Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Boca Council Assumes A More Direct Role in City Management

At a recent meeting, Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer said of himself and his colleagues, “We’re a more active council. We want to do more.”

That’s an understatement.

As City Manager Leif Ahnell prepares to retire on Dec. 31 after 24 years, the current council has been injecting itself into day-to-day management of the city at an unprecedented level for what is a policymaking body. Council members thus have been altering the usual balance of power in a weak-mayor, council-manager form of government.

In that system, the manager oversees the staff and performs all administrative functions. Only the manager reports directly to the council. Historically in Boca Raton, the council has deferred to Ahnell, especially on money matters.

Monica Mayotte has been on the council since 2018 and is term-limited in March. She agreed with my observation that the council has become less patient and deferential.

“For the last 10 or 15 years,” Mayotte said, “there had been kind of a status quo. Boca Raton got more behind. Other cities have been doing interesting things.

“I don’t want to sound derogatory, but we wanted to bring Boca Raton into the 21st century.”

On issue after issue, the council—collectively or individually—has sought to shape policy rather than let staff bring options to the council. For this budget year, council members approved four new positions to help them research issues and handle what they claim are increasingly crowded schedules. One position will be a chief of staff to Singer. That is a position more typically found in strong-mayor cities.

Fran Nachlas is the junior member of the council, having been in office about a year. She adheres more to the traditional role for elected officials—going first to the staff. Nachlas acknowledged, however, that her colleagues “are motivated to get things done quickly.”

Yvette Drucker, who referred to herself as “a visionary,” has been on the council since 2021. “I wouldn’t way we’re ‘activist,’” Drucker said. “I think we’re pushing for accountability. We want to hold staff accountable.

“This is not the Boca of 10 years ago. Other cities have a lot more staff. The processes are changing.”

Under these new “processes,” the mayor and council members have pushed many projects on their own. Two prominent examples came from Singer: the Brightline station and land for Blue Lake Elementary School. Both items had strong support from the council and the public.

In other cases, though, individual items have been problematic.

Council members can propose zoning changes—known as text amendments—which usually come at the request of a developer or landowner. Staff prioritize those requests.

Mayotte proposed that the city consider changing rules to allow an adult living facility (ALF) near Addison Mizner School. As the project went through staff review, it became clear that allowing an ALF in that location would mean allowing them near many other single-family neighborhoods. Public opposition in Boca Square also was strong.

The staff eventually rejected the ALF application. The landowner sued. The issue remains unresolved.

Before she left office this year, former Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke proposed that no text amendment get a review unless a majority of the council expressed interest. O’Rourke had become worried about council overreach and repeated waste of staff time.

O’Rourke got no takers. I asked Mayotte if she now supports O’Rourke’s idea. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

With this new attitude, the council has pushed for improvements that would make it easier to get around downtown. Another priority has been sustainability.

No priority, though, has been higher for the council than encouraging more development. A downtown office project—Aletto at Sanborn Square—that might have drawn opposition even five years ago got approved unanimously. During Tuesday’s meeting, council members expressed concern that staff had not included the project at a recent conference on economic development.

The council also has updated rules for the Boca Raton Innovation Campus (BRIC)—IBM’s former headquarters—and the Park at Broken Sound. Those changes will allow residential development and much more at BRIC and larger corporate offices in the Park at Broken Sound. In deciding how to comply with the new state law on affordable housing, more council members sided with developers over staff.

Singer especially has expressed an urgency to act, citing the movement of companies from New York to South Florida. The council’s highest current goal is creation of new zoning for a residential cluster near the Brightline station. Next could come a new government complex nearby.

Taken together, these changes could reshape an already dynamic city of 100,000 people. And whether one agrees with the approach or not, it likely would not have happened—or happened so quickly—if the council had allowed Ahnell to move things at his own pace.

Though the mayor and council members are his bosses, Ahnell could get prickly when one of those bosses pushed him.

Example: Drucker wanted to get the police department’s daily crime reports. Ahnell responded that they were internal documents. Drucker asked again. Ahnell basically said that he would think about it. Drucker asked again. Singer finally intervened. Council members now get the reports.

Deputy City Manager George Brown will succeed Ahnell. As part of that transition, Brown has filled in for Ahnell at recent meetings. Brown is less openly dismissive of what comes close to council micromanaging. As Drucker said during one meeting, “I don’t want to be micromanaging staff’s time, but…” Mayotte said Brown “is more open-minded.”

All this might seem like material for policy wonks, but it’s a significant development. Boca Raton is being run differently because the council is doing more of the running.

FAU extends Volnick’s interim president contract

Photo by Alex Dolce

Florida Atlantic University trustees love Interim President Stacy Volnick, but they don’t love her enough to recommend that she become the permanent president.

At least not yet.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the trustees gave Volnick—who has held the job since Jan. 1—raves for her performance and a bonus of $75,000. The trustees also gave Volnick a raise, to $525,000, and extended her contract until FAU has a new president or Dec. 31, 2024, whichever comes first.

It seems preposterous to think that FAU would remain without a permanent leader for another year. Of course, it seemed preposterous that FAU would not have a new president by now. Yet here we are.

FAU Interim President Stacy Volnick

Four months after he suspended the presidential search, State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues gave FAU no more clarity last week when he said that his investigation into the search continues. Which likely explains why trustee Kim Dunn, president of the Faculty Senate, on Tuesday asked the trustees to consider recommending that the trustees ask the Board of Governors to make Volnick’s appointment permanent.

Dunn did not get majority support. Most of her colleagues did not want to act until hearing whether Rodrigues and the board would allow the search to continue.

Trustee Dan Cane, however, asked General Counsel David Kian whether the trustees could add Volnick to the list of three finalists. Kian said, “There’s no basis to say,” because no university has been in this position. FAU might have to wait, Kian said, until the search was “unsuspended.”

Adding to the uncertainty was the virtual presence at the meeting of State Rep. Toby Oberdorf, R-Stuart. He is not a trustee, and, unlike other non-trustees, he offered no comment.

In mid-September, Oberdorf sent a letter to the trustees praising Vice Chair Barbara Feingold. She had backed State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Beach, for the FAU presidency. So had Gov. DeSantis. Fine did not become a finalist, and DeSantis said Fine no longer is a candidate. I have heard that Feingold is seeking another candidate.

I wanted to ask Oberdorf why he attended the meeting. His office said Wednesday that Oberdorf is “tied up in Tallahassee and won’t be able to connect.”

Boca limits speaker time—in most cases

Boca Raton will limit speakers at city council meetings to three minutes—most of the time.

During Tuesday’s meeting, council members approved the reduction from five minutes, 4-1, with Mayotte dissenting. Brown told the council that Boca Raton had been the only South Florida city without a three-minute limit. Palm Beach County often limits comment to two minutes.

Singer, though, said the change would be discretionary. If only one or two speakers want to comment on an item, the mayor could allow up to five minutes. Singer proposed the change to avoid prolonging meetings when dozens of people want to comment. He cited meetings when comment ran so long that some speakers had given up and left.

Nachlas added that residents have many ways to contact council members. All are reachable by text and email.

Ocean Breeze racket sport complex moves forward

The former Ocean Breeze golf course

Plans for a racket sport complex at the former Ocean Breeze golf course are moving ahead.

The Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District, which owns the site, has chosen Boca Paddle LLC, a mostly local consortium, to develop the facility. Briann Harms, the district’s executive director, said Boca Paddle has hired the agency’s consultant “to make the design work” with overall plans for North Park. The district, though, still must negotiate a contract with Boca Paddle.

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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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