Thursday, July 18, 2024

Criticisms of Boca City Attorney & Delray Fills DDA Board Vacancy

Something extraordinary happened last week: The Boca Raton City Council gave City Attorney Diana Frieser a semi-critical performance review.

Frieser has held the job since 1999 with comparatively little public accountability, given the importance of the position in a city like Boca Raton. She doesn’t give interviews. She doesn’t get written evaluations. For years, her annual reviews amounted to pro forma praise.

This time was different.

Councilman Andy Thomson, one of three lawyers on the council, said, “I had some suggestions” about how Frieser runs the office, which includes four lawyers in addition to her. He and Frieser are “working through” those “suggestions.” He plans a discussion of “more substance” at the council’s July meeting.

Those “suggestions” could refer to, among other things, complaints I’ve heard that the city’s legal office needlessly delays development applications. Rather than get involved early and raise potential issues in a timely fashion, the office comes in late and, from what I’ve been told, takes its own sweet time.

Mayor Scott Singer said of Frieser, “We’ve had conversations” about “points of departure.” They talked about “matters of communication” between Frieser and the council.

Boca Raton City Attorney Diana Frieser

Though these comments sound tame compared to the raucous exchanges at the dais in other cities, the shift is significant. Timing may help explain the shift.

Boca Raton recently has lost—in spectacular fashion—cases involving development of two oceanfront lots. In one, the developer alleged that the city had failed to disclose records related to the denial of a variance. As I read it, the ruling placed too much responsibility for the failure to comply with the law on the city clerk’s office and not enough on the city attorney’s office.

Last month, the council met in an executive session—public excluded—to discuss that lawsuit, which involves a proposed duplex at 2600 N. Ocean Blvd. The other case, involving the adjacent lot to the south and a large home the owner had proposed, is in federal court.

Singer noted the “unfortunate news of litigation.” In fact, the judge in the 2600 case blasted Singer, previous council members, and city staff for prejudicing themselves before the vote to deny a variance to allow a large home on the property. The city has appealed.

Frieser is in the state retirement program and must leave office at the end of 2025. Singer said the council should “start thinking about the transition process.” Councilman Mark Wigder wondered if the city should switch to an “external” office, meaning that a private firm would handle most of Boca Raton’s legal work on a contract basis. The city already uses outside counsel for labor issues and bond underwriting.

Wigder also pointed out that, aside from the litigation, complex legal issues await. Boca Raton may seek bids to develop a new downtown government complex under a public-private partnership, known as a P3. The city, Wigder said, will have to ensure that any solicitation comports with state law.

Questions about Frieser started after the 2018 indictment of former Mayor Susan Haynie on public corruption charges. Frieser had persisted in trying to obtain a ruling from the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics that Haynie could vote on matters related to Investments Limited, even though a company owned by Haynie and her husband did work for a condo complex in which Investments Limited owned most of the units.

Frieser finally obtained a ruling that hedged the issue. In retrospect, Frieser should have advised Hayne to abstain. Doing so would have spared Haynie the indictment that drove her from office and distracted the city. Haynie agreed to a guilty plea on one of the seven charges, a misdemeanor.

If there are issues with Frieser, however, blame goes to the many past councils that allowed those issues to build by giving her those cursory reviews. I’ll have more after the July meeting.

Brown prioritizes delegation and trust in City Manager office

Another high-level transition in Boca Raton took place Jan. 1, when George Brown succeeded Leif Ahnell as city manager. Like Frieser, Ahnell’s tenure had begun in 1999.

Boca Raton City Manager George Brown, photo by Aaron Bristol

It was apparent during his final years that council members considered Ahnell too stuck in his ways, despite his acknowledged financial expertise. They wanted faster responses to their priorities.

Singer previously had told Brown, in essence, not to be afraid of failing. Brown told the council during his review last week that he wants to do “better on delegation,” to create a “culture of trust.” Wigder noted that during last month’s three-day planning session he saw a new “culture of empowerment” among staff members. Singer encouraged Brown to let department heads “break out of their silos.”

Beyond the management-speak, the practical effect on the public from Brown’s approach should be more responsiveness. As Brown has pointed out, the city has roughly 1,500 full-time employees. The happier they are and the more they collaborate, the better city services will be. 

Mavis Benson to replace Rick Burgess on DDA board

The woman whose ethics complaint led to the removal of a Delray Beach Downtown Development Agency board member now fills that vacancy.

During Tuesday’s meeting, City Commissioner Thomas Markert named Mavis Benson to replace Rick Burgess. The commission approved the choice, with Mayor Tom Carney dissenting. Benson, a former DDA board chair, will serve the final two years of Burgess’ term. Benson owns Avalon Gallery on East Atlantic Avenue and is a strong supporter of DDA Executive Director Laura Simon.

Neither of the board members who wanted a second, three-year term—Mark Denkler and Christina Godbout—got one. Commissioner Rob Long chose real estate broker Jim Knight, whose business—Knight Group—is in downtown Delray Beach. Carney, seeking “new blood” on the board, chose entrepreneur Harold Van Arnem, who also is on the Arts Garage board. They were approved unanimously.

Several years ago, Van Arnem unsuccessfully sought to develop three blocks on West Atlantic Avenue that the community redevelopment agency owns. The CRA ended its contract with the company that won the bid, and the roughly eight acres remains undeveloped.

Tech consultant firm moves to Boca

Another company has left New York for Boca Raton.

Last week, the city announced the move of Innovative Solutions, a technology consultant. According to the news release, the company will bring 30 jobs at first and “potentially” as many as 100.

Innovative Solutions will move into the newly renovated Interstate Plaza on West Palmetto Park Road. Boca Raton’s contribution to the county recruitment package was $60,000 from the city’s economic development fund.

Reimbursements for local representatives

Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D)
Rep. Lois Frankel (D)

U.S. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, who represents Boca Raton and West Boca, ranked 29th among House members who received reimbursements for food and lodging while doing official business in Washington.

The Washington Post tracked the reimbursements, which are designed to help members cover the cost of maintaining one residence in the capital and another in their districts. Two years ago, though, Congress removed the requirement that members submit receipts. Critics say that can lead to abuse.

Moskowitz received $21,270, equivalent to roughly 17% of his salary. Lois Frankel, who represents Delray Beach, got $16,426, or roughly 12% of her salary. She ranked 111th. In addition to voting members, territorial delegates are eligible for reimbursement.

Jack Bergman, of Michigan, got the most—$44,079. Almost 120 members, including House Speaker Mike Johnson, sought no reimbursement.

Correction

In a recent item about development in downtown Boca Raton I wrote that Phase 2 of the Alina condo project will have 201 units. An Alina representative said the second phase will have 182 units, bringing the total number of units for the project on South Mizner Boulevard to 303.

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Randy Schultz
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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