DeSantis Blindsides Local Governments With Move To Phase 3

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Photo: Matias J. Ocner/TNS via ZUMA Wire

If you live in Boca Raton or Delray Beach and see people gathering in large groups, don’t call the city. Call Gov. DeSantis.

The governor blindsided local governments on Sept. 25 when he not only moved the state into Phase 3 reopening but prohibited cities and counties from enforcing COVID-19 mask requirements on individuals. So the county’s mask ordinance remains in place, but violators can’t be fined. Cities and counties still can fine businesses.

Under the governor’s order, all businesses can open at full capacity. Previously, cities and counties could issue tougher rules at their discretion. Now, local governments can reduce capacity at restaurants only if they “quantify the economic impact … on those restaurants” and “explain why each limitation or requirement is necessary for public health.”

Obviously, no city has the time or staff to check the effect of, say, a 75 percent rule on every restaurants. The second part also should be obvious: limiting indoor gatherings, social distancing and mask-wearing reduce the spread of the virus.

“I was disappointed that (the governor) took the teeth out of the mask ordinance,” said County Commissioner Robert Weinroth, whose district includes Boca Raton and Delray Beach. Weinroth has been the more aggressive commissioners about reopening, and even he is concerned.

Under the order, Weinroth pointed out, counties and cities “can’t do anything” if cases spike. The governor’s premature reopening in May led to a surge during which Florida set a one-day national record for new cases.

DeSantis sent the misleading message that things are back to normal. In fact, under the county’s interpretation of the order, social distancing remains in place. Weinroth has gotten calls from golfers asking if it’s business as usual. “I keep telling them no,” Weinroth said.

The governor’s order also said that cities “should prepare” for a return to in-person meetings next month. The Boca Raton City Council and the Delray Beach City Commission have met virtually since April.

Boca Raton has more flexibility. A spokeswoman said the city may use its facility at 6500 North Congress Avenue rather than council chambers at City Hall. It’s much larger and would allow more social distancing.

Delray Beach doesn’t have such an option. A spokeswoman said the city will plan for a return to City Hall. Though either city could request an extension for virtual meetings, the chance of DeSantis granting one at this point seems low.

And what if someone shows up for a meeting without a mask? Both cities now require masks in their facilities. “That’s a bigger conversation,” said a Boca Raton spokeswoman.

Dr. Anthony Fauci called DeSantis’ order, especially as it applies to bars, “very concerning.” A Boca Raton doctor told me that he participated in a virtual continuing education conference at Boca Raton Regional Hospital. The consensus was that the governor’s order is premature. Though COVID-19 metrics have declined, they remain higher than in the spring.

Eli Rosenberg, a New York City epidemiologist, told the Washington Post last week that the great majority of Americans still don’t have COVID-19 antibodies. “This shows,” he said, that the pandemic is “not over here, not even by a long shot.”

Haynie Trial delayed again

The trial of former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie has been delayed once again.

Haynie was arrested in April 2018 on seven public corruption charges. She has pleaded not guilty. The trial was supposed to begin on Oct. 26, after two other postponements. Jury trials, however, still not have resumed in Palm Beach County because of the pandemic. The parties will gather on Jan. 11 for a status conference.

Bruce Zimet is Haynie’s attorney. He told me Monday that court officials might start soon with some selected trials, perhaps of people “who are incarcerated.” Haynie has been out on bail. “They’ll see how it goes through the end of the year” and then decide whether to resume full-time in 2021. The main issue is safety of jurors.

At this rate, the best case is that it could be three years before Haynie gets her day in court and residents hear testimony about one of the city’s most prominent elected officials. It could have happened pre-COVID, but State Attorney Dave Aronberg assigned a prosecutor, Brian Fernandes, whose other cases kept taking him away from Haynie’s.

Now, Zimet said, Fernandes has left the office. Although his Florida Bar profile still shows Fernandes in that job, the latest hearing documents lists Craig Williams. He was promoted in 2018, just before Haynie’s arrest, when Aronberg demoted Fernandes after internal complaints.

Haynie has submitted a witness list. It includes City Attorney Diana Frieser, who wrote the advisory opinion that Haynie could vote on matters related to Investments Limited. Those votes are at the heart of the charges, and Haynie has cited the opinion in her defense. Also on the list are Bill Hager, a former city councilman and state legislator and Jim Gavrilos, executive director of Boca Helping Hands.

Hager and Gavrilos likely are character witnesses. One intriguing name on the list is Steve Cullen. He’s the former director of the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics. Just before her arrest, Haynie had settled a case with the commission that appeared to end investigations of her votes.

