Office of Inspector General Addresses Delray Ethics Case, Traffic Issues in Boca Raton, and More

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Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

Late last year, the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics cleared two former Delray Beach administrators on allegations that they misused their office. The Office of Inspector General just came to a different conclusion.

In June 2019, Michael Coleman and Jamael Stewart resigned as the top two officials of the Neighborhood and Community Services Department. This happened under then-Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus. In their lawsuits against the city, Coleman and Stewart allege that they were told they could quit or be fired and that they faced multiple investigations.

The core charge is that Coleman and Stewart funnelled grant money from Waste Management and the Caron Foundation to preferred non-profit organizations. Though an ethics commission lawyer found problems with the grant program, she also found “no evidence” that Coleman or Stewart circumvented the process “to give a special benefit.”

Yet the inspector general’s office, in a report released Tuesday, found “sufficient evidence” to support the allegation that Coleman and Stewart approved grants to organizations that did not submit applications or did not go through the required city review. The office’s investigation also found “sufficient evidence” to support the allegation that Coleman and Stewart “failed to avoid conflicts of interest between their personal interests and the city’s interests in dealing with certain organizations seeking grant funds from the city, or leveraged their influence for personal endeavors.”

According to the report, Coleman oversaw the award of money to 32 groups outside of the usual processes. One of them was Living Skills in the Schools, a substance abuse program for youths that got $31,300 in 2016 and 2018.

After receiving the money, the report said, the group sent a letter to Riviera Beach recommending Coleman as a potential police chief. Coleman spent 20 years with the Delray Beach Police Department, retiring as a captain. Riviera Beach’s chief was retiring. A similar letter went to Boynton Beach.

A $4,500 grant went to a group called Prep and Sports. According to the report, Coleman had founded it, and documents listed Stewart and vice-president and co-founder.

The OIG probe led to other examples that “did not appear to violate the city’s policies, processes or procedures.” There also was no evidence to support a charge that Stewart “solicited contributions for a non-profit under false pretenses.”

Investigators did find that Coleman used a city credit card to purchase $140 worth of trophies for Stewart and Stewart’s cousin “that did not serve a public purpose.” The report recommends that Delray Beach seek reimbursement from Coleman.

Not surprisingly, given the lawsuits, the city agreed with the findings. In a letter, Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez said the city had adopted the report’s recommndations.

Also not surprisingly, Coleman and Stewart disagreed, through their attorneys. Coleman declined to meet with the inspector general investigators. Stewart, the report said, answered questions for an hour–with his attorney present–before ending the session and asking to “recant.”

In their response, the two men restate the narrative in their litigation: that former Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher initiated the “allegations” against them in retaliation for “their coming forward and exposing Fisher’s performance issues.”

As Coleman and Stewart tell it, they were intimidated into resigning. They allege that the city only had filed complaints with the ethics commission, inspector general and state attorney’s office and no investigations had started. The state attorney’s office has taken no action.

Coleman and Stewart were the highest-ranking African-American administrators in City Hall when they resigned. Their case has been an issue among minority residents and may be an issue in the March 9 election.

“We respect the inspector general, but we toally disagree with the findings” said John Whittles, who represents Coleman and Stewart. The findings, he claims, are “based on a policy that nobody (in the city) talked about and nobody followed.” All the office’s findings “springboard from that errant conclusion.”

The ethics commission, Whittles said, “dug deeper.” Coleman and Stewart, he added, “were singled out.”

Whittles said Coleman, Stewart, de Jesus and Fisher have been deposed. So have Internal Auditor Linda Davidyan, who helped build the case against Coleman and Stewart, and Human Resources Director Duane D’Andrea. Speaking of the lawsuit, Whittle said, “I don’t see a settlement in sight.”

Boca traffic issues

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, downtown traffic in Boca Raton seemed, well, less than a priority. Then, on Dec. 3, came a letter to the city from the planning and zoning board.

It called for “reconsideration” of the intersection at East Palmetto Park Road and Fifth Avenue. The city, the board said, should promote “multimodal mobility.” That’s a bureaucratic way of saying that the city should make it easier for people who are walking or biking, not just driving.

You can imagine city planners rolling their eyes when the letter arrived. In recent years, this portion of the city has received an outsized share of attention. The city has been whipsawed between the conflicting demands of neighbors who want slower traffic and emergency management officials who emphasize that Palmetto Park Road is a hurricane evacuation route. Turn lanes already have come and gone, depending on the public mood of the moment.

The planning board cited the need to address traffic between that intersection and where Palmetto Park Road meets A1A. Residents along that beachside stretch have organized enough that they will make a presentation at Monday’s city council workshop meeting about what the agenda calls “Improved Safety on East Palmetto Park Road.”

What will come out of this discussion? An election looms on March, so promises may follow, even if there’s little room for much “reconsideration.” The planning board letter acknowledges that the right-of-way is “limited.”

Board members urge bike lanes, more landscaping, fewer parking spaces and, perhaps, narrowing the road. “The board recommends that the city council initiate such design changes and begin efforts to identify funding for the improvements.”

How easy they make it sound.

Boca speeders

Other downtown Boca Raton residents are complaining about one of the most intractable urban problems: fast cars.

In recent weeks, social media posts and emails to city council members have cited drivers who race each other or simply floor it between Mizner Boulevard and Camino Real. Another bad stretch is on West Palmetto Park Road between Fourth and Ninth avenues.

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who lives downtown, said at a recent meeting, “I see it for myself.” As a city spokeswoman points out, however, by the time a resident sees and reports such incidents, the hot-rodders often are gone. To assign several officers each night would divert resources from other parts of the city for what often is a civil crime–speeding.

Councilwoman Monica Mayotte noted that the department has been writing “more citations.” And if a driver’s actions cross from careless to reckless, that does become a crime. It’s one of those problems that police departments find hard to target but residents find hard to ignore.

Delray continues fight against panhandling

Panhandling is another nuisance crime, but one that Delray Beach believes has gotten out of control. At 1 p.m. today, the city commission will hold its second and final hearing on a proposed ordinance that would ban “aggressive” panhandling citywide and all panhandling in some areas.

The previous hearing lasting five hours before the commission gave preliminary approval to the ordinance. Testimony featured such moments as a manager at Luna Rosa Restaurant noting that because he had been in the Navy for 20 years, “I know urine when I smell it.” He was referring to panhandlers relieving themself in public near the beach.

If you wonder why the testimony is so long and drawn out, the city is compiling a record, as in a trial, to insulate the ordinance against potential litigation. Panhandling bans touch on First Amendment issues.

Approval of the ordinance is certain. The city’s legal team wants to make sure that a successful defense of any lawsuit also is certain.

PGA will return to Boca

Boca Raton will continue to host a Professional Golfers Association event in 2021.

TimberTech, which makes composite products for decks and porches, announced this week that it will again sponsor the Champions Tour–formally the Senior Tour–stop at the Old Course at Broken Sound.

The dates are Nov. 1-7. The event, which raises money for such charitable causes as Boca Raton Regional Hospital, has been in Boca Raton since 2007. Because of the pandemic, the PGA consolidated the 2020 and 2021 tours. The TimberTech Tournament will be the last of three for the year, part of a “Super Season” to determine the tour champion.