Thursday, February 15, 2024

Late Election Notes in Boca and Delray, BH3 Lawsuit Update and More

Voters who never have cast ballots for elections in Boca Raton and Delray Beach may determine who wins those elections.

Though local governments are closest to the people, city elections regularly attract far less turnout than national or state contests. Fifteen percent is high. A quirk could make this year different.

Last year, with the COVID-19 pandemic making people wary of polling places, elections supervisors in Florida pushed mail-in ballots. Like many of her state counterparts, Wendy Link not only allowed Palm Beach County voters to request ballots for the 2020 election. She allowed them to request ballots through November 2022.

That request covered elections at all levels. So voters in Boca Raton and Delray Beach who had skipped previous municipal elections received ballots for the first time. A number of those voters are returning them.

As of Friday, 8,347 ballots for the two Boca Raton City Council races had come back. Of those, more than half—4,013—are from first-time city voters. In Delray Beach, 3,694 of the 7,261 returned ballots are from new voters.

Candidates and consultants knew that mail-in ballots would be a new aspect of this year’s campaigns. That may turn out to be an understatement.

In 2018, when the same city council seats were up in Boca Raton, about 9,400 voters cast ballots. If same-day voting this year matches or comes close to the mail-in number, that will mean a whopping increase in turnout.

The same scenario could happen in Delray Beach. Three years ago, the mayor’s seat and city commission seats 1 and 3 were up. About 8,300 people voted. Close to that number already have voted.

No one knows what will motivate these first-timers. Do they care more about partisan links, even though the races are non-partisan? Do they fall less predictably into typical pro- and anti-development factions?

All we know is that they could be crucial and that this could be a one-off phenomenon. Republicans in Tallahassee want to change election laws. One change would permit voters to seek mail-in ballots only for the next election.

Delray endorsements

Two notable endorsements came near the end of campaigning in Delray Beach.

Florida Rising, which calls itself a “racial justice organization” and regularly backs Democrats, came out Friday for Tracy Caruso over Mayor Shelly Petrolia and incumbent commissioners Adam Frankel (Seat 1) and Ryan Boylston (Seat 3).

Petrolia is a Democrat. Caruso is a former “Trumpette” who only recently changed her registration from Republican to No Party Affiliation. Mitch Katz, Boylston’s challenger, is a Democrat. Boylston long has been an NPA. Frankel is the one Democrat on the ballot who got the liberal group’s backing.

What Warner said

Caruso also emailed an endorsement from Jack Warner, Delray Beach’s former chief financial officer. His comments about Petrolia align with my observations of her over the last eight years.

Warner, who backed Petrolia three years ago, writes that as a commissioner from 2013 to 2018 she was “the champion of revisions to the no-bid tennis stadium and garbage contracts, the unfavorable beach concession and raking contracts and the police and fire pension plans…”

As mayor, however, Petrolia has been different. “Rather than becoming a unifying leader,” Warner said, “she has been a divisive force… Her former willingness to stand alone when she was right has metastasized into a mean-spirited disdain and disrespect for anyone who opposed her, even when she was wrong.”

Warner recounts how Petrolia “undermined” the choice of Michael Cernech to be city manager and secured the appointment of her favorite, George Gretsas. Just a few months later, Warner said, “Gretsas became a devil who had to be fired. These and other actions have been and continue to be destructive of staff continuity, morale, function and activity.”

Petrolia, Warner said, “has demonstrated time and again her mistaken belief that she, as mayor, manages the city, rather than showing an understanding of the mayor’s limited role provided in the city charter. Shelly has to go, for the good of the city.”

Unlike Petrolia, Warner said, Caruso “emphasizes a clear understanding of the proper role of the commission, which is to govern rather than to manage.”

Scott vs. Stenberg vs. Drucker

Constance Scott and Brian Stenberg hit familiar themes in TV ads that ran during the final days of campaigning in Boca Raton.

Scott’s ad in the Seat C race criticized Yvette Drucker’s attendance record on the volunteer groups whose membership she is touting as part of her record. Scott also criticized Drucker for voting, as a member of the historical society board, to sell the historic downtown train depot.

Stenberg criticized Seat D incumbent Monica Mayotte for statements that drew a lawsuit against the city over rejection of a downtown senior project and a personal lawsuit from her 2018 campaign.

Overall, the candidates’ approaches have changed little. Drucker casts herself as bringing “fresh” ideas and criticizes Scott, who served on the council from 2009 to 2015, as representing the past. Scott responds that Drucker isn’t ready and got the interim appointment only through an insider deal among Mayotte, Andrea O’Rourke and Mayor Scott Singer.

