Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Costello up for Review, the Concierge Lawsuit Ramps Up and More

In a special meeting at 5 p.m. today, the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency will evaluate Executive Director Jeff Costello.

At least, that’s what the agenda says. After last week, however, there’s reason to wonder where the “evaluation” might lead.

During the regular CRA meeting, City Commissioner Shirley Johnson unexpectedly bashed Costello. Out of those comments came today’s meeting.

Jeff Costello

Costello’s last evaluation came in May 2017, but the seven appointed CRA board members who collectively praised what CRA Attorney David Tolces called Costello’s 
“high performance” after reading the individual evaluations are gone. Last spring, after the elections, the new city commission abolished the board and installed themselves plus two members they appointed.

Johnson proposed that change. Now she’s pushing on the evaluation of Costello. She told me Monday morning, “I don’t know how it’s going to go. He was due (for the evaluation) in January. I’ve been watching our CRA for a number of years.”

Though it’s been more than a year since Costello’s last evaluation, it’s been only about six months since he began reporting to new bosses. All the commissioners have expressed frustration at what they consider the CRA’s delay on completing public works projects. None, however, had criticized Costello so strongly.

Another factor is that City Manager Mark Lauzier has been on the job for only about 11 months. Lauzier technically isn’t Costello’s boss, but the manager and the CRA director collaborate on their respective budgets. Commissioners want the CRA to finance as many projects as possible, thus freeing up money that the city can spend outside the CRA boundaries.

A year ago, then-Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus praised the relationship he had with Costello. Former City Manager Don Cooper said the same thing about Costello during budget meetings two years ago.

I spoke with Commissioners Bill Bathurst and Ryan Boylston. Though both like the idea of a formal, regular evaluation, neither would vote to fire Costello. Boylston said the timing also would be terrible.

On Nov. 2, the CRA will receive bids for the three blocks east of the Fairfield Inn. It could be the CRA’s most important project. Boylston also said Costello and Lauzier need to settle into their relationship.

“There’s never a good time to make a change,” Johnson said, “if one’s going to occur. We have to deal with what we have now. Who knows? In a year, we might decide we want a different city manager.”

Boca Cultural Consortium

I wrote a long item last week about the Boca Raton Cultural Consortium’s request for 21 acres of city land. The consortium envisions a multi-venue performing arts center and related commercial development east of the Spanish River Library.

Andrea Virgin, a board member of Boca Ballet and a consortium leader, believed that I portrayed the presentation at the city council as something of an ambush. The consortium presented a detailed study to back their proposal. Supporters crowded the council chambers. It felt like a full-blown hearing, not a workshop presentation.

Boca Ballet Director Dan Guin told me Monday, “We didn’t want to say too much before. We had been doing our due diligence. But we were not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.” As for all the questions from council members, Guin said, “If they didn’t ask them, they wouldn’t have been doing their jobs.”

Attorney Michael Marshall, who has represented developers before the council, said there were “lots of conversations” with the members in advance. He acknowledged, though, that the atmosphere compared favorably to a hearing with a final decision at stake. He also said of the consortium’s request, “It’s tricky.”

Indeed. The consortium wants one of the few vacant city-owned properties. The council previously donated 15 acres for an elementary school next to Don Estridge Middle. The only other one of any size is a 21-acre parcel bounded by Southwest 18th Street, the CSX tracks and Interstate 95. The property once was an I-95 rest stop.

The consortium, Marshall said, “needs to answer the question, ‘Is this the best location?’ The location changes the dynamic.”

That conversation could get awkward. Consortium leaders want a decision on the site so they can ramp up their campaign to raise what Guin says will be $100 million. City council members, however, say they can’t make such a commitment until they feel comfortable that the consortium can raise the money.

For now, though, consortium leaders are satisfied that the council will consider their proposal.

“We heard enough to know that we can continue doing what we’ve been doing,” Virgin said.

Marshall said, “There will be lots of meetings over the next month or two.”

Guin said, “We want to waylay their concerns.”

Guin, however, also placed much of the responsibility on the consortium. Boca Raton may be a wealthy community, he said, but it ranks low nationwide for donations to the arts. Many communities of similar demographics already have facilities like what the consortium proposes.

“We have to find out if the people who have said for so long that they want a performing arts center really are serious,” Guin said. “We’re all very excited, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

Group P6-D tightens the screws on its lawsuit

The developer challenging Boca Raton’s rejection of a senior living facility has amped up its lawsuit.

Last week, Group P6-D filed with the Palm Beach County Circuit Court a letter of support from the American Seniors Housing Association. The Washington, D.C.-based trade group serves “senior executives engaged in the development, ownership, operations and financing of seniors’ housing.”

