Friday, March 17, 2023

Why Delray Got Tough on Panhandling and Boca Fights Beachfront Lawsuit

Delray Beach’s final of three hearings on its new panhandling ordinance featured impassioned debate and a predictable outcome—approval.

Previously, city commissioners had heard from supporters of the ordinance, which will take effect in six months and be much broader than the current version. It will ban all panhandling in the evening at outdoor dining tables, prohibit panhandling near most commercial areas and ban “aggressive panhandling,” which can take various forms if someone doesn’t take no for an answer.

Last Thursday, critics got their turn. They assailed the ordinance as an unconstitutional attack on the homeless and others in need because of the COVID-19 pandemic. One called it a “witch hunt.” Ezra Krieg, chairman of the Delray Beach Homeless Coalition, said the city should consider solutions that don’t involve possible arrest. Commissioners heard comparisons to Delray Beach’s days as a “sunset town,” when Black residents had to be off East Atlantic Avenue by dark.

But previous testimony from business owners resonated more. They spoke of customers being harassed and even threatened not by people genuinely needing a handout but by “con artists.” Commissioner Adam Frankel spoke of a dead squirrel being thrown at one person. The city’s police and fire chiefs backed the ordinance as a means of protecting public safety and health.

Frankel, Juli Casale and Mayor Shelly Petrolia were yes votes from the start. Shirley Johnson voted no, as she had indicated with her many comments during the testimony. That left Ryan Boylston.

During commission discussion, Boylston sounded hesitant. The law hadn’t been done “the Delray Way,” he said, meaning lots of outreach. He noted that the ban on single-use plastic straws— “which was trivial in comparison”—took effect after so much cooperation from the chamber of commerce and restaurant owners that the straws already were almost gone.

“I still get emails from people who don’t like paper straws,” Boylston said, but the ban has worked without harming restaurants. That, Boylston said, should be the model.

Ultimately, though, Boylston voted yes. “I just felt,” he told me, “that an issue like this is as important as hiring a city manager and needs to be as close to 5-0 as possible.” He also cited “the endorsements” from Police Chief Javaro Sims and Fire Chief Keith Tomey and City Attorney Lynn Gelin.

And, Boylston said, the panhandling problem “is real. If we don’t do something, it could become what most people take away from their experience in downtown Delray Beach.”

Michael Kahn, the attorney who crafted the ordinance over the last year, also worked on one that Volusia County passed in 2019. According to news reports, 80 percent of panhandlers left Daytona Beach when the law kicked in. Delray Beach’s law will be in effect for high season this fall, when, everyone hopes, the pandemic will have begun to recede.

Boca backs O’Rourke and Mayotte in beachfront lawsuit

Boca Raton continues to back council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke after losing in court.

In February 2019, Mayotte and O’Rourke joined the council majority in rejecting a variance to allow construction on the vacant lot at 2600 North Ocean Boulevard. The builder, Delray Beach-based Azure Development, challenged the denial. Azure claimed that Mayotte and O’Rourke had illegally prejudiced themselves before the quasi-judicial hearing by publicly stating that they would oppose the variance.

Last September, a three-judge panel of the Palm Beach County Circuit Court ruled unanimously for Azure. The court ordered the city to hold a second vote with Mayotte and O’Rourke not voting. A month later, the judges rejected the city’s request for a rehearing.

Now the city has taken its case to the 4th District Court of Appeal. In its response, Azure argues that Boca Raton is trying to “turn due process on its head” by claiming that Mayotte and O’Rourke’s comments were allowable because the two council members had no financial interest in the outcome.

Brian Stenberg is challenging Mayotte. He has accused the incumbent of hurting the city with loose comments about development projects before the council. Mayotte and O’Rourke previously made disparaging comments about a senior living facility proposed for downtown, suggesting that the residents wouldn’t fit it. Facing a lawsuit for age discrimination, the council rescinded its denial of the project.

In a separate case, Azure alleges that the city has failed to provide records requested by the developer. Azure wants communications involving the council and members of the Environmental Advisory Board, which recommended that the council deny the variance. Azure also wants records related to the city’s consultant on the proposed project.

This week, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Donald Hafele denied the city’s motions to strike Azure’s pleadings—the city clearly considers the case frivolous—and to set a final hearing. Hafele granted the city’s motion for sanctions against Robert Sweetapple, one of Azure’s attorneys, for conduct during a deposition.

Mixed conclusions on Stewart and Coleman

I wrote last week about the Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on the Delray Beach Department of Neighborhood and Community Services. Investigators found evidence that Michael Coleman and Jamael Stewart, the department’s top administrators, violated city policy on grant awards.

In that post, I quoted John Whittles, an attorney who represents Coleman and Stewart in their lawsuit alleging wrongful termination. Whittles said, “We respect the inspector general, but we totally disagree with the findings. Whittles claimed that the OIG based its findings “on a policy that nobody (in the city) talked about and nobody followed.” The findings “springboard from that errant conclusion.”

The Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics cleared Coleman and Stewart. The commission, Whittles said, “dug deeper.” Coleman and Stewart, he added, “were singled out.”

Inspector General John Carey sent this response to Whittle’s comments:

“The city policy (GA-23) that Mr. Whittles refers to was, and is still, in effect, and is posted on the city’s website. Mr. Coleman and Mr. Stewart, the program managers to whom the policy applied, certainly had the responsibility to follow the policy. So it is not a case that the Commission on Ethics (COE) ‘dug deeper,’ as Mr. Whittles suggests.

“Instead, the COE and OIG dug in different places, and therefore came up with different conclusions. The COE investigation measured Mr. Coleman and Mr. Stewart’s conduct against the County Code of Ethics and found they did not violate that standard. The OIG investigation measured Mr. Coleman and Mr. Stewart’s conduct against the city’s governing policies and found they violated those standards.”

Complaint filed against O’Rourke

A Boca Raton man has filed a complaint alleging that City Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke violated state election law.

On Feb. 8, O’Rourke emailed an endorsement of Yvette Drucker in the Seat C race against former Councilwoman Constance Scott and Monica Mayotte in the Seat D race against Brian Stenberg. Neither endorsement was surprising.

The problem, Dario Gristina says in his complaint, is that O’Rourke used her city email address. Gristina cites the law that prohibits an elected official from using “his or her official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with an election. . .or influencing another person’s vote.” Gristina, who owns a downtown condo, wants the Florida Elections Commission to investigate.

The complaint is notarized by Kim LeeBove. She’s an executive vice president of Cornerstone Solutions, which is Scott’s campaign consultant. O’Rourke said she is “not aware” of the complaint.

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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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