Sunday, July 14, 2024

Prospective FAU President Investigated by Ethics Commission

The Florida Commission on Ethics last month found probable cause that the state legislator who reportedly is a candidate to become Florida Atlantic University’s next president misused his office to seek political revenge.

By a vote of 7-1, the commission rejected the conclusion of an assistant attorney general that Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, did not act improperly. Fine can challenge the finding before an administrative law judge or try to work out a settlement.

The complaint against Fine came from Jennifer Jenkins, a member of the Brevard County School Board. Jenkins got sideways with Fine when she voted, as part of the board majority, to require masks in schools. Brevard’s district at one point had the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the state.

In April 2022, the West Melbourne Police Department asked Jenkins to participate in a fundraiser, which she did. All school board members received invitations. The department did not ask Fine to participate.

Jenkins said West Melbourne City Councilman John Dittmore then used a Facebook post to criticize Jenkins’ involvement. Dittmore allegedly did so at Fine’s urging. Communications cited in the complaint show that Fine reacted to Jenkins’ invitation by threatening to kill state money for a water project in West Melbourne and to withhold money for the Special Olympics, the charity that benefited from the fundraiser.

Dittmore apparently tried to appease Fine by asking him to the fundraiser. Fine, though, said he would not go “to jack s— where that whore is at,” meaning Jenkins. He used that crude term toward Jenkins in other text messages.

Fine said Jenkins had put the city’s project and the Special Olympics money “on the veto list” in the state budget. Governors can veto individual spending items.

These communications came to light because of a public records request Jenkins made for communications between Fine and Dittmore. Fine told Dittmore not to comply, but the city attorney said he had to do so. Fine responded by urging that the council fire the attorney. That did not happen.

The nine-member ethics commission has five Republican members and four Democrats. The motion to reject the attorney’s recommendation came from Jim Waldman, a Democrat and former state representative who called Fine’s conduct “reprehensible.” Four of the five Republicans, however, agreed with Waldman.

Fine cited his closeness with Gov. DeSantis to drive home his threats. Fine sponsored what critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” law. A priority of the governor, it now bans discussion of sexual or gender orientation in all public schools. Fine also sponsored the bill to abolish the agency that Disney World had used to act as its own government. DeSantis has touted his feud with Disney as he prepares to announce his White House run.

In addition, DeSantis has targeted Jenkins for defeat if she runs for another term in 2024. DeSantis accused Jenkins and his other school board targets of having a “woke ideology.”

Given the secrecy that Tallahassee has allowed for university president searches, it’s hard to tell whether Fine is a serious candidate for the FAU job. For the moment, Fine has filed to run next year for the Senate. Term limits prevent him from seeking another term in the House.

In March, Fine claimed to be under consideration for the FAU job. This month, the Palm Beach Post reported that DeSantis had “approached” Fine about the position. DeSantis has involved himself in the choice of presidents at all levels.

He engineered the hiring of former U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse to lead the University of Florida. More recently, three candidates to become president of South Florida State College withdrew after DeSantis decided that he wanted State Rep. Fred Hawkins, who has few of the qualifications that the search committee listed.

Jenkins noted Fine’s “obsessive personal vendetta” against her. FAU’s trustees last month approved their profile for the person to succeed John Kelly. The next president, the trustees said, should make decisions with “compassion and care.”

Aletto approved

aletto square
Aletto Square on East Palmetto Park Road; Renderings from Compson Associates

On Monday, the Boca Raton City Council approved The Aletto at Sanborn Square. The project will include two office buildings plus restaurant and retail space on seven small properties between Palmetto Park Road and Boca Raton Road.

Neighbors said the project would be too large for the site. Council members, acting as the community redevelopment agency, argued that downtown Boca Raton needs office space and that Aletto would make the area more pedestrian-friendly.

I’ll have more in my Thursday post.

Mizner Park sold?

Mizner Park

Has Mizner Park been sold?

Three credible sources told me they had heard that Brookfield Properties has sold the office, retail and apartment buildings of Boca Raton’s downtown hub to Atlanta-based Jamestown Properties. None of the sources, though, could confirm that rumor. The marketing agent did not return a voicemail and email seeking comment.

According to the website The Real Deal, Brookfield put the buildings on sale in January. Brookfield acquired them in 2018 when it bought General Growth Properties. The city’s community redevelopment agency owns the land.

The buildings contain 272 apartments, 270,000 square feet of retail space and 268,000 square feet of office space. The parking garages contain almost 2,400 spaces. The Real Deal reported that the apartment occupancy rate in January was 92 percent, while the retail and office occupancy rates were 90 percent and 96 percent, respectively.

Mizner Park opened in 1991. Under the lease, the owner of those buildings now has the right to buy the land under them. The CRA and Brookfield differed over how to determine the price, and the matter wound up in court. Brookfield prevailed.

Discussions on designating Brown as city manager

Deputy City Manager George Brown

I reported previously that the Boca Raton City Council wants to designate Deputy City Manager George Brown as successor to City Manager Leif Ahnell. He intends to retire no later than March 31, 2024.

To designate Brown, council members asked City Attorney Diane Frieser to codify their intent. At tonight’s meeting, Frieser will discuss how that might happen.

To make the transition from Ahnell “as seamless as possible,” Frieser says in a memo, Ahnell will “expand Mr. Brown’s operational and administrative responsibilities.” The two will “work together to broaden Mr. Brown’s scope of functions/duties to include all areas of…operations and issues.”

Such a designation is very unusual. I haven’t seen anything like it over three-plus decades of covering local government in Palm Beach County. But Ahnell’s length of service—he’s had the job since 1999—also is an outlier, and the council preferred to choose Brown rather than conduct a national search.

Frieser proposes that the council and Brown sign an agreement to reflect that designation. Assuming nothing has changed when Ahnell retires, the council would update that agreement when Brown takes over.

Commissioner Woodward on Ag Reserve land swap

Palm Beach County Commissioner Marci Woodward

I wrote previously about the Palm Beach County Commission’s controversial decision to allow construction of almost 1,300 homes within the Agricultural Reserve Area that current rules don’t allow. Commissioner Marci Woodward, who represents Boca Raton and Delray Beach, was one of two votes against it.

In her latest newsletter, Woodward discusses her decision. She said the commission majority had wrongly focused just on the incentives GL Homes offered in return for a land swap that critics say will undermine the farm preservation plan that voters taxed themselves to implement.

The issue, Woodward said, was “about something other than whether GL builds good communities and will deliver on the promises of water projects, parks, civic donations and workforce housing. It is our job to look at the county as a whole and not choose winners and losers based on districts.”

Such changes to the county’s comprehensive plan, Woodward said, should apply the same rules for all. This deal, she added, simply was a favor for GL Homes. She’s right.

O’Rourke’s unfinished business with Boca city council

andrea o'rourke
Andrea O’Rourke

Andrea O’Rourke left the Boca Raton City Council in March because of term limits, but the council has unfinished business with her.

That would be $3,710 in legal fees O’Rourke amassed responding to a pair of complaints filed against her with the Florida Elections Commission. Two people alleged that O’Rourke violated state law by using her email account to endorse Monica Mayotte and Yvette Drucker when they ran for the council in 2021.

The commission, however, found no legal sufficiency with either complaint. As such, O’Rourke is entitled to recover the money she spent on attorneys. That provision is designed to protect local elected officials from frivolous lawsuits by deep-pocketed crank critics. It’s a good safeguard. 

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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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