New admin for county

Bob Weisman has been Palm Beach County administrator for 24 years. Especially in South Florida, that’s the local government equivalent of  “The Phantom of the Opera,” which has been running on Broadway since 1988. No one lasts that long on such a stage.

Nor has Weisman faced anything like a no-confidence vote. He will leave in August because he wants to retire, not because he’s being forced out. In a few weeks, the county commission will pick his successor. The seven-member commission has a set a deadline of May in hopes of choosing someone in time for Weisman to help with the transition and in case something expected arises with the commission’s choice. There still would be time to name someone else before Weisman departs.

Residents of full-service cities like Boca Raton and Delray Beach might wonder whether the choice matters much to them. It does, for reasons that are obvious and not so obvious.

One obvious reason is that city residents also pay county taxes. In Boca, the county tax is the third-largest item on the bill. In Delray, it’s the second-largest. The administrator prepares the operating budget and supervises the county’s finances. Weisman is proud of pointing out that Palm Beach County’s bond rating is AAA, and that’s with all the bonds that are financing, among other things, the investments in Scripps Florida and the Max Planck Florida Institute—with which Florida Atlantic University soon will start a biotech program.

But there’s much more. Palm Beach County operates the jail, so cities don’t need to have their own. The sheriff is elected separately, but the sheriff’s budget makes up more than half of that county operating budget. Even cities such as Boca Raton and Delray Beach that have police departments can get help from the sheriff’s office on major investigations, and all police departments use the county’s crime lab. The sheriff’s office is the lead county agency on the regional anti-terrorism task force.

The county’s environmental resource management department helps cities with such projects as beach restoration. County staff members help to lobby the Legislature for money to finance such projects. The county runs the bus system. The county park system includes South Inlet Park on the beach in Boca Raton, Green Cay Nature Center west of Delray Beach, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, the Aqua Crest Pool in Delray Beach and regional parks that attract city folk. Commissioner Steven Abrams, whose Boca Raton/Delray Beach-based district includes just a slice of the unincorporated county, agrees that the county matters in ways that residents may not always appreciate.

A search firm and an advisory committee—each commission appointed one member—has cut the field of candidates to six. Four are from out of state, and two are from Weisman’s staff.

Those candidates are Deputy County Administrator Verdenia Baker and Assistant County Administrator Shannon LaRocque. I would be surprised if the commission doesn’t pick one of them. Though he has not decided, Abrams said he would have “complete faith” in Baker or LaRocque to take over.

Obviously, the argument for hiring from within is continuity. Unlike Delray Beach, where so many problems were evident when Louie Chapman was forced out as city manager, county government is running well. Weisman had a famously prickly relationship with former Inspector General Sheryl Steckler, but during her four years the office found nothing terrible in its investigations of the county. And when the office did find problems—as in how the county buys property—Weisman made the recommended changes.

Hiring from within also has been Weisman’s philosophy. As Abrams points out, the leaders of many key departments rose through those departments. Says Abrams, “It’s one of Bob’s qualities.” One can assume that Baker and LaRocque have their jobs because Weisman believes that they could handle his.

The other four contenders appear to have good credentials, but they’re all from out of state: two from Maryland, one from New Jersey and another from Washington, D.C. However capable, they wouldn’t know Florida government. Since there’s no strong case for change, I’m guessing that Baker or LaRocque will be the next county administrator.

Funding the inspector

Having lost in court, the 14 cities suing the county over financing of the Office of Inspector General have asked for a rehearing. They likely won’t get it, which again raised the question of whether Boca Raton and Delray Beach should remain as parties in the lawsuit.

The motion for rehearing carries the names of Delray Beach City Attorney Noel Pfeffer and Boca Raton City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser. Neither city’s elected body discussed whether to ask for the rehearing. At least in the case of Delray Beach, the filing may have been just a formality. Mayor Cary Glickstein said an email that there would not have been enough time for Pfeffer to get “commission direction” on whether to continue Delray’s role in the litigation. At the next commission meeting, Glickstein said, Pfeffer will “seek direction to withdraw or remain. . .”

The supposed process by which these cities mounted the lawsuit remains murky. A spokesman for West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio—the city has done most of the legal work on the lawsuit—said in an email, “There are frequent discussions/phone calls/conversations among representatives of the various cities to talk about the latest developments in the case.” From writing about this case since late 2011, however, I can tell you that many of the cities’ electedrepresentatives don’t have a good handle on the legal arguments or even the basic facts.

In about five pages, two county attorneys flick away the flimsy arguments for a rehearing. The cities raise a new issue that they could have raised at trial, and they reprise the bogus argument that city voters who asked by wide margins for inspector general oversight didn’t know that their city would have to pay for it. In fact, the information was in the ballot language.

The lawsuit is an affront to the voters. Any elected officials who still wish to continue it should consider how this continued resistance looks to the public.

Red light on the red light program

Officials in Boynton Beach thought that their red-light camera program might be the one to survive the many legal challenges to outsourced law enforcement. Wrong.

Last week, Palm Beach County Court Judge Mark Eissey threw out 200 tickets Boynton Beach had issued. Technically, though, the city’s vendor—American Traffic Solutions—issued the tickets. That was the problem.

Six months ago, the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a trial judge who found the city of Hollywood’s red-light camera program unconstitutional. Like most programs in Florida cities and counties, Hollywood allowed American Traffic Solutions to review the photos and decide which were violations. The company then issued citations.

The court ruled that only certified law enforcement personnel can perform those roles. Because a Boynton Beach officer does a review before citations go out, the city believed that its program would survive. Eissey, though, said that because the company issues the citations, the program violates state law.

Boynton’s contract ends next year, and sentiment already was running against the program. Studies are inconclusive as to whether the programs improve safety; some reductions in “T-bone” crashes from running red lights are offset by increases in rear-end collisions as drivers try to avoid getting a ticket.

Boca Raton has suspended its program. Delray Beach was smart enough not to start one. The Legislature might offer Boynton Beach some help, but the smart money would be on Boynton’s program ending—and with it local governments’ Great Recession-era money grab.

About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.