Sunday, April 14, 2024

Delray gets ugly at commission meeting, Edwards buys out Atlantic Crossing & other news

Trouble in paradiise

It got ugly early and mostly stayed that way on Tuesday as the Delray Beach City Commission broke another axle on its journey to finding a new city attorney.

The supposed plan had been to choose from between two candidates to succeed Noel Pfeffer. Instead, there was no vote—just plenty of built-up acrimony that might have driven the candidates away without the city having to tell them that they no longer were candidates.

Mayor Carey Glickstein’s cautious “Where would anybody like to start?” brought the long-running feud over the legal department between Jordana Jarjura and Shelly Petrolia to a quick, rolling boil. Jarjura said Petrolia should start, since she “thwarted the majority” by trying to hire an outside firm rather than one of the candidates. Petrolia said that “majority”—Glickstein, Jarjura and Al Jacquet—was to blame because “you all didn’t make a selection” after interviewing candidates last Friday.

Exacerbating matters was the last-minute arrival of a proposal from the Fort Lauderdale firm of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole Bierman & Popok to provide Delray Beach’s legal services. The city’s budget for its five-lawyer office is about $1.2 million. The firm offered a three-year contract at $1.3 million with an annual increase of 3 percent.

That offer, Petrolia said, undercut the claims of Glickstein and Jarjura that a private firm could not provide full-service representation for the same price. Jarjura said Petrolia had “hijacked” and “made a mockery” of the commission’s search. Sniping followed about body language. Mitch Katz, participating by phone, wondered “why we’re meeting,” since the city’s recruiter still had not supplied background checks on the two candidates.

At which point Glickstein stated the obvious: “This is devolving into a black hole.”

Here are the back stories.

In 2013, the commission hired Weiss Serota to contest the trash-hauling contract that a previous commission had extended without competitive bidding. Glickstein and Petrolia, who were new to the commission, had made the contract a campaign issue.

Weiss Serota’s Jamie Cole won that case. Weiss Serota also represents Delray Beach in the Atlantic Crossing lawsuit. Petrolia was the biggest supporter of hiring the firm.

Petrolia has been at odds with Pfeffer, who came in July 2014, over disagreements about the city’s legal position regarding Atlantic Crossing. Another issue between the two has been conveyance of an alley for the iPic project. Katz, who joined the commission in March 2015, also has been a Pfeffer critic.

It is clear from observing meetings and speaking with commissioners that Glickstein and Jarjura, who are lawyers, see the city attorney’s job differently than Katz and Petrolia, who are not lawyers. The difference may be one of policy, but it’s also one of perspective.

That difference remains unresolved. It likely explains Pfeffer’s departure. The attorney reports to the commission, and a 3-2 majority—Jacquet being more supportive of Pfeffer than Katz and Petrolia—does not give professional comfort. Plus, Pfeffer had options. He’s going to work for a private firm in Fort Lauderdale.

Whatever commissioners thought of Pfeffer, the office in two years oversaw public safety pension reform and a deal on the Auburn Trace housing complex that got the apartments under better ownership and brought the city millions of dollars. Those are both big deals. Glickstein said the office also has helped to improve purchasing procedures. “It was the one department,” he said Tuesday, “that had true stability.” No longer.

As Jarjura pointed out at the end of the meeting, the debate overlooked the city’s three lawyers who will remain after Pfeffer is gone. Two started just a few weeks ago. Would they stay? Would a private firm hire them? In what capacity? For how long? It would be unfair to make them collateral damage because of commission dysfunction.

Whether to shift from an in-house legal department to a private firm—in whatever form—is a major policy change. Ideally, a city contemplates for a good reason and does so only after considerable study.

Delray Beach, however, is considering the change out of discord and desperation. Pfeffer is leaving June 24. Even if his new firm lets him tend to matters on an occasional basis, Pfeffer will be away most of July. After the botched search—for which the headhunter deserves part of the blame—no reputable candidate would apply. The Atlantic Crossing is set for trial in October.

Pfeffer will prepare a request for proposal (RFP) to which interested firms can respond. The commission will review the RFP before it goes out. Pfeffer told me Wednesday that he will make the proposal “flexible.” After Tuesday night, that makes sense. Inflexibility has put the city in this tough spot.

Weiss Serota

If Weiss Serota bids for the work, don’t expect Glickstein and Jarjura to be receptive.

By marketing itself to Delray Beach while representing the city, Glickstein said, Weiss Serota was “unprofessional on so many levels.” That includes the “unsolicited proposal” that lit the fuse Tuesday night.

Glickstein said he spoke on Wednesday with Weiss Serota founding member Richard Weiss to express his displeasure. I tried to reach Weiss, but was told he was out of the office on Wednesday.

