Tuesday about the 201-bed senior living facility proposed for the north end of Boca Raton on Congress Avenue. The city council approved it unanimously Tuesday night. No one spoke against it.

Boca Parks and Rec loses director

Boca Raton Parks and Recreation Director Michael Kalvort is no longer on the job, and the city isn’t saying why. A spokeswoman said the city is “transitioning through a change in leadership.” The department is one of the city’s largest.

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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