Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Election News, Boca Lawsuits Update, Delray’s Interim City Attorney and More

After another election in which Florida played a leading but unflattering role, you might wonder why Palm Beach and Broward counties have so much trouble counting votes. How hard can it be to run an election?

In fact, it’s very hard, at least in large counties. Elections supervisors must understand technology and the logistics of elections that involve thousands of precincts. And if you think that Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher isn’t very good, you probably are forgetting her predecessor.

Arthur Anderson was an unlikely choice. He had served on the school board. But Robert Wexler, the former congressman whose district included West Boca, was determined to oust Theresa LePore. Wexler, a very partisan Democrat, blamed LePore’s ballot for costing Al Gore the state’s electoral votes in 2000 that would have made Gore president. LePore had to pay.

Wexler recruited Anderson—also a Democrat—and practically ran his campaign against LePore in 2004. Anderson won. He performed so badly that he ran last in the three-candidate primary in 2008. Bucher ran first and then won the general election. The county sent administrators to oversee the 2008 general election before she took office.

Bucher won a second term without opposition. In 2016, her only challenger was an unqualified Republican who made false, partisan claims about voter fraud.

Even those who rant about Bucher in public know privately that elections supervisor—as one analyst commented during this year’s recount—is the only job in which a success rate of 99.9 percent amounts to failure. With Bucher apparently set to run again in 2020, we’ll see if she draws any qualified challengers.

Delray city attorney note

Lynn Gelin is Delray Beach’s interim city attorney.

I wrote two weeks ago about Mayor Shelly Petrolia’s successful attempt to oust former City Attorney Max Lohman. Petrolia apparently had hoped to replace Lohman’s firm with another that has represented Delray Beach in several high-profile cases. That firm—Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman—had a representative at last week’s special meeting.

Instead, Commissioners Adam Frankel and Shirley Johnson stuck to their position that Delray Beach again should have an in-house city attorney. They voted with Commissioners Bill Bathurst and Ryan Boylston to name Gelin, who had been one of three attorneys in the legal department.

In his role, Lohman had overseen the city’s legal team. He called Gelin “fantastic.” Boylston told me that the plan will be to promote from within, which would seem to give the edge to Gelin. Boylston said John Herin, of the GrayRobinson firm, would help during the transition. Herin represents Delray Beach in its lawsuit against the owner/promoter of the pro tennis tournament. Both sides are negotiating to settle the case.

Midtown lawsuit

Nobody said as much, but the Boca Raton City Council last week made an obvious attempt to bolster its defense of the Midtown lawsuit.

City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser proposed that the council adopt a resolution that had not been on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting. The resolution announced that the city’s “limited planning exercise” of Midtown had concluded. The resolution also summarized the city’s action since last January, when the council abandoned efforts to work with Midtown landowners on redevelopment regulations and asked staff to craft a “small area plan” for Midtown.

That action prompted two lawsuits from Crocker Partners, which owns Boca Center and other Midtown properties. One seeks $137 million in damages from the city failing to write regulations. That’s the bad-cop lawsuit. The other seeks to compel the city to write the regulations. That’s the good-cop lawsuit.

From Crocker Partners’ standpoint, the council wrongfully delayed the regulations for political reasons. BocaWatch was still active and had campaigned against Crocker and Midtown redevelopment. Managing Partner Angelo Bianco told me Monday that the new resolution “clearly demonstrates” that the study is “a delaying tactic.” The city argues that the council was just being diligent before approving potentially big changes.

The resolution “seeks to ensure that the purposes, scope and effect of the planning exercise are not misunderstood or misrepresented.” Translation: What happened in January was by the book, not arbitrary and political. The resolution signals the official end of the “limited planning exercise.” It notes that after an update in October the city council concluded that the “planning exercise” had been “productive.” The language of the resolution is legalese. The motive is clear.

