New lawsuit takes on city for alleged back-room deals over Chabad

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Backroom deals?

A new lawsuit poses a new theory for why Boca Raton last year approved a Jewish house of worship and exhibit hall near the beach: the fix was in.

While more conventional legal challenges to Chabad East Boca continue in state court, a federal lawsuit filed this week alleges that the city “unconstitutionally established” a religion last year by allowing the chabad to build its new facility on the East Palmetto Park Road site that for many years was home to La Vielle Maison. City staff, the lawsuit claims, secretly conspired with the chabad after the group tried unsuccessfully to build on six properties along Mizner Boulevard across from Mizner Park.

Because of the city’s action, the lawsuit charges, “a singular religious group has been provided promotion, endorsement and secret reinforcement of its religion and its religious mission through the corrupt dealings of the city. Plaintiffs are forced to pay for and endure such promotion, endorsement and reinforcement of a sectarian organization in violation of the First Amendment.”

Before getting to the details of the lawsuit, let’s acknowledge the potential embarrassment for Boca Raton.

The lawsuit notes that each of the two plaintiffs, Gerald Gagliardi and Kathleen MacDougall, is “a member of a Christian religion.” Gagliardi lives in Por La Mar and MacDougall in Riviera, the neighborhoods opposed to having a home for ultra-Orthodox Jews set up nearby. Opponents have denied that anti-Semitism motivates them, but would there have been such a controversy over a similarly sized Catholic or Presbyterian house of worship? Would a retail center, generating more traffic, have drawn such fierce opposition?

Chabad East Boca currently is housed downtown near Sanborn Square. In 2007, the congregation asked to expand not far away, south of First United Methodist Church and north of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church. Both abut residential areas. Golden Triangle residents, however, turned out against this particular house of worship.

A year later, the city council approved an ordinance designed to standardize rules for all places of assembly, including movie theaters, lodges and others, in addition to places of worship. The ordinance raised the number of parking spaces the congregation would have had to provide. Chabad East Boca dropped its plans.

The lawsuit, however, claims that the ordinance also changed the rules to allow a house of worship—not just a place of assembly—on the Palmetto Park Road site, which is across the street from some single-family homes. City Manager Leif Ahnell engineered this deception, the lawsuit claims, to “placate and appease” the Golden Triangle at the expense of Por La Mar and Riviera and to keep Chabad East Boca from potentially harming Mizner Park.

The chabad’s rabbi, Ruvi New, told me Wednesday, “The idea that we got preferential treatment from the city, given how they put us through the wringer, is so patently false that it’s amusing to read how that argument can be made.” The conspiracy theory presumes that the congregation, which New said has been seeking to expand since 2005, waited seven years after the city passed the ordinance to apply for its project.

Does the rabbi see anti-Semitism? “I don’t see how anyone can look at everything that is in the public record (about the project) and rationally conclude that there are less than noble intentions at work.”

 

Or is it the height?

Those more conventional challenges to approval of Chabad East Boca concern traffic and the conditional use that allowed 10 extra feet of height for the exhibit hall. One is ready for argument before the Palm Beach County Circuit Court, according to a city spokeswoman. The other awaits completion of briefs from the plaintiffs. After arguments, the court will decide if the cases go to trial.

 

And now this

One other aspect of the federal lawsuit concerns the plaintiff’s attorney. He’s Arthur Koski, the same Arthur Koski who is the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District’s attorney and interim executive director.

The city and the district have been trying to work out a new collaborative agreement. With the Chabad East Boca case, Koski now has an adversarial relationship with the city. Was that the best idea? Koski, who wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, said Wednesday that he has previously litigated against the city, and that the district has “gone out of their way” in dealing with the city, but has been “ignored.” That doesn’t sound like the start of a beautiful new friendship.

 

No love lost here, either

It sounds as if Delray Beach is moving closer to a lawsuit over the city’s pro tennis contract.

City Attorney Noel Pfeffer met last week with Mark Baron. He runs Match Point, which the city pays to promote and operate the Association of Tennis Professionals tournament that starts Friday. The city commission has given Pfeffer discretion to decide whether Delray should seek to void the contract, which was issued without competitive bidding. City commissioners wonder whether Delray is getting its money’s worth. Pfeffer asked for the meeting to see if Baron had any information to show that the contract had gone out for bid.

Pfeffer told me Wednesday that the meeting had been “a precursor to litigation. I told him that if he had any relevant information, we would be amenable to reviewing it.” Baron doesn’t have much time. “I am not going to delay,” Pfeffer said, “what I need to go. I told him that we needed any information quickly.” Baron did not return my message seeking comment.

 

Delray taking stock

Delray Beach, a municipal land baron, is going through an overdue review of what the city owns and what the city should do with it.

A consultant grouped the 75 properties into four tiers, based on potential market value. The top tier is worth roughly $95 million. A windfall? Not yet. The roughly 4 acres on which City Hall sits would be worth about $17 million if sold for development. Delray Beach, though, does need a city hall.

But should it be at the current location? That is one of many questions the city commission hopes will come out of this inventory. The report, Mayor Cary Glickstein said, “doesn’t address long-range purpose or strategies.”

Properties the city never will need can be sold. After that, Glickstein said, comes “more strategic analysis—what can be sold or re-purposed, with tactical analysis of consolidating uses, understanding (which we don’t now) what each asset costs to maintain, understanding how to build better buildings regarding maintenance costs. . .”

When the city decides what it wants to keep, the commission wants to “maximize what’s left for public and city operations.”

 

What’s in a name?

As Delray Beach found out, anything can happen when the Florida Legislature is in session.

For Mayor Glickstein, the surprise came when he learned of a bill that would have renamed portions of Atlantic Avenue for local political types. Between Military Trail and the Florida Turnpike, it would have been Murray Kalish Way. Between Swinton Boulevard and A1A, it would have been Andre Fladell Avenue. Kalish, who died last November, was a longtime Democratic political boss in the West Delray condo complexes. Fladell is a veteran county political fixer who has operated a lot in Delray and loves to catch rays on the city’s beach.

The bill sponsor was Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and it contained similar designations for roads around the state. The amendments for Kalish and Fladell came from Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Democrat whose district is based in Miami and doesn’t include Delray. Glickstein wrote a letter opposing the new designations. Maria Sachs, the Democrat who does represent Delray, finally removed the two amendments Wednesday.

Hint: Before trying to rename a city road—particularly one as important as Atlantic Avenue—find out if the city actually wants the road renamed.

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.

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