Local TV crews almost never cover Boca Raton City Council meetings. The TV people came Monday, however, hoping for something big.
They didn’t get it.
The crews came for discussion of The Palm Beach Post article that purported to reveal “secret financial ties” between Mayor Susan Haynie and James and Marta Batmasian, the city’s largest private property owners. BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro was behind the story.
Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, Zucaro’s ally, had put the issue on the agenda. Near O’Rourke’s seat on the far left of the dais were gathered Zucaro and some of his BocaWatch acolytes. O’Rourke frequently looked in Zucaro’s direction, sometimes smiling and nodding.
O’Rourke referred to a “series of troubling news articles.” Actually, it was one article on the contract that the property management company owned by Haynie’s husband, Neil Haynie, has with a Deerfield Beach condo community where the Batmasians own 80 percent of the units. The contract pays the company $14,000 per year. I had written about the contract last March, when Zucaro ran unsuccessfully against Haynie. Zucaro had raised the issue as part of his campaign.
When Haynie inquired about a possible conflict, City Attorney Diana Frieser told the mayor that she didn’t see a problem. Haynie, though, asked Frieser to get an opinion from the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics as to whether she had to recuse herself on all Batmasian votes. The opinion came back that Haynie could vote.
BocaWatch had demanded that the council investigate Haynie. O’Rourke called for a “quality, independent review of the process” by which Frieser had obtained the opinion. O’Rourke worried that some of Haynie’s votes “could be legally challenged,” which seems unlikely.
After that, the drama leaked out of the chambers as Frieser in great detail recounted her discussions with ethics commission staff members who were drafting the opinion. Frieser had prepared a timetable of the events between October 2011—when Haynie recused herself from a Batmasian-related vote—and August 2013, when the ethics commission approved the opinion.
Frieser reminded the audience that elected officials have “an affirmative duty” to vote unless there’s a conflict. Of the comment by one ethics commissioner that the contract presented an “appearance of impropriety,” Frieser said the remark was “not relevant to the conflict.”
The Post article made much of the back and forth between the commission and the city attorney’s office. Frieser did not call it a “negotiation.” The city’s request, she said, was “more comprehensive than the draft” that the staff had prepared, which made for more exchanges with the staff. At no point, Frieser said, did the commission find that there was a conflict. Frieser also said she did not “consult” Haynie during the discussions.
Councilman Robert Weinroth accused Frieser of being too “aggressive” to “get a better opinion” and thus creating the controversy. Frieser said she had been “accurate,” not “aggressive,” adding, “Nothing I did altered the opinion.”
When Frieser finished, O’Rourke complained, “This is very legal” and tried to steer the debate away from “deep legal jargon.” Frieser responded with the obvious: “I can’t not make this legal. I was asked to advise about the facts, which are all in the public record. I thought I had to raise relevant legal issues” with commission staffers.
Because the council was meeting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, Scott Singer—who serves as CRA chairman—was running the meeting. After about an hour and a half —“Ninety minutes too long,” Weinroth complained—Singer tried to steer things to a conclusion.
He proposed six changes to the city’s policy for seeking such advisory opinions, in the name of “transparency.” One would require that requests name the official and the person who poses the potential conflict. The Haynie opinion didn’t name her or Batmasian. Among other things, Singer also proposed that the council know of all requests. Haynie agreed on all points.
There remained, however, that question of whether to “investigate” and who might investigate. O’Rourke suggested that the city attorney’s office and even the ethics commission could not participate because they were “involved.” Singer pressed O’Rourke for specifics on her request, but he didn’t get any.
Weinroth responded that even if the council hired “the best ethics lawyer out there,” it would come down to what the state and county ethics commissions decided. He added, correctly, “We don’t have jurisdiction over each other.”
Today’s Post headline said, “Boca council members call for probe of mayor.” Actually, the council kind of agreed that it might be good to review the opinion but reached no consensus on who might do it and how. “Probe” also cast a sinister tone that wasn’t there. Only O’Rourke wanted an “investigation.”
The council meets again in two weeks. We will know whether the controversy stands by whether the TV crews come back.