Jarjura on Wednesday sent a letter to Jamie Cole, criticizing him for sending the unsolicited proposal “with the expectation that you had for the city to award you this contract without seeking other proposals. . .” Jarjura added, “I feel compelled to advise you of my serious concerns with respect to your conduct, and trust you will take my criticism into account with regard to your future actions on behalf of the city.”

Obviously, I’m far from done with this topic.

Edwards buys out Atlantoc Crossing

Speaking of Atlantic Crossing, a public relations representative said Wednesday that Edwards Companies, the Columbus, Ohio-based developer, has bought out landowner Carl DeSantis. Though the project had been a joint venture, city officials said it has been clear for some time that Edwards was the dominant partner.

In a statement, Edwards President Jeff Edwards called DeSantis “visionary” and said the purchase “positions Edwards, as the project’s developer, to move forward with full momentum.

“We are making this additional investment because this is a unique site. Redeveloping two city blocks is a rare opportunity to create a distinctly Delray environment that will benefit the entire community. We’re committed for the long term and are eager to get underway.”

Wildflower proposal

If the Delray city commission looked foolish and inept in seeking a city attorney, the Boca Raton City Council looked pragmatic in its decisions about the proposal for a restaurant on the Wildflower property.

The council introduced ordinances to cover land-use and zoning changes that would accommodate the restaurant and Hillstone Restaurant Group’s site plan. The council, however, tabled the ordinance on the lease.

From a strategic perspective, the council can proceed at its next meeting on July 26 with discussion of everything Hillstone would need to begin construction. Discussion of the lease can wait until after what will be a Nov. 8 referendum that seeks to block use of the site for a restaurant. At that July 26 meeting, the council likely will put the citizen petition on the general election ballot. If the referendum fails, the council quickly can take up what probably will be a revised lease.

Hillstone General Counsel Glenn Viers told me Wednesday that tabling the lease was “my idea,” but acknowledged that the company made the decision after conferring with council members because “there’s so much misinformation going on.” That’s true, but the delay also gives the council cover from opponents of the proposal who believe that any action before the referendum amounts to defying the will of “the people.”

Some of that “misinformation” involves the possible use of the property. One speaker Tuesday who favored more public access invoked the new oceanfront promenade in Deerfield Beach. BocaWatch Editor Andrea O’Rourke, touting the need for great public spaces in Boca Raton, called the property “the future of the city.”

Actually, it’s two acres, with its use greatly restricted by geography, including an adjoining, vacant property to the west. The city tried to buy it, but officials said the asking price was absurdly high.

“Misinformation” also applies to the referendum, which supporters say will offer voters a choice between using the property for a park or a restaurant. In fact, the petition mentions neither. It calls for restricting city-owned waterfront land to “public use.”

Holding the referendum in November at least will allow a wider sample of voters. In 2012, the last presidential year, turnout in Palm Beach County for the August primary election was 13.7 percent. For the November general election, turnout was nearly 70 percent.

“I believe that once people see the referendum for what it is,” Viers said, “We will prevail.

The council salary issue

That August ballot in Boca, though, will have two local items, not just one.

On Tuesday, as expected, the council approved a proposal that would raise the mayor’s salary from $9,600 to $38,000 and the council members’ salaries from $7,200 to $28,000. Unlike the earlier version, this proposal contains no automatic annual increases.

Less expected was the council’s decision to add a proposal that would change how the city fills council vacancies. If voters approve the change, council vacancies that occur more than 90 days before a scheduled election would trigger a special election that could cost $120,000.

After failing with an earlier version, Scott Singer succeeded with one that Mayor Susan Haynie praised for incorporating suggestions from the council. Mike Mullaugh pointed out that the current system dated to when the council and mayor had terms of two years, not three.

As I wrote Tuesday, this proposal really is about one potential special election for mayor in early 2019 that could occur if Haynie won a second term and ran successfully for county commission. To those who worried about low turnout in such elections, Singer responded with the sound bite, “Worse than low turnout is no turnout.” His comment about “establishment elites” supplanting the public got raves from the audience in the council chambers.

Sales tax misinformation

Speaking of “misinformation,” consider this comment heard Tuesday night.

It came from a man who regularly goes before the council to rail against the proposed one-cent increase in the county sales tax. He claimed to know that County Administrator Verdenia Baker does not intend to give any revenue from the increase to Boca Raton.

Actually, Boca Raton would get about $61 million over 10 years. By law, all 38 cities would have to get revenue, apportioned by population. Boca Raton and Delray Beach don’t like the formula; it penalizes cities that generate the most sales. But the idea that Boca would get nothing is incorrect.

       Correction: In a post last week, I misspelled the name of a Palm Beach County judge who ruled against Boca Raton in a Chabad East Boca lawsuit. The judge’s name is Meenu Sasser.

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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