Boca Helping Hands Action; Updates on Haynie, Ocean Breeze, Mizner Elementary & More

James Gavrilos (left) former executive director of Boca Helping Hands, checks out food items in the BHH pantry. (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

The Boca Raton City Council did two good things last week on one issue.

As the holiday season approaches, the council helped one of the city’s iconic non-profits. At the same time, the council probably saved the city from a lawsuit.

By a 4-1 vote, the council approved an expansion for Boca Helping Hands in the industrial district north of Glades Road west of Dixie Highway. The group has been serving food from its facility at 1500 N.W. First Court. Boca Helping Hands soon will offer career counseling, ESOL classes and wellness training from a building across the street.

Board Chairman Gary Peters told me that the group hopes to open the building in February. Of course, that would be a year after Boca Helping Hands held a ribbon cutting for the same building.

Huh?

In what the city now acknowledges was a staff error, the city issued Boca Helping Hands a building permit. According to Peters, the group spent between $500,000 and $700,000 to fix up the building and received a certificate of occupancy and an occupational license. At that point, the city notified Boca Helping Hands that it would have to reapply all over again.

In his memo to the council, City Manager Leif Ahnell said the Development Service Department staff failed to notice the application to use the second building as an office. Because of the zoning in that area, the change was a conditional use, which the council must approve. Boca Helping Hands had to obtain a similar approval when the group moved to its headquarters in 2009.

Another applicant might have filed a lawsuit. But the courtly Peters, who has volunteered with Boca Helping Hands since after Hurricane Wilma in 2005, said, “We just want to be a partner with the city.”

The city, though, recommended denial of the application to change the building use. “A career training and counseling facility,” Ahnell wrote, “does not meet the intent of the industrial district and would be better suited elsewhere in a district of the city that is similar to the type of operation that is proposed in the application.”

Those who have tried to find a better location in Delray Beach for Caring Kitchen might chuckle at Ahnell’s analysis. In Delray Beach, the problem has been that Caring Kitchen feeds the poor in a residential neighborhood. Delray officials might have loved to find a location in an area zoned for industrial.

Granted, industrial areas are best suited for warehouses like those near Boca Helping Hands’ two properties. Directly north of the second property, however, is Warehouse Pub, a blue-collar bar. Peters said Boca Helping Hands and the bar have an information agreement to share parking spaces.

Parking is most of the issue. Ahnell noted that industrial areas are not usually “heavily traveled.” People drive to get their free lunches, and Peters admitted that there’s a crunch “for about 90 minutes” in the late morning and early afternoon. “I wish they wouldn’t queue up” in front of the building, he said. That’s why Boca Helping Hands won’t open the new office each day until 1 p.m.

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With its approval, the council attached conditions under which Boca Helping Hands must help to keep people from crowding the area and help the appearance, though I’ve seen far less attractive industrial zones. Peters agreed to all the conditions.

Only one person spoke critically. Bill Trinka owns the building next to Boca Helping Hands. He complained that the group’s clients “pee in my Dumpster.” Trinka is a political ally of Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke. They both live in the Golden Triangle. O’Rourke cast the only vote against Boca Helping Hands. Approval by the planning and zoning board was unanimous.

Coincidentally, County Commissioner Steven Abrams recently noted Boca Helping Hands’ contributions to the community that it has served for more than nearly two decades through the six-day-per-week food service; the 5,000 pantry bags a month to 1,200 elementary school students; the job training program and placement rate; the call center for clients—many of them abused women—in crisis; the medical and dental clinics, which are partnerships with Genesis Community Health.

Boca Helping Hands and the Spirit of Giving Network undercut the myth of Boca Raton as a city that cares only about the affluent. O’Rourke said she supports the “mission” of Boca Helping Hands, but she voted against expanding that mission. Her colleagues backed the mission—while addressing compatibility concerns—and avoided a lawsuit that the city almost certainly would have lost. “Oops” is not a strong defense.

Haynie update

Last Wednesday, one day after the council requested it, Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell sent a letter to the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics.

Based on The Palm Beach Post story about Mayor Susan Haynie and James and Marta Batmasian, the letter asks that the advisory opinion allowing Haynie to vote on Batmasian matters “be reviewed” and for the commission to “either affirm the issued advisory opinion or re-address the advisory opinion in an appropriate fashion.”

What happens next? Mark Bannon, the commission’s executive director, said the staff would decide how to respond during a meeting Monday afternoon. That decision, Bannon told me, will become public when the city receives the commission’s response.

Bannon has been with the commission for eight years. Though it may have happened, Bannon said he couldn’t recall another city asking for a review of an opinion issued to one of its elected officials. He added, “We don’t investigate facts.” The government agency supplies those. But the commission can review whether an official’s votes aligned with an opinion.

