Saturday, September 30, 2023

Takeaways From the Haynie Hearing, Downtowner Blues and More

Two things became clear during the hearing Tuesday afternoon on the public corruption case against former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie.

The first is that a trial—if it happens—remains months away. Haynie’s attorney, Bruce Zimet, predicted that nothing would happen at least until 2019. The other is that this case matters a lot to the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office.

After perhaps 20 minutes of arguments, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Glenn Kelley denied Haynie’s motion to dismiss the seven charges. Kelley’s ruling was not a surprise. Zimet acknowledged that he wasn’t trying to end the case on Tuesday.

Instead, Zimet wants more details. His issues, Zimet said, “can be cleaned up relatively easily” in the charging documents. Among other things, Zimet wants prosecutors to specify what benefit Haynie allegedly received in return for the four votes the probably cause affidavit says she cast for items related to James and Marta Batmasian.

The master association of the Deerfield Beach condo complex in which the Batmasians own most of the units had a contract with the property management company owned by Haynie and her husband, Neil Haynie. The contract started in 2010, when Haynie was a member of the council. She became mayor in 2014. Beyond that, Zimet is saying, what did Haynie supposedly receive?

After the hearing, Zimet promised “more motions.” My take is that he intends to keep poking at the case to see what the prosecution has. He continues to insist that the charges don’t give Haynie enough information to mount a credible defense.

Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes argued the prosecution’s side. State Attorney Dave Aronberg demoted Fernandes last March from his position as chief assistant in charge of day-to-day operations. An investigation determined that Fernandes’ style had been “intimidating.”

Fernandes is now the lead public corruption prosecutor. In the courtroom for the arguments was Mike Edmonson, Aronberg’s executive assistant and spokesman.

Fernandes said prosecutors “corrected all defects” in the original charges when they filed their response to Zimet’s first motion to dismiss. Haynie, Fernandes said, took “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from the Batmasians and lied five times under oath during questioning by an investigator for the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics.

Zimet’s “disappointment” at the language of the charges, Fernandes said, “does not equal dismissal.”

The next scheduled proceeding is a status conference on Oct. 26. Haynie was not in the courtroom Tuesday, but she must appear at the status conference. A reporter asked Zimet if he would continue to push the idea that the charges were intended to keep Haynie from winning a seat on the county commission. Zimet said, “Everything is in play.”

Boca downtown shuttle

The Boca Raton City Council finally acknowledged after two years that it likely will take public money to attract and keep a private downtown shuttle service.

At Wednesday’s community redevelopment agency meeting, a principal of the Round the Town told council members that he needs more revenue than just from advertising on his two vehicles. He and Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke spoke of a “partnership” with the city. That means “subsidy.” No one discussed an amount.

Round the Town is the second attempt at downtown service. The Downtowner left after getting what City Manager Leif Ahnell called “a very lucrative offer” from Tampa. The Tampa Bay Times reported that the Downtowner got $700,000 in public money two years ago to provide free, app-based, point-to-point service.

After the Downtowner blew town, city council members, acting as the CRA board, were ready to seek proposals for a subsidized service. Then Round the Town arrived, and the council pulled back to see if the results were different. Which they weren’t.

So on Wednesday the council asked staff to freshen up the Request for Proposals and send it out. Ahnell estimated that it could take six months to get responses. But council members will have to be clear about what they want.

A downtown shuttle service could receive money from the CRA under its mission of economic development. If the council wants to include the beach, however, the money could not come from the CRA. The beach lies outside the CRA boundaries. Does the council want to start small and expand? There’s been talk of extending service to Florida Atlantic University.

O’Rourke argued for a subsidy, and she has a point. Parks are just one amenity that the city doesn’t expect will break even and thus are, in effect, subsidized. Why not find money to help people get around downtown? But after talking for so long about the shuttle and hoping for what won’t happen, the council should determine how much money Boca Raton would need to provide a good service and decide whether the investment is worth it. Otherwise, the council should drop the idea.

Delray Downtowner blues


Meanwhile, the Downtowner caused a stir in Delray Beach by announcing on Facebook that it was leaving. The post prompted frantic emails and phone calls to city commissioners. They discussed it during the Sept. 6 meeting that was supposed to be about the budget. More people, though, seem to care about the Downtowner.

Actually, Delray Beach has two downtown transit systems. The other is the city-financed trolley that gets roughly $1 million in subsidies but gets little love from residents. At that meeting, speakers praised the Downtowner and practically spat on the trolley.

As with other issues in Delray Beach, this one has lingered like a rude guest and spawned rumors. Last year, the city signed a new deal with the trolley operator that seemed like a five-year agreement but really was for one year with four, one-year renewals and seemed like a stopgap solution. The city also began preparing a Request for Proposal (RFP) seeking bids for a shuttle service that everyone could like.

