Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Delray Political Gambit Backfires & FAU Search Hits Legal Snag

A political gambit aimed at Delray Beach has backfired.

The goal was to show that the city had overcharged Highland Beach for providing fire-rescue services. Instead, according to a state audit, Highland Beach actually owes Delray Beach $2.2 million.

Two Republican state representatives—Peggy Gossett-Seidman and Mike Caruso—are behind the dispute. Gossett-Seidman’s district includes Boca Raton and Highland Beach, where she was a town commissioner. Caruso once represented Delray Beach. His wife, Tracy Caruso, ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Shelly Petrolia in 2021.

Gossett-Seidman and Caruso serve on the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee. Caruso is an alternating chairman. Last March, they asked the committee to approve an audit of Delray Beach’s contract with Highland Beach. The hearing took place early on a Monday. The city didn’t receive notice until late Friday and scrambled to hire an attorney who attended the hearing and said little as the committee approved the request.

Behind the audit was a long-running dispute between Delray Beach and Highland Beach over the contract’s cost. Highland Beach officials claimed that Delray Beach was overcharging—to the point that the town left the contract and will start its own department next year.

Gossett-Seidman and Caruso clearly hoped that the audit would back up Highland Beach’s gripe. It did the opposite.

That $2.2 million covers from the 2016-17 budget year to the 2020-21 budget year. That’s four times what the city claimed that it was due from Highland Beach. The town also had disputed that lower figure.

Ironically, given the tone of the hearing, the audit criticized Delray Beach for not doing more to collect that $517,654. Example: The city did not seek a mediation hearing, as the contract provides for in financial disputes.

“We are quite pleased with the outcome,” Delray Beach City Manager Terrence Moore told me on Wednesday. Though the findings are labeled “preliminary and tentative,” Moore and other city officials held what he called “an exit conference” Monday with state auditors, indicating that the final report likely won’t have any major changes.

Delray Beach has 60 days to submit a formal response. Moore said he will discuss “next steps” in his Friday information letter to the city commission. 

The audit makes other findings that the city will address. One is that firefighter salaries and benefits didn’t line up with employee records. The audit also noted that turnover in key positions may have contributed to Delray Beach’s failure to accurately bill for services rendered.

Gossett-Seidman’s motivation seemed obvious. There was much speculation in March about Caruso’s. People told me then that he remained bitter about his wife’s defeat, which analysts attributed to her badly run campaign.

Delray Beach officials could argue credibly that Gossett-Seidman—who had been in office just four months—and Caruso abused their office by intervening in a local dispute. The same thing happened several years ago when a state senator with a hidden agenda involved himself in Delray Beach’s debate over whether to lease space for Arts Garage.

City Commissioner Rob Long said, “The irony here is staggering.” Because of what Long called her “vendetta,” he said, Gossett-Seidman and Caruso put Highland Beach on the hook for much more than even Delray Beach had been seeking.

Town residents, Long said, “are going to be left with a high bill (for the new department) and substandard fire service” along with the $2.2 million payment to Delray Beach. “They can thank Peggy-Gossett Seidman.”

Labadie had not seen the audit when I told him the findings on Wednesday. “I’m shocked,” he said. Based on the payroll records Highland Beach provided, “I don’t know how they could have come to that conclusion.” Gossett-Seidman said she had not seen the report.

Delray breaks ground on new fire station

Groundbreaking ceremony for new Delray fire station

Speaking of the Delray Beach Fire Department, the city broke ground this week on the new station at 651 Linton Boulevard. The $11.5 million project will be twice the size of the current station and built to withstand Category 5 winds. According to a news release, construction will be complete in early 2025.

FAU president search in violation of state law

Photo by Alex Dolce

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has concluded that one of the supposed “anomalies” in the Florida Atlantic University presidential search violated state law.

That would be the search committee’s use of a straw poll of the members to gauge sentiment about the applicants. State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues cited that poll when he suspended the search four months ago, after the committee chose three finalists. Rodrigues also cited the search firm’s question to applicants about their sexual orientation.

In her opinion, which the South Florida Sun Sentinel first reported this week, Moody said the poll amounted to an “evasive device” to “circumvent public deliberation.” Though the decision to conduct the poll is part of the meeting record, there was no open discussion of which candidates each committee member favored. The choices went to the search firm, which sent the results to the committee members.

An opinion that FAU sought in July reached the opposite conclusion. After Rodrigues raised the issue, General Counsel David Kian asked Barry Richard to weigh in.

As the former attorney for the Florida Press Association, Richard is an expert on the state’s Sunshine Law. Because the committee members’ choices didn’t amount to binding votes, Richard said, the action met the standards for an exception to the open-meetings law.

It’s ironic to hear Moody be so strict about transparency in this instance. She advocated for the law that keeps the names of university president applicants secret unless they become finalists. And this week, Moody defended Gov. DeSantis’ refusal to disclose the names of people who vet Florida Supreme Court applicants, citing “executive privilege.” A Sunshine Law scholar said Moody’s logic could lead to “unbridled, raw executive power.”

Moody’s opinion surely will be featured next Thursday, when the Board of Governors finally hears the results of the investigation into the FAU search that Rodrigues ordered. I’ll have more in my Thursday post.

Boca introduces ordinance for fining birdfeeders

Boca Raton may go after birdfeeders—meaning people, not the devices you hang on a tree.

Last week, the city council introduced an ordinance that would impose a $100 fine for feeding “pigeons, ducks, and other wildlife in a manner that results in the accumulation of waste, vermin attraction, public disruption, property damage, unpleasant odors, or health and environmental risks.”

According to the staff memo, Mayor Scott Singer requested the proposed ordinance. There is no public discussion during introduction of ordinances, but there likely will be a lot of discussion when the council holds a hearing. That probably will happen at the Nov. 14 meeting.

Boca to discuss limiting public comment time

Also on Nov. 14, the council will debate whether to reduce the time for public comment at meetings from five minutes to three minutes. The council introduced that ordinance last week.

The proposal acknowledges “the importance of public comment” but also cites the need to “improve effectiveness and efficiency” of meetings. Boca Raton is an outlier by giving speakers so much time. Delray Beach allows three minutes, and some local governments have a two-minute limit.

To those who might accuse the city of trying to stifle critical comment, consider this: The most famous political speech in American history—the Gettysburg Address—took roughly three minutes to deliver.

Boca recognized for sustainable sewage practices

Boca Raton has become one of just 47 utilities to earn recognition from the Water Environment Foundation for sustainable practices regarding sewage.

Through its treatment process, the city recovers organic matter that can be used for, among other things, fertilizer. According to a news release, Boca Raton was recognized in 2020 for its program that uses partially treated wastewater for irrigation, thus easing demand for potable water. City officials have made a bigger push in recent years on sustainability.

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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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