Saturday, May 28, 2022

New Council Dynamic, Zucaro Leaving BocaWatch and Other News

Political news in Boca Raton continued to happen even after Election Day last Tuesday.

On Friday, Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher confirmed that Andy Thomson won the race for Seat A on the city council. Thomson’s margin over Kathy Cottrell was 32 votes, Boca Raton’s closest election in 17 years. Bucher will certify the results this week. Thomson and Mayor Scott Singer, who defeated BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro, will be sworn in at the organizational meeting next Wednesday afternoon.

Thomson’s victory will affect the dynamic of the new council. If Cottrell had won, she might have joined Monica Mayotte to complete a bloc aligned with Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who endorsed Mayotte last year and Cottrell this year. O’Rourke sent an email touting Cottrell’s kickoff event and observed the Thomson-Cottrell recount at the supervisor’s office in Riviera Beach.

With a Cottrell victory, political watchers predicted, O’Rourke might have become a “shadow” mayor. Thomson, however, campaigned more in favor of growth management than against “overdevelopment.” Such an approach is closer to that of Councilman Jeremy Rodgers.

As for Singer, he took office in 2014 with support from the city’s establishment. In 2016, however, he broke with the rest of the council to oppose a restaurant on the Wildflower property and became a favorite of BocaWatch and Zucaro. (More about them in the next item.)

Eventually, though, Singer and Zucaro had a falling out. Each has a reason for why it happened. Singer received all the major endorsements in the special election and has voted for most development projects in the last four years, but one of his mailers said he “has the guts to say no to developers when they ask for too much.”

For all the focus on development, however, Boca Raton faces many other issues. All could require decisions before the next election in March 2020.

The city will lose $1.7 million in property tax revenue if voters increase the homestead exemption in November. Meanwhile, the cost to provide services goes up. Progress is slow on the planned college student district near Florida Atlantic University. The council must decide whether to outsource residential garbage pickup. GL Homes may complete its purchase of the western golf course during the term of this council. If so, what should the city do with that $65 million? Should part of it go for a new downtown “campus” centered around City Hall and the library? What more could the city do on school crowding and safety?

Like O’Rourke, Thomson won a three-way race and thus got a plurality, not a majority. That, combined with the closeness of this year’s race, reinforces the idea that the council must seek compromise and base decisions on what’s best for the city as a whole.

Boca Raton has nearly 100,000 residents. Only a handful are regulars at council meetings. Outside that echo chamber is a diverse, active city. City officials need to seek out the widest possible viewpoints.

The iPic debate in Delray Beach three years ago featured many new speakers, most of whom were younger and favored the project. Their comments likely made the difference. My guess is that, as with Mizner Park in Boca, Delray Beach residents one day will wonder why there was so much opposition.

Washington already is giving us minority rule. We don’t need it in Boca Raton.

Negative mailers

Councilman-elect Andy Thomson

It’s worth noting that Thomson used no negative mailers against Cottrell. It was by design.

Thomson told me about hearing dismay from many residents about attack ads in general and especially the tone of the Republican primary for Florida House 89. The district includes Boca Raton. Michael Caruso and Matt Spritz hammered each other before Caruso won by depicting Spritz as a Trump critic.

For her part, Cottrell sent only one negative mailer about Thomson among those I received. Cottrell mostly emphasized her Boca Raton roots and got testimonials from other long-time residents.

As the Seat 4 totals showed, Boca Raton has many newer residents who see the city and its priorities differently than older residents. Thomson got a smaller percentage than O’Rourke in 2017 and Mayotte last year, but he got 2,300 more total votes than O’Rourke and 1,700 more than Mayotte. Thomson also got 3,300 more votes than he did when losing to O’Rourke.

The story behind this special election remains turnout, which was higher than in a normal year because the election was on the state primary ballot. I’ll have further review when the precinct-by-precincts results come out.

And the schedule is jammed

Perhaps the busiest day in the city council’s history awaits Boca Raton’s new lineup.

Wednesday will start with that organizational session at 1 p.m. After that will come the community redevelopment agency meeting, a special meeting of the council, the council workshop meeting and the regular council meeting. The city crammed the meetings into one day to avoid a conflict with Rosh Hashanah, which begins Sunday evening and concludes Tuesday evening.