Problem is, that RFP predated the current city manager—Mark Lauzier—and the current city commission, which was elected in March and has three new members. So when Lauzier told the commissioners that they only could vote up or down on the staff’s choice from among the bidders, the commissioners weren’t happy. They wanted more say on the requirements in the proposal.

City Attorney Max Lohman said such action would put any bid “at risk.” If the commission wanted to negotiate with companies that had submitted bids under proscribed rules, it would be better to “start over.” The “winning” company could claim that the commission broke the rules.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia, noting the public reaction to the Downtowner rumors, said she and her elected colleagues would have to answer to the public in a way the staff wouldn’t. She asked that staff bring back the issue at the meeting in two weeks.

City Commissioner Ryan Boylston told me that he understands public perception of the trolley. Boylston said, however, that the trolley draws residents of the northwest and southwest neighborhoods who need a way to reach the Tri-Rail station. Boylston said the trolley also gets downtown employees to work.

I’ll have more when the shuttle issue comes back to the city commission.

Boca pesticides?  

Will Boca Raton base decisions on science or passion?

A small group of residents has urged the city to stop using synthetic herbicides—like Roundup—and pesticides in beachfront parks. They claim that the chemicals ravage flora and fauna. They had a regular platform on BocaWatch until the Aug. 28 special election.

Their persistence led to Wednesday’s presentation at the city council workshop by Parks and Recreation Director Michael Kalvort, Sustainability Director Lindsey Roland Nieratka and Greg Stevens, who’s in charge of park maintenance. Over nine months, the city studied the use of synthetics compared to organic bug and weed killers at Spanish River, Red Reed and South Beach parks.

The conclusion? Exclusive use of organics would cost more and produce no better—and probably worse—results.

Kalvort acknowledged that residents’ expectations for parks can vary. Some like a wilder look. More people, however, probably enjoy sand over weeds. Kalvort acknowledged that organic herbicides might get rid of weeds after treatment. But the weeds grow back, he said, much sooner than with synthetics. More frequent treatment means more expense, for product and staff time.

Last month, a California jury awarded $289 million to a pest control worker who said he got cancer from using Roundup. Monsanto, which makes Roundup, will appeal. Despite the verdict, national and international health organizations are divided on whether there is a link between Roundup and cancer.

Kalvort proposed four options. The city could go back to using Roundup exclusively or the city could go to exclusive organic use and more hand pulling of weeds. That option would cost an estimated $300,000 more.

The council seemed to favor a short-term approach that involves more use of native plants, which require fewer chemicals, and more study of non-synthetic methods. Kalvort wouldn’t commit himself to any of the options. Organic advocates, though, want the city to test a machine that kills weeds with steam. Kalvort agreed to do so. Such machines weigh about 500 pounds and require trailers.

Council members praised Kalvort for the detail in the presentation. Science seems to favor synthetics, with proper precautions. To believe otherwise would be to believe that Kalvort and others wish to expose city employees to serious health risks and the city to massive litigation.

Last year in Delray Beach, however, city commissioners heard all the science about a plan to trim sea grapes on the beach and still approved a lesser alternative after a few beach residents protested. The commission pandered to a few at the expense of the many.

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke told the Roundup critics, “Your passion is compelling.” What matters, however, is the science.

Abrams up for job

Former Boca Raton Mayor and Palm Beach County Commissioner Steven Abrams is term-limited in November. Next week, he interviews for a new job.

Abrams has applied to be executive director of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which operates Tri-Rail. Abrams regularly takes Tri-Rail to his commission offices in Delray Beach and West Palm Beach.

Director Jack Stephens retires on Dec. 31. Abrams is one of five finalists. The 10-member board will interview the candidates on Tuesday and pick one on Sept. 28.

Golf cart menace

Councilwoman Monica Mayotte

Good for Monica Mayotte.

At Wednesday’s workshop meeting, the Boca Raton city councilwoman complained about the use of golf carts on public streets. It’s illegal, but that hasn’t stopped parents from buying them and letting their children drive them.

Mayotte offered parents an incentive to shun the expensive nuisances. If police ticket an underage driver, it means a delay in the child getting his or her driver’s license. Parents who anticipate that an additional driver can reduce their carpool time should pay attention.

All hands on deck

Mayotte also noted that Wednesday marked just the second meeting since her election in March at which the city council had a full complement of five members.

She was right. Former Mayor Susan Haynie attended one meeting after Mayotte took office. She missed the second one because she was turning herself in at the Palm Beach County Jail to face those corruption charges. Boca Raton no longer has to worry about the council tying 2-2 on big issues.

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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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