Mayotte continues to highlight her emphasis on sustainability issues and what she calls the council’s newfound collegiality. Stenberg says his presence would help businesses more and give the council balance.

Katz and Jujura

I wrote last week about the exchange between Katz and former Commissioner Jordana Jarjura, now president and chief counsel of Menin Development. Katz had accused Jarjura of a “drunken rant” at the Feb. 10 Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce candidate forum. Jarjura denied it and cited Katz’s unfounded accusation against her of an ethics violation when they served on the commission.

On Friday, Jarjura followed up with a cease and desist letter to Katz. Attorney Steven Osber wrote of Jarjura, “As a community leader, an attorney and a successful businesswoman, her professional reputation is essential. Unquestionably, unsubstantiated and reckless attacks on one’s reputation can have significant and disastrous impact in so many ways and can create significant emotional and financial impact.” Despite Katz’s “clear awareness of this consequence,” he “engaged in a false and defamatory course of conduct, directly attacking Ms. Jarjura.”

Osber calls Katz’s claim “an intentional misrepresentation of the events (at the forum) and are unquestionably false statements designed to impune (sic) the reputation of Ms. Jarjura.” Katz’s action “constitutes actionable defamatory conduct.”

The letter demands that Katz stop making the accusation on all social media platforms and during media interviews. Failure to do so “will result in the initiation of immediate legal proceedings against you, and those associated with you…”

More on The Set lawsuit

A change on the Delray Beach City Commission could resolve the lawsuit over redevelopment in The Set.

I reported last week that BH3 had sued the community redevelopment agency over Fabrick, the company’s mixed-use project on three CRA-owned blocks east of the Fairfield Inn. Before we get to the legal arguments, here’s the political angle.

Gregory Freedman is a co-founder of BH3. When we spoke last week, I asked Freedman if the lawsuit meant that BH3’s relationship with the CRA was broken. He said no.

“We would listen,” Freedman said, if the CRA board wanted to revisit the issues that led to the lawsuit. Freedman did not blame the dispute on the CRA staff. He called Executive Director Renee Jadusingh “amazing” and praised her team’s work with BH3 as the pandemic has forced the developer to adjust.

But some board members, Freedman said, “seem not to understand” what has happened in the last year.

The CRA chose BH3 in April 2019. The company was ready with plans in February 2020. A month later, COVID-19 restrictions kicked in.

From the CRA’s perspective, a grocery store is the priority for that site. Negotiations got delayed, Freedman said, because all grocers “had bigger concerns,” such as safety procedures and renegotiating leases. The board, however, was “ignorant as to the impact from COVID.”

Yet BH3 had obtained a letter of intent from Publix. Securing the Publix, though, meant redoing the project and proposing less housing. Freedman said BH3 told the CRA board, “This is what we can do.”

Yet each version—bigger or smaller—resulted in criticism. I agree with Freedman that the board seemed to be moving the goalposts.

Still, a deal seemed imminent last December. BH3 sought a fourth amendment to the purchase and sale agreement that would give the company more time to secure city approvals. The board asked staff to work on the agreement. That’s where the legal dispute starts.

Freedman contends that the board’s action amounted to tacit approval of the project, at which point BH3’s “rights were vested.” But CRA Attorney D.J. Doody, Freedman said, advised that the board had to take a formal vote in January.

Rather than ratify what happened in December, the board found BH3 in default of the agreement and gave the company 30 days to fix the problem. Even the staff acknowledged that it wasn’t enough time.

BH3 then asked for a 383-day delay, citing “act of God” circumstances, including the pandemic. The board offered 90 days. BH3 signed the letter agreeing to the 90 days” under protest,” Freedman said, and filed the lawsuit.

In addition to seeking damages, the litigation alleges Sunshine Law violations by board members. BH3 suspects that some coordinated their opposition outside of public meetings. “Some sound bites felt rehearsed.”

It’s a mess, but much about Delray Beach these days is messy. The election results could determine whether work on the project resumes or the city faces yet another lawsuit growing out of the city’s factional politics.

Wolfson donation to BRRH

Businessman Monte Wolfson and his wife, Madeline Wolfson, have made the latest seven-figure donation to Boca Raton Regional Hospital’s capital campaign.

In a news release, the hospital announced the gift of $1 million toward the $250 million campaign that will help to finance the two patient towers, the parking garage and a new power plant. The Wolfsons, who own a home in The Polo Club, are longtime donors to the hospital.

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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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