Zimet also has filed Haynie’s discovery list. Among the items are records from Community Reliance—the property management company that Haynie owned with her husband—and the master association for the Tivoli Park condo community in Deerfield Beach. A key issue is a contract Community Reliance had with the association. Investments Limited owns most of the units in Tivoli Park.

Zimet reiterated that there has been no talk on either side about a plea deal.

Is Doc’s Going Down or Going Uptown?

There’s a plan to save Doc’s All American in Delray Beach. But the plan is controversial. It goes before the city commission today for first reading.

The proposal involves two adjoining properties—the one on 10 North Swinton Avenue that is home to Doc’s and its famous ice cream and burgers—and the one on 37 West Atlantic Avenue that is home to a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise. Both sites are in the Old School Square Historic Arts District (OSSHAD) but the city consider both structures “non-contributors” to the designation.

Under the deal, the owners would preserve Doc’s in return for a land-use change that would allow a three-story, office and retail project to replace the Dunkin’ Donuts. It also would replace the restaurant’s parking and all curb cuts. Doc’s would be gutted, get a makeover and become part of the project.

Despite the city’s comments about the buildings, the OSSHAD is on the National Register of Historic Places and its local counterpart. Feelings among some in the city run high about these two parcels, which total about 0.6 acres.

In addition, the developer behind the proposal is Steve Michael. He once tried to develop, under the name Midtown, the properties that now are part of the proposed Sundy Village under new ownership. Many preservationists in the city didn’t like Midtown when the city commission approved it in 2018.

In July, the Historic Preservation Board unanimously recommended denial of the Doc’s project. The Downtown Development Authority recommended approval, but by a vote of only 4-3. The Planning and Zoning Board recommended approval by a vote of 5-1.

And more on Caruso’s defunding allegation

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Here’s one more thought on state Rep. Mike Caruso and his false claim of Delray Beach “defunding” the police department.

Caruso made that accusation in a series of emails after reading a misleading story in the Palm Beach Post. It quoted Police Chief Javaro Sims as saying that the $421,000 cut in overtime would increase crime. In fact, Sims does not believe that more crime will result from less overtime.

In fact, the overall police budget increased by roughly $1 million. Caruso refused to set the record straight, even when the city explained that Sims had been referring to a three percent cut that the commission never considered.

Caruso lives in Delray Beach and represents the city as the representative from House District 89. His recent actions amount to constituent disservice.

PGA sets a date with Boca

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There’s a new sponsor and a new date for the PGA Champions Tour event in Boca Raton.

The sponsor is TimberTech, which makes material for outdoor decks. The new date is Oct. 26-Nov. 1. The event again will be at Broken Sound’s Old Course. Boca Raton has hosted a Champions Tour event since 2007.

Normally, the event takes place in February. Because of the pandemic, the PGA combined the senior tour events into a 2020-21 season. According to a news release, without TimberTech’s involvement, there would have been no tournament in Boca Raton this cycle.

As with so many things these days, details remain. Boca Raton gives money toward the event and provides services. The city raised its contribution one year when no sponsor emerged. A city spokeswoman said, “There are many specifics that are obviously still up in the air, but the city is still planning to support, just not sure how much or in what capacity.”

COVID and property values

I have written about the potential threat to city budgets from a COVID 19-related decline in the value of commercial property. In following this topic, I came across a figure that might interest local officials.

Cushman and Wakefield is a national commercial real estate services firm. The company estimates that the United States has “both the most square feet of retail space per capita and the lowest retail sales per square foot when compared to other industrialized economies.” Cushman and Wakefield forecasts a “rationalization of some of this supply,” during and after the pandemic. That means fewer brick-and-mortar stores.

Clarification

I recently wrote about Boca Raton’s utilities department receiving a national award. One reason for the recognition was the city’s reclaimed water program.

A city spokeswoman wanted me to be clear on the program’s numbers. It produces between 11 million and 12 gallons of water per day that is suitable for irrigation but isn’t potable. As a result, the program preserves 4.1 billion gallons of fresh water each year.

Unruly barbershop drama

Sigh. “Florida Man” is now Boca Raton Man.

The Florida Man meme depicts Sunshine State males accused of bizarre, sometimes criminal, behavior. Said behavior often arises out of odd circumstances.

According to the Boca Raton Police Department, an argument last week between a local barber, John Mario Digiovanni, and two of his customers resulted in Digiovanni shooting at them. The men were mad that Digiovanni had missed appointments for haircuts and let him know about it.

They met to supposedly resolve things. Digiovanni said the salon had been closed because of Yom Kippur. According to investigators, Digiovanni got angry when one of the men noted that the barber is Italian, not Jewish.

Digiovanni fired three shots, which fortunately missed both men. He faces two counts of attempted first-degree murder with a firearm.