One wonders, though, how effective it will be. Boca Raton will hold a Midtown “public input session” on Dec. 4. Eight days later, the city must go before Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Gillen and explain its failure to write regulations for Midtown.

Concierge settlement

But Boca Raton did vote to settle the lawsuit by the developers of the Concierge senior living center.

City council members unanimously approved a new plan that drops the number of units from 110 to 92, with almost half for independent living and the rest split roughly between assisted living and memory care. In a news release, developer Group P6 said construction should begin next fall. The 10-story project will displace a one-story medical building on Southeast Sixth Street between Federal Highway and Dixie Highway.

With that decision, the city avoids a lawsuit from the landowner similar to the one Crocker Partners filed regarding Midtown. Group P6’s lawsuit simply had sought to have the courts overturn the denial. City planned had recommended approval.

Council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke also had commented that they didn’t want more senior centers downtown. They noted other issues, but age discrimination could have made the city vulnerable on both lawsuits. City Attorney Frieser had said nothing even after the remarks by Mayotte and O’Rourke. Scott Singer also voted against the project, but he didn’t mention age.

Fortunately, the potential problem over Concierge is gone. Perhaps the lesson will stick.

And now, Hidden Valley lobs a lawsuit

As one development-related lawsuit in Boca Raton ends, however, another arises.

This one comes from the owners of the former Hidden Valley golf course in the northeast corner of the city. The course has been closed for 13 years. The owners want to build 101 single-family homes on the 55-acre site.

Doing so would require a land-use change, from recreation to residential, and a rezoning. City planners recommended submitting the change to the comprehensive plan for state approval, citing potential traffic problems on Northwest Second Avenue. The planning and zoning board also had recommended denial.

In their lawsuit, the property owners argue that the homes would not make traffic worse. They further argue that the open space is not public—like a city park—but was private as part of the golf course. The city responds that the staff memo “speaks for itself” and that the council had a public interest in continuing the “status quo” on the comprehensive plan.

Neighbors who have spoken at meetings generally have opposed development. Some have asked the city to consider buying the land for a park. No hearings on the lawsuit have been scheduled.

P&Z seat filled

The Boca Raton City Council last week filled the vacancy on the planning and zoning board, which reviews development applications.

The unanimous choice was Tom Zeichman. He is a business litigation attorney who practices in Boca Raton. Zeichman has a long record of community activism, having served on the city’s financial advisory board and education task force. A graduate of Florida Atlantic University, Zeichman also has served on FAU advisory boards. He fills the seat vacated by the resignation of Janice Rustin.

Legislature organizes

Today is the organizational session of the Florida Legislature. In Tallahassee will be Michael Caruso, newly elected to the House district that includes Boca Raton and coastal Delray Beach. After a recount, Caruso defeated James Bonfiglio by 32 votes and will be part of the large Republican majority in the House.

Though the next speaker, Jose Oliva, is from Miami-Dade County, the House’s main players will not be from South Florida. The chairman of the appropriations committee—it writes the budget—is from suburban Jacksonville. The education committee chairwoman is from a rural area north of Orlando.

Perhaps most worrisome, the chairman of the state affairs committee is Blaise Ingoglia, from a rural-suburban district north of Tampa. That committee would produce any legislation related to home rule, such as community redevelopment agencies. Ingoglia reportedly shares the belief of outgoing Speaker Richard Corcoran that the state needs to set more rules for cities and counties. Caruso has said he opposes more encroachment by Tallahassee into local governments. Maybe he should seek a seat on the state affairs committee.

Weinroth wins—but not by a landslide

Robert Weinroth
Robert Weinroth

As expected, Robert Weinroth will succeed Steven Abrams on the Palm Beach County Commission.

But despite outspending Republican William Vale $296,000 to $14,000, Weinroth got only about 54 percent. In an email to supporters, Weinroth referred to his “landslide margin.” I asked Weinroth how he defines “landslide.” He responded, “Not requiring a recount.”




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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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