At 9:30 this morning, the Palm Beach County Commission will meet for the first time in four weeks. There could be fireworks.
While the Boca Raton City Council has met five times – under new, COVID-19 procedures – since April 13, the county commission has met just once since April 7. And that April 14 meeting concerned only the homeless camp at John Prince Park and two potential ballot issues.
Meanwhile, County Administrator Verdenia Baker has been setting COVID-19 policy and County Mayor Dave Kerner has been the county spokesman. The mayor, though, has no more power than any other commissioner. No one runs for the job. The title, formerly commission chairman, rotates among the members.
Commissioner Robert Weinroth, whose district includes Boca Raton and Delray Beach, said Kerner’s statements have made it appear that Kerner is speaking for the commission. “I have a problem with that,” Weinroth told me last week.
He noted that Kerner serves on Gov. DeSantis’ statewide reopening task force. “Yet no one has solicited the body,” Weinroth said. There have been no meetings for commissioners to debate policy and reach consensus. Florida’s open-meetings law prohibits two or more members of the same elected body from discussing policy privately among themselves.
Example: Kerner said that Palm Beach County would move in lockstep with Broward and Miami-Dade when it comes to reopening beaches. They are closed under county orders. Weinroth, however, “disagreed” with Kerner’s sentiment. Palm Beach is “not identical” to the others.
Weinroth acknowledged that this predicament is “not entirely (Kerner’s) fault.” The county’s emergency management chain of command has taken over. That usually happens after hurricanes.
Natural disasters, though, usually require only short-term responses without commission input. The virus is different. “I feel like I’m sitting in the bleachers,” Weinroth said, when it comes to policy.
Some Boca Raton residents have been pushing the city to reopen the beach. City council members correctly say that it first will be a county decision. When those residents contact Weinroth, he can’t provide a response beyond his own opinion. “The process” he said, “has broken down.”
Today’s commission meeting includes a couple of virus-related items. Because of growing public impatience over the restrictions, however, I would expect lots of public comment and commissioner discussion about COVID-19 and where things from here. Kerner may hear from colleagues that he has overstepped his role.
Still, the meeting may start to clarify county policy. Weinroth wants to start reopening soon. Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes the Glades, may want to move slower. The virus has been deadlier in minority-heavy areas.
If nothing else, Weinroth will make one thing clear to Kerner. “He is not authorized to set policy.”
Rodgers drama continues
Boca Raton City Councilman Jeremy Rodgers continues to lose friends for the city.
Rodgers already hurt his credibility by leading a demonstration of right-wing fringe protesters. Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the White House’s virus task force, called such protests “devastatingly worrisome.” Rodgers also regularly forwards to county commissioners emails from residents demanding that restrictions end.
One recent email was titled “Open PBC Now!!!!” The writer demanded to know what the county was “taking away people’s livelihood.” He argued that the county had violated the U.S. Constitution by, in effect, seizing the property of closed stores and restaurants.
But the governor, not the county, closed bars in Palm Beach County and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery. The governor excluded South Florida from his first reopening order. In addition, if businesses don’t own their space, there’s no property for government to supposedly seize. Despite those obvious problems, Rodgers made clear that he agreed with the email’s content.
Commissioner McKinlay’s response? “Shame on you, Commissioner (sic) Rodgers.” McKinlay noted, correctly, that Boca Raton closed its beaches and restaurants before the county or governor acted.
“You know damn well how the process works,” McKinlay emailed Rodgers. “The governor ordered (Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade) shut and he has not lifted that order.” She added that the county’s reopening of passive parks, golf courses and boat ramps has gone well. “That’s a good sign we can slowly proceed. I will follow the governor’s direction, as required by law.”
Boca Regional resumes elective surgeries
Though Palm Beach County remains excluded from much of the governor’s first reopening order that took effect Monday, one notable institution will start resuming normal business.
On Wednesday, according to a spokesman, Boca Raton Regional Hospital again will perform elective surgeries. In March, the governor banned non-urgent, non-emergency procedures to keep as many beds as possible for a surge in COVID-19 cases.
That surge did not come, in large part because of stay-at-home policies that local governments issued. The spokesman said elective surgery would resume at Boca Regional and all Baptist Health South Florida hospitals.
Force majeure in Delray Beach
At 4 p.m. Tuesday, the Delray Beach City Commission will hold its first regular meeting in nearly two months. The first item will be to approve rules for meetings under COVID-19 restrictions.
After that, the main items are the consent agenda and requests from businesses and organizations for the commission to forgive payments tied to contracts with the city. All seek to invoke the force majeure (act of God) clause in the contracts for business interruptions. All payments were due on April 1. Presumably, they also will want forgiveness for the May payments, too.
Delray Yacht Charters owes the most — $10,000 per month. Arts Garage wants a break on the roughly $1,000-per-month lease of its city-owned space. Cut 432 and Taverna Opa owe for their lease of parking spaces. The total is about $2,500 per month.
The issue of business insurance has arisen since the COVID-19 restrictions kicked in. Force majeure clauses usually apply after hurricanes. Some policyholders have accused insurers of not paying because the coverage doesn’t specially include pandemics.
Schools struggling during pandemic
Public schools have faced an unprecedented challenge since the governor closed them because of COVID-19. Districts have had to create remote learning programs and deliver meals to low-income students who no longer get them on campus.
Budget challenges lie ahead, even before possible declines in property values. Expenses have been higher, and the economic impact could shift many students away from private schools.
I asked Palm Beach County School District Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke if federal relief might be coming. Burke noted that the roughly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act included $13.5 billion for K-12 education.
Florida, Burke said, is to receive $770 million. He estimates that $37.5 million will go to Palm Beach County. The district also could get some of the $173 million the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. It goes to school districts and universities. But that money is for what Burke called “additional investments in education, not to offset potential budget cuts.”
For comparison, Burke noted that the 2009 stimulus from the Obama Administration in response to the financial crisis contained $100 billion for public schools. Burke said the Council of Great City Schools recently sent a letter to Congress asking for $202 billion “to help schools survive this pandemic.” Superintendents in all South Florida school districts signed the letter.
Agricultural Reserve update
The Coalition of Boynton West Residential Associations (COBWRA) contacted the Office of Inspector General after the Lake Worth Drainage District sought bids for some of its undevelopable land. Whoever bought the land could try to build 313 homes within the Palm Beach County Agricultural Reserve Area.
COBWRA opposes the sale, which would undercut efforts to preserve farming within the reserve. In her letter to Inspector General John Carey, COBWRA President Beth Rappaport said three of the district’s five supervisors had filed potential conflict-of-interest forms because they do business with GL Homes, the likely bidder. Only the supervisor, however, recused himself from the vote.
When the office receives a complaint, investigators determine whether it has merit. If so, the office can investigate on its own or refer the complaint to the state attorney’s office or the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics. In a letter to Rappaport, the office’s intake manager said the complaint has gone to the ethics commission.
New cell phone tower in Boca
This is very old business, but in early March — before the pandemic changed life as we knew it — Boca Raton approved a 140-foot cell phone tower on city land off Southwest 18th Street west of Interstate 95.
Georgia-based Madison Communications would pay $20,000 a year in rent, with a three percent annual increase. The lease is for five years, renewable for 30 years after that. Madison must begin work within a year of approval. A city spokeswoman said the company expects to seek a permit in mid-summer.