Haynie’s husband owns a property management company that has a contract with the master association for a Deerfield Beach condo complex. The Batmasians own 1,400 of the 1,600 units. The issue is whether Haynie can vote on matters related to the Batmasians, who are Boca Raton’s largest private property owners.

The 2013 opinion that Haynie could vote was based on “very specific information,” Bannon said. He noted again that the opinion is “narrow.”

Because there were several exchanges over the Haynie opinion between the city attorney’s office and the commission staff, Haynie critics have argued that the legal department persisted just to get a favorable opinion. Bannon said there is “no standard” for how long such discussion takes. A recent opinion involving the town of Jupiter resulted in three meetings, with comment from the officials. Frieser said she did not consult with Haynie during discussion of the Batmasian opinion.

The outcome of the Haynie review is uncertain. The commission could conclude that the votes aligned with the opinion. If the conclusion is otherwise, Haynie could receive anything from a letter of instruction for future votes to fines—$500 per violation—and/or a letter of reprimand.

What Zucaro says

Haynie’s harshest critic is BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro. The Post’s story, Zucaro wrote, “may be the most troubling ethics challenge since the ‘Corruption County’ episodes of the early 2000s. . .”

Given that Zucaro lost to Haynie last March and hopes to prevent her election to the county commission, the “Corruption County” comparison is both inevitable and tempting. Based on the record so far, however, the comparison doesn’t hold up.

The label took hold after three county commissioners and two West Palm Beach city commissioners pleaded guilty to accepting money for political favors. The cases actually occurred late in the last decade, not early. They led to creation of the commission on ethics and the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General.

The guilty county commissioners were Tony Masilotti, Warren Newell and Mary McCarty. Masilotti secretly took roughly $9 million from land deals. Newell got at least $500,000 from a vote to allow rock mining in the western part of the county. McCarty voted to give bond underwriting business to her husband’s company and accepted free rooms from the hospitality company to which she voted to give a contract for the convention center hotel. The company never built the hotel.

In West Palm Beach, Ray Liberti accepted $66,000 and a $2,000 watch for seeking to have the city force a landowner to sell at a low price. Liberti’s “client” turned out to be an FBI informant. Jim Exline failed to report $60,000 after helping a developer subdivide property so he could get a lower tax bill.

In all five cases, money went directly to the official, obviously with no disclosure. There is no evidence of similar reward to Haynie or her husband, though there is a perceived and real disclosure issue. The opinion didn’t name Haynie or Batmasian. Haynie also did not list income from the management company on her state financial disclosure form. The commission at the time didn’t require the names of officials. Haynie said the forms don’t have a listing for a company like her husband’s.

More may emerge. At this point, though, Haynie doesn’t represent a throwback to a forgettable decade.

Ocean Breeze update

I reported that Boca Raton administrators and Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District Executive Director Art Koski were to meet last Wednesday and discuss updated figures for how much it would cost to buy and renovate the Ocean Breeze golf course. The district would own it, but the city would underwrite the bonds.

According to a city spokeswoman and district chairman Bob Rollins, the meeting produced some numbers. The district wants the city to underwrite a $20.8 million bond to buy the course. The full purchase price is $24 million, but the district intends to pay cash for the roughly three-acre portion that is zoned for a hotel. That portion might not have qualified for tax-exempt bonds.

As for creating a new course, the district is seeking an engineer using an inquiry that estimates renovation at $18 million. That figure won’t be final until the district gets a professional estimate. Rollins said the district might ask to have renovation and the land buy as one bond issue, though he also said the district is “exploring other options” to finance the deal.

Koski called it a “positive meeting” and said there will be a follow-up this Friday. City offices are open the day after Thanksgiving. Much work remains, since the bond underwriting will require an agreement between the city and the district. Rollins said the district is working with Lennar on an extension of the purchase deadline. “We hope to get it all wrapped up in January.”

Fire-rescue facility a hot topic

Delray Beach will get its own fire-rescue training facility, but debate at the Nov. 7 city commission nearly blazed out of control.

The facility has been a commission goal for three years. Chief Neal de Jesus, who spent most of this year as the interim city manager, had told commissioners that the facility would cut response times—from six to eight minutes now to between four and six minutes—because the city wouldn’t have to send crews outside of Delray Beach for training. In the best case, de Jesus said, the facility also could make money.

Given the opioid overdose crisis, few cities in South Florida need a well-trained fire department more than Delray Beach. One recent call, de Jesus told me Monday, involved a double heroin overdose and a third person who tried to hang himself in Veterans Park.