And on Thursday, the council holds the first of two hearings on next week’s budget.

Zucaro to leave BocaWatch?

Al Zucaro

Boca Raton’s other post-election news came when Al Zucaro told The Coastal Star that he would not run again for public office in the city and wants someone to take over the BocaWatch website.

Zucaro lost to Singer by nearly 30 points last week, his second unsuccessful run for mayor in 18 months. In a classless statement on BocaWatch, Zucaro blamed his defeat on too many people voting.

Turnout was 59 percent higher than it was in 2017, when Zucaro lost to Susan Haynie, but Zucaro’s vote total increased by only 18 percent. Singer, however, bumped his total 47 percent even from his successful race in 2017 against an unqualified opponent.

Singer, Zucaro said, secured support from U.S. Reps. Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel. They’re Democrats. Singer and Zucaro are Republicans. Zucaro said Singer used the statewide primary to capitalize on high Democratic registration within Boca Raton.

Zucaro’s theory is wrong. Suburban Boca Raton might be more heavily Democratic, but the city itself is not. That’s why a Republican has held the Boca Raton seat in the Florida House for nearly 20 years.

Zucaro also claimed that Singer’s campaign sent “pre-filled out absentee ballots to the entire voting community.” Actually, that would be a crime. Singer sent application forms for absentee ballots—now called “vote by mail”—with some information filled out. Voters had to complete and sign the form. Only then would they get a ballot.

The practice is legal. The forms got more complicated after accusations two years ago that candidates for county commission and the Legislature exploited the use of absentee ballots.

Especially in recent years, BocaWatch has maintained a self-righteous tone: Zucaro and his followers love the city. Anyone who criticizes BocaWatch doesn’t. Zucaro continued that tone, griping about Singer’s “partisan formula” and saying, “Many of the people who voted for him are not the active, community-minded people who are ‘watching’ how our city is being run.”

Zucaro said, “I have done what I set out to do in creating BocaWatch.” The only policy idea Zucaro dropped into his regular venting about the city council was for Boca Raton to adopt a strong-mayor system, no doubt with Zucaro in charge.

In addition to that lopsided loss, Zucaro may have other reasons to give up BocaWatch. Singer has filed complaints with the state alleging that Zucaro operates BocaWatch as an “unregistered political committee.” Lawyers for Crocker Partners, which is suing the city over Midtown, plan to depose Zucaro. He recently gave a deposition as part of a new effort by a former business investor to recover money Zucaro—according to the court ruling—spent on personal expenses.

Zucaro told The Coastal Star he expects the BocaWatch handoff to happen in a month. We’ll see.

Boundary jumpers update

I reported recently on the Palm Beach County School District’s effort to find and remove students who were attending Boca Raton High School illegally. The school’s 11-day count supports that effort.

District officials report that Boca High’s ninth-grade class of 758 is the smallest in six years. The district focused much of its efforts on incoming freshmen. Schoolwide enrollment of 3,397 is 161 under projections.

Since Boca High’s capacity is about 3,000, that drop doesn’t relieve the crowding problem. When projects to increase capacity at Spanish River and Olympic Heights are done, though, students and faculty should see more relief. The city council and the city’s education task force should urge the district to continue those boundary checks.

Delray vs. lawsuits

Delray Beach held executive sessions—closed to the public—on Tuesday regarding a pair of lawsuits.

One is the litigation by the city against Match Point, promoter of the annual pro tennis tournament. The city wants to get out of the contract. The other is a Bert Harris claim against the city by two downtown landowners who claim that the new three-story neigh limit on Atlantic Avenue illegally lowered the value of their property.

Delray budget hearings

On Thursday night, the Delray Beach City Commission will hold the first of two hearings on the 2018-19 budget. The commission might make some changes, but not many. The city already has approved the tax rate for the new budget year. The second hearing is set for Sept. 25.

Also on the agenda is a new contract for the purchase of police body cameras and Tasers. The department started by equipping 20 officers and planned to equip all who work in uniform. The new contract would cost $2.5 million over five years.

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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