In July, the city council—acting as the community redevelopment agency—rejected Group P6’s proposal for a 110-unit downtown facility. City staff and two advisory boards had recommended approval. The letter said the rejection “reflects an unlawful discriminatory bias against seniors with disabilities and the providers of care and services that seek to meet their needs.”

The letter referenced comments by Councilmembers Andrea O’Rourke—who as chairman runs the CRA meetings—and Monica Mayotte. O’Rourke, the letter said, “testified that her mom is 95 years old and that ‘her greatest pleasure now, unfortunately, is having a doctor’s appointment.’ [O’Rourke] then questioned whether there are going to be too many assisted living facilities within the downtown area and whether approval of the project was in line with ‘the overall vision for our downtown.’”

Mayotte “stated that she was opposed the project not because she is against assisted living facilities in our city, but ‘I’m just not sure that the downtown is the right location for them…Other places in, within our city limits, are probably more applicable for these types of residents…’ “

The association said, “Both of these statements reflect a bias against residential care facilities and the often-disabled seniors who occupy them, and a desire to maintain a “disability-free” atmosphere in the downtown area of Boca Raton.”

The project failed, 3-1. Mayor Scott Singer voted with O’Rourke and Mayotte, but he didn’t cite age as a factor. O’Rourke and Mayotte also noted issues such as parking, but “the presence of this discriminatory bias in the decision-making process,” the letter said, “invalidates the decision as a violation of the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Last week, the city council met in executive session to discuss the Concierge lawsuit. Given the facts, one hopes that the sentiment favored a negotiated settlement. That could take the form of an amended plan for the Concierge, which the CRA would approve as a condition of any settlement. Something similar happened with Atlantic Crossing’s federal lawsuit against Delray Beach, though the city already had won a key ruling in the case.

I will update if negotiations open between the city and the developer.

Rustin resigns

Janice Rustin has resigned from Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board. The seven-member panel is the most important advisory group in the city, because it’s the last stop before the city council for development projects.

In her resignation letter, Rustin—an attorney—said she has joined the land-use/government firm of Lewis, Longman & Walker, which contracts with Boca Raton. Her presence on the board thus would be a conflict.

Rustin recently joined the 4-3 vote against recommendation of the revised plan for Via Mizner Phases 2 and 3. Planning and zoning board positions don’t come open very often. The last member to depart was Glenn Gromann. The council chose Larry Snowden to replace him. Board appointments usually go to the council for its next meeting. That is scheduled for next Tuesday.

Rustin had been an assistant city attorney in Delray Beach for six years. Her replacement is William Bennett, whose background is in litigation, not government law. City Attorney Max Lohman said he wanted to add litigation skills to the department. “We can teach him the government stuff,” Lohman said.

Rustin will continue to work with Delray Beach. Lewis, Longman & Walker is the city’s pension attorney.

Addison Mizner campus expansion

The entrance of Addison Mizner Elementary. Photo by Randy Schultz.

On Wednesday’s Palm Beach County School Board agenda is the purchase of a third property to expand the campus of Addison Mizner Elementary School.

Superintendent Donald Fennoy recommends that the board approve the deal for 0.21 acres on 12th Avenue near the entrance to the school. The district already owns one vacant lot in that stretch and two other homes. This purchase would enable the district to “square off the property,” said Frank Barbieri, the school board member who represents Boca Raton.

Collectively, the four properties would add only about an acre to Addison Mizner’s already tight campus. The acquisitions, however, will allow more flexibility as the district designs a rebuild that includes the addition of middle school grades. City planners will work with the district to minimize traffic problems. Barbieri suggested that some of the money from the 2016 sales tax increase could go for “road improvements” around the campus.

The sale price is $470,000. Because that’s higher than the appraised value of $385,000, a supermajority of the board—five members—must approve the deal. Demolition would cost $25,000.

I would expect approval. Fennoy himself decided that Addison Mizner would not move, and failing to acquire this final property would complicate the project. The district could try eminent domain, but there’s never a certainty and the process would take too long.

Canal re-greening

Boca Raton is providing what a city spokeswoman calls “landscape enhancements” along a canal bank that the Lake Worth Draining District denuded.

The stretch is on West Palmetto Park Road across from the Palmetto Park Square shopping plaza. The district has been clear-cutting, to keep trees from falling during hurricanes and blocking the canals. The city probably will plant shrubs and do other work on what is a Palm Beach County right of way. Whatever the plan, it will improve the look along one of Boca Raton’s gateways.

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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