Opening her remarks on Monday, O’Rourke rejected any comparison between the Batmasian opinion for Haynie and the Batmasian opinion O’Rourke requested herself.
After recusing herself from a vote last June regarding James Batmasian’s Plum Plaza on 20th Street, O’Rourke sought an opinion because Batmasian is a client of the Merrill Lynch office in Boca Raton where O’Rourke’s husband—George O’Rourke—works. The request did not name Batmasian or Merrill Lynch.
Andrea O’Rourke did not see a conflict but wanted confirmation. The ethics commission agreed that she could vote on Batmasian matters. O’Rourke noted the difference between what she considers the “narrow” opinion involving Haynie and hers.
I wrote last week that Batmasian was George O’Rourke’s client. In an email to Boca magazine, George O’Rourke said he had “terminated” that relationship last April, after Andrea O’Rourke’s election to the council.
“My wife and I both agreed,” George O’Rourke said, “that the appropriate thing to do was avoid any appearance of impropriety and took this necessary action. In fact, we went one step further and consulted with (the city attorney) for further clarification on these matters, which prompted an inquiry to the ethics commission regarding the city’s banking relationship(s) with Bank of America, the parent company of Merrill Lynch, in regards to any conflict therein from my employment. The findings from the commission resulted in no conflict.
“Further, my official title at Merrill Lynch as of June 1, 2017 is ‘Senior Consultant, Senior Vice President.’ As of that date I am no longer in a financial advisory position. Mr. Schultz willfully made an attempt to draw myself and my wife into an unrelated matter of great significance using factually incorrect information.”
Zucaro weighs in
Zucaro didn’t let Andrea O’Rourke do all the talking for him on Monday. He took his five minutes with the few others who spoke during public comment.
By that time, Zucaro knew that the council didn’t share his outrage. Nearing the time limit, Zucaro grumped, “Yeah, I know. Give me a break.”
Zucaro wanted to know why Frieser had acted differently with the ethics opinion on Haynie and the ethics complaint he filed three years ago. The council had appointed Deputy City Manager George Brown and Councilman Weinroth to the Boca Raton Airport Authority Board. The council believed that the authority’s attorney at the time had restricted the ability of board members to communicate with the city.
Zucaro filed complaints against Brown and Weinroth with the state commission on ethics, which found no probable cause to investigate. Zucaro asked Frieser why she had notified the council about developments in those cases but not Haynie’s.
Frieser responded that Zucaro’s complaints involved an action of the council. It never has been city policy, Frieser said, to update the council collectively on ethics inquiries by individual members. As noted, the council can change that policy if it wishes.
During its workshop that followed Monday’s CRA meeting, the council had been scheduled to hear an update from the city’s consultant on improvements to Boca Raton’s waterfront parks. It never happened.
Because the Haynie discussion went on so long, the consultants had to leave so they could catch a flight. The waterfront plan is a council priority. City Manager Leif Ahnell said the update would be “rescheduled.”
So is the Haynie controversy now mostly over?
In the political sense, probably not.
Zucaro almost certainly will continue his attempt to undermine Haynie, who is running for the county commission next year. Zucaro tried to get Haynie out of the mayor’s race this year. She refused.
Zucaro stated publicly Monday what many people had known: He has filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics. Haynie did not list income from her husband’s company on her financial disclosure forms. Haynie said the company doesn’t fall into one of the categories on the form. As I wrote last week, this issue could become a problem for Haynie.
Frank Chapman, a Zucaro ally who has run twice unsuccessfully for the city council, asked the state attorney’s office to investigate Haynie. There has been no response. Andrea O’Rourke and/or Zucaro also could ask the county ethics commission to review that Haynie opinion. If O’Rourke does so, however, she would be acting individually, not on behalf of the council.
Absent any other news, the best political gauge will be Haynie’s fundraising for county commission and whether she draws a challenger in the Republican primary. Poor fundraising or a credible opponent could show that she is perceived as suddenly vulnerable.
And, of course, Neil Haynie could end the contract with the condo association.