Local election round up and some notes on the city attorney model

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Home rule

Last Friday was the candidate qualifying deadline for the Palm Beach County Commission and the Florida Legislature. Races that involve Boca Raton and Delray Beach saw one big surprise and one lingering question.

Let’s start with the question.

It concerns Mack Bernard, the former Delray Beach city commissioner and Florida House member who is running for the District 7 county commission seat. The district is oddly shaped, taking in the West Palm Beach area and stretching south on the barrier island before moving inland to include Boynton Beach east of Interstate 95 and most of Delray Beach south to Linton Boulevard.

It is the commission’s minority-access seat, having changed only slightly since voters created the district by expanding the commission in 1988. Bernard is Haitian-American. He is challenging incumbent Priscilla Taylor, who is also African-American. Both  candidates are Democrats.

When Bernard served on the city commission and in the Legislature, he lived in Bexley Park, a northwest Delray Beach neighborhood that is west of I-95. According to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s Office, Bernard and his wife have owned the house since 2005.

That 4,400-square-foot house, however, is in County Commission District 4, which Steven Abrams represents. Bernard and his wife are listed as owners. County commission candidates must live in the district not when they take office but when they qualify.

Last October, according to property records, Bernard bought a roughly 1,800-square-foot home in Boynton Beach near Bethesda Medical Center. That house is within District 7. Bernard is the only owner listed.

Richard Giorgio, Taylor’s campaign consultant, told me Wednesday that the Boynton Beach home is a “smokescreen” because Bernard and his family continue to spend most of their time at the Delray Beach house. Taylor, Giorgio said, intends to make Bernard’s residency an issue in the campaign. Voting takes place Aug. 30. If no candidate got a majority, the two who received the most votes would have a runoff in the Nov. 8 general election.

Bernard denied Giorgio’s accusation, saying he has transferred his voter registration and driver’s license to the Boynton Beach address. Those are among the 10 criteria property appraisers can use for determining someone’s primary address and being able to approve a homestead exemption. Owners can get a homestead only on their primary residence. “I have met all the requirements” for residency, Bernard said.

As to where he actually spends his time, Bernard said, “I sleep there every night,” meaning the house in Boynton Beach. Bernard said his wife “sleeps there five or six nights a week” as the family is “transitioning.”

Bernard said he intends to shift the homestead exemption from the house in Delray Beach to the house in Boynton. His children, Bernard said, attend Banyan Creek Elementary, which is less than a mile from the Delray Beach house. Because it’s a choice school, Bernard said, they would continue to attend. Banyan Creek is 6.5 miles from the Boynton Beach house.

Bernard got into the race when Taylor announced her intent to seek the Palm Beach-Martin congressional seat that Patrick Murphy is leaving to run for the Senate. Taylor, however, dropped out after a wealthy Democrat got in.

That delay helps to explain Bernard’s fund-raising advantage. Through early June, he had received roughly $150,000 to Taylor’s $84,000, despite her advantage as an incumbent. Not surprisingly, a significant chunk of Bernard’s money comes from Delray Beach. Notably, some donating the maximum $1,000 have or have had business with the city. The obvious link is City Commissioner Al Jacquet, Bernard’s fellow Haitian-American and longtime political ally.

Bernard received $3,000 from iPic and related interests after Jacquet voted last year for iPic’s downtown Delray project. Bernard has received several thousand dollars from individuals and entities tied to Atlantic Crossing. Jacquet voted against the project in 2012, but more recently voted not to sue the developers.

Those crossover contributions may be an issue in the campaign. For sure, we’ll hear a lot about where Mack Bernard sleeps.

The Sachs precedent

Residency controversies involving politicians are not new for Delray Beach.

In 2012, Maria Sachs won the state Senate seat that included most of Delray Beach. Her West Boca home, however, was outside the district.

Sachs claimed residency at a condo in Fort Lauderdale, in the southern half of the district, but neighbors told reporters that they never saw Sachs there. A TV station staked out the West Boca house and found that Sachs had been sleeping there. Oh, and Sachs had been renting the Lauderdale condo from a lobbyist.

At one point, Sachs tried to claim that spending time in the district mattered more than living in the district. She finally established a residency in downtown Delray, resolving the issue enough that she was re-elected in 2014. Sachs chose not to run this year in the redrawn district.

Irv returns

The big qualifying surprise was state Rep. Irving Slosberg’s decision to challenge Sen. Jeff Clemens in the newly drawn District 31. (The Legislature had to redraw all 40 districts after losing a challenge to the 2012 map.) This surprise also raises a residency issue.

Slosberg lives in the West Boca neighborhood of Mediterrania, near Boca Grove Plantation. That’s in District 29. It runs north as far as Wellington, and also includes Boca Raton, Highland Beach and a portion of northwest Broward County.

The prediction had been that Slosberg would run in his against state Rep. Kevin Rader in the Aug. 30 Democratic primary for District 29. Rader’s house, far west of Delray Beach, is in the district. Also, Clemens is the incoming Democratic leader in the Senate.

Yet Slosberg is running in a district where he doesn’t live against someone whom the Florida Democratic Party wants to focus on gaining seats statewide from the new map. And some people still wonder why the Republicans have controlled Florida politics for nearly 20 years.

Slosberg, whose financial disclosure forms have listed his net worth at roughly $7 million, has shown that he will self-finance a campaign like this. In 2006, he loaned himself nearly $3 million in the state Senate primary against Ted Deutch. Still, Slosberg lost. Deutch now represents the area in Congress.

In keeping with what voters demanded when they approved the Fair Districts Amendments six years ago to limit gerrymandering, the new map splits far fewer cities. District 31 includes all of Delray Beach and areas north to Lake Worth. As noted, District 29 includes all of Boca Raton. Obviously, however, the new map couldn’t prevent a split within the Democratic Party.

City attorney or contractor?

As the Delray Beach City Commission has debated the city’s legal department, a key issue has been whether the city could save money by contracting with a private firm—as Boynton Beach does—or sticking with its own department – as Boca Raton does. Trying to compare Delray and Boca, however, shows how misleading such comparisons can be.

Like Delray Beach, Boca Raton has a five-lawyer staff, under the supervision of City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser. Boca added a lawyer this year. Boca Raton’s department has two administrative staffers. Delray Beach’s has three. The budgets are about the same: $1.3 million in Delray and $1.4 million in Boca.

Since Boca has roughly 30,000 more residents, one might presume that Delray Beach is overstaffed or paying too much. A closer look, however, shows that the departments operate differently.

Boca Raton’s lawyers don’t handle any of cases claiming damages against the city. A Boca spokeswoman said the city’s risk management deals with all claims. When a case can’t be resolved and a lawsuit results, the city hires outside counsel. Boca Raton put $900,000 into this year’s budget for such work.

Delray Beach also uses outside lawyers, notably in the Atlantic Crossing litigation. Staff lawyers, however, review cases and represent the city at trial. I know this first-hand, having been in the jury pool last summer for a personal-injury case in which current Interim City Attorney Janice Rustin and then staffer-Michael Dutko represented the city. And won.

So as commissioners consider the best option for Delray Beach, they have to make in-depth comparisons, not surface assumptions. It’s like shopping for any major purchase. Value matters more than price.

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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.