Before the commission was a proposal to pay $2.9 million for roughly three acres at Southeast 10th Street and the Florida East Coast Railway tracks. The city has $3.6 million in its current capital budget for land and construction for the project.

As discussion began, however, Ken MacNamee addressed the commission. He contended that the price was too high, based on information from the property appraiser’s office. MacNamee also complained that de Jesus hadn’t provided a business plan. There also were accusations that the city had not involved nearby Osceola Park residents about the location. Oh, and the contract for the land would expire in three days.

Whether causal or coincidental, what might have been a straightforward approval was not that after MacNamee spoke. MacNamee—known for sending caustic emails to commissioners and administrators—has donated $1,000 to Commissioner Shelly Petrolia’s campaign for mayor. Petrolia has acknowledged seeking MacNamee’s input on financial matters.

Petrolia questioned the purchase, saying she wasn’t trying to “put a value on life.” Mayor Cary Glickstein, a MacNamee target, responded, “You are.” From there, things got tense.

Glickstein said the discussion had gotten “borderline ridiculous.” He referred to Delray Beach’s “ghost population” of recovering addicts and scoffed at the contention from MacNamee, whom Glickstein called “a legend in his own mind” and “a buffoon” who knows nothing about municipal budgets.

As he went on, Petrolia tried to interrupt. Glickstein said, “I’m speaking.” Petrolia responded, “Obviously.”

Glickstein accused Petrolia of drinking MacNamee’s “Kool-Aid.” Defending herself, Petrolia said, “Nobody’s dictating to me. Nobody’s feeding me any Kool-Aid.”

Petrolia wanted to delay the decision to a workshop, which would have killed the Southeast 10th Street deal. That motion failed. Glickstein urged for a vote on the purchase. It passed. Jim Chard, who’s running against Petrolia and had expressed reservations, paused before voting yes. Petrolia was the only dissenter.

There did remain the rapprochement between Glickstein and Petrolia, who ran essentially as a pro-reform slate five years ago but have had their differences more recently. Glickstein apologized to Petrolia, but not to MacNamee. He ended things by joking that he and Petrolia had choreographed the exchange because things had been “way too boring” for the last six months.

The meeting lasted almost six hours. Welcome to Delray Beach, City Manager Mark Lauzier.

Moving Mizner

The question of moving Addison Mizner Elementary School to Sugar Sand Park remains open, but momentum seems to be running against the idea.

For one thing, the Boca Raton Sailing and Racquet Club has hired a traffic engineer. The development is across Camino Real from the proposed site at the southeast corner of the park. Residents worry that traffic from the school would affect Camino Real.

For another, more current and future Addison Mizner parents have told me that they like the school where it is. Though traffic backs up in Boca Square around the school, Addison Mizner remains one of the few true neighborhood schools. Parents like being able to walk their children to and from school and for their children to bike home and back when they get older. The plan to add middle school grades means that those parents would retain that neighborhood school through eighth grade.

In addition, one can argue persuasively that the school has stabilized Boca Square. I’ve lived nearby for 32 years, and the neighborhood is just as vital as it was in the mid-1980s. Though the Addison Mizner boundary still would include the current feeder zones and the school site might become a park, the shift could take away something that a middle-class neighborhood has enjoyed. Most parents would not try to walk their kids farther away and across the CSX railroad tracks.

To move the school, the city council would have to lift the conservation easement it placed on those 24 acres at Sugar Sand that the Greater Boca Raton Beach & Park District owns. District Chairman Bob Rollins told me recently that his agency wouldn’t move without knowing whether the council would lift the easement. There’s also the matter of compensation for the district if it gives up the land for the school.

A city spokeswoman said Monday that there has been “discussion” of the easement, but the issue has not been placed on a council workshop agenda.

Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking. The school district still plans to rebuild Addison Mizner as a three-story, K-8 school in Boca Square. That would mean putting Addison Mizner students in the old Verde Elementary for 18 months after completion of the new Verde. Residents of Via Verde and school parents don’t like that option, but much has to happen to avoid it. And after further review, moving Addison Mizner may be unpopular and unhelpful.

GL Homes and the Ag Reserve

I have written about the GL Homes proposal to build more homes than currently allowed in the Agricultural Reserve Area in exchange for the company preserving roughly 4,000 acres outside of the reserve.

If the county commission approved the land swap, West Boynton would feel the impact most. The swap also would undercut efforts to preserve farming in the reserve.

The Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations has hired land-use attorney Richard Grosso of the Everglades Law Center to represent the group in its fight against the swap. It is expected to begin going through county review next month.

Turkey Day

There will be no Thursday post because of the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving.

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