This recap of Boca Raton’s special election will start with what we don’t know—the winner in the Seat A race for city council.
As of late Wednesday, Andy Thomson led Kathy Cottrell by 19 votes. Cottrell had been ahead by 35 votes when the first count ended Tuesday night. Then, Thomson was three votes ahead at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher told City Clerk Susan Saxton that the canvassing board will hold a hand recount of the Seat A ballots Friday. That’s mandatory when the margin is less than 0.25 percentage points. With luck, the result will be official by then.
Boca Raton last saw a race this close in 2001. Council candidates then ran at-large, not from seats. Two spots were open, and voters picked two names. Carol Hanson led all the candidates. Incumbent Dave Freudenberg came in second, just two votes ahead of Saxton, who was not a city official at the time.
Eight days after the election and after a seven-hour hand recount, Freudenberg’s margin held up. The canvassing board was reviewing punch-card ballots, since the county had not changed voting systems after the five-week presidential recount a year earlier.
Interestingly, Richard Giorgio was Freudenberg’s campaign consultant. This year, he’s working for Cottrell.
I will have more when the result is official on this race and the dynamic of the new council. Now, here are some thoughts on what we do know.
Singer lucks out
Scott Singer dodged the bullet he shot at himself.
Singer trounced BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro in the race to complete the term of suspended Mayor Susan Haynie—assuming that she doesn’t return by March 2020. Singer won by almost 30 percentage points. That’s three times the margin Haynie ran up over Zucaro in 2017.
Boca Raton held this election only because of the charter change Singer proposed and voters approved two years ago. Singer had been deputy mayor in April when Haynie was arrested on public corruption charges. Under the old system, he would have become mayor until that election in 18 months and the council would have appointed someone to fill his council seat.
Instead, Singer faced the prospect of losing for mayor and not being able to regain his former seat. Having passed on the Florida House and Palm Beach County Commission races, both of which are open seats in November, Singer could have been shut out of local politics for a long time.
Singer, though, began running last October. He was operating at the time under the premise that the special election for mayor would take place next March and be to replace Haynie after she won that county commission seat. His early start helped Singer raise $100,000 more than Zucaro. Singer’s mailers also portrayed Zucaro as someone seeking to serve himself more than the city.
During the Federation of Boca Raton Homeowner Associations candidate forum, Singer was amped. No one may be happier about the election results than him.
A statement about BocaWatch?
Singer’s win was a dramatic repudiation not just of Zucaro but also of BocaWatch’s reputation.
Zucaro now has lost twice by double digits in his races for mayor. The margin this year was three times what it was in 2017. Zucaro cast himself this year as the candidate who “fought to protect our residents from public corruption at city hall (sic).” Zucaro charged that Singer “did nothing” when reports about Haynie emerged.
It might have been a good argument from another candidate. Zucaro, though, has a record going back more than 20 years, to his time on the West Palm Beach City Commission. As noted, Singer was able to argue that Zucaro moved to Boca Raton a decade ago seeking to escape a controversial past and recast himself, using BocaWatch as his platform.
Though BocaWatch backed Andrea O’Rourke and Monica Mayotte during their successful council campaigns in 2017 and 2018, critics have maintained that BocaWatch’s influence doesn’t extend past a core group of anti-development zealots who live near downtown. With the primary date boosting turnout, Tuesday’s result provided a much broader judgment of Zucaro, and the judgment wasn’t kind.
Turnout was huge.
Roughly 18,000 voters cast ballots for mayor. In 2017, when Zucaro faced Haynie, turnout was 11,800. In 2016, when Boca Raton had two charter questions on the ballot, turnout was slightly less than 10,000.
That’s turnout of almost 30 percent, or about twice the number even on the high end for a normal city election in March. Obviously, the higher the turnout, the more representative the outcome is of city sentiment. Higher turnouts reduce the noise from the extremes.
Some cities—especially in Broward County—hold their elections in November, to draw more voters. It makes for a longer ballot, but participation is much higher.
Because Boca Raton has three-year mayoral and council terms, however, the city couldn’t schedule their races in tandem with regular statewide primary and general elections. The city would need four-year terms or a return to two-year terms.
Some—including me—might contend that four years is too long. Others might argue that, with two-year terms, new council members barely are settling into the job before they have to run again.
Still, puny March turnouts mean that candidates can rely on a sliver of voters. That might be good for the candidates, but it’s not good for democracy.
Despite that comparatively large turnout, roughly 750 voters in the mayor’s race picked no candidate in the council race. Numbers usually are a bit out of alignment when cities have multiple races, but that number seems high. Those undervotes will get reviewed during the recount.
City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser may have privately celebrated the results of Boca Raton’s mayoral election.
Zucaro had stated his intent to fire Frieser, who has held the position since 1999—the same year the council hired City Manager Leif Ahnell. Zucaro accused Frieser of favoring Haynie over the city when Frieser in 2013 negotiated with the Palm Beach County Commission Ethics about the advisory opinion saying that Haynie could vote on items related to James and Marta Batmasian.
During Frieser’s annual review, however, Singer praised the city attorney’s performance. So did the other council members. There are points to question about Frieser, and perhaps Zucaro wouldn’t have been able to persuade a majority to fire her. Singer’s win, though, likely pushes back any attempt—if one comes at all.
The new council will meet first in an organizational session. Boca Raton can’t schedule it until officials know who wins the Seat A race. The city must give just 24 hours notice of the meeting.
Council members must choose a deputy mayor and a chairman of the community redevelopment agency. O’Rourke has filled that role since March. The deputy title doesn’t matter much now unless Singer isn’t there to run a workshop or regular meeting.
Order of business
The new council’s first scheduled meetings are a tripleheader on Sept. 12, a Wednesday. Ordinarily, the CRA meeting and workshop come on a Monday with the council regular meeting the next day. To avoid a conflict with Rosh Hashanah, the council moved everything back.
Between the summer schedule of one meeting per month and a delay of many major issues because of the special election, the council will have a busy fall. Awaiting are such issues as the possible outsourcing of residential garbage pickup and whether to give the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District money for the renovation of the Ocean Breeze golf course.
Oh, and the council has to approve the budget.
Beach and Park District
Speaking of the beach and park district, board chairman Bob Rollins and board member Susan Vogelgesang have won new, four-year terms without having to campaign. No one filed to run against them.
And the county race
If Scott Singer’s fundraising margin over Al Zucaro was big, consider Robert Weinroth’s over William Vale.
Weinroth resigned his Boca Raton City Council seat in January to run for the District 4 seat on the county commission. At the time, he was running against Susan Haynie, his one-time council ally. Weinroth is a Democrat. Haynie is a Republican.
Haynie dropped out after her arrest, and the Republicans couldn’t find a well-known challenger. Weinroth had raised $186,000 through Aug. 24 and spent just $43,000. Boca Del Mar resident William Vale, a Republican who is making his first run for public office, had just $8,600 and had spent $7,000.
Former Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams is term-limited. That seat seems destined to flip to the Democrats.
Busy voting sites
According to the Supervisor of Elections, Boca Raton’s downtown library was one of Palm Beach County’s most active early voting sites.
About 4,200 people cast ballots at the library, which was one of 15 locations. The county library branch west of Boynton Beach was the busiest, with about 5,100 early voters. The only other sites more active than Boca Raton were Palm Beach Gardens and Lantana.
Gun safety measures
Two weeks ago, a shooting at the football game between Palm Beach Central and Dwyer high schools rattled students and parents. The shooting happened during the first week of the first academic year after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting.
The school district responded by moving up the start of Friday night games. But Frank Barbieri, the school board member who represents Boca Raton and Delray Beach, told me that will ask Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy and his board colleagues to consider moving all games to Saturday afternoon for greater safety.
“I know Friday night is the tradition and the normal,” Barbieri said, “but nothing’s normal anymore.”