Red Tide Hits Home, Match Point and Other Lawsuits, and Tri-Rail Seeks a New Boss

Beach dunes in Boca Raton. (Photo by Randy Schultz)

The campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate came to this area on Monday. No candidates were here, but red tide was.

Tests by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission indicated the presence of the organism that causes red tide. On Monday, Delray Beach became the latest city in Palm Beach County to close beaches. Boca Raton had received no similar complaints by Monday afternoon.

Red tide has been devastating the southwest coast. It’s caused massive fish kills and driven tourists to…South Florida. At least until now. Red tide is rare on the Atlantic coast, but it’s been regular in the Gulf of Mexico.

As of Monday, the state didn’t know the level of red tide organism, nor does anyone know how the organism got here. One possibility is that it caught the Loop Current in the gulf and reached the Gulf Stream. That nearly happened with oil from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion off the Louisiana coast.

Florida’s environment has become a major issue in the races for governor and Senate. We’re already dealing with the algae crisis in Lake Okeechobee. The election is Nov. 6, and the environmental issue just got even more local.

Match Point update

Delray Beach may be close to resolving the city’s dispute with Match Point, promoter of the annual pro tennis tournament.

A week ago last Friday, the two sides held a mediation session. Match Point President Mark Baron came with his attorney. Delray Beach sent City Attorney Max Lohman and the outside counsel handling the lawsuit that the city filed two and a half years ago.

Commissioner Bill Bathurst was present on behalf of his fellow city commissioners. The commission had met in executive session—closed to the public—on Sept. 4 to hear everyone’s thoughts. Mayor Shelly Petrolia is the only incumbent who was in office when the commission approved the lawsuit seeking to void the 25-year contract with Match Point that dates to 2005. Commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel received $1,000 donations from Baron to their campaigns last March.

Lohman told the commission last week that the nine-hour session was “fruitful.” The non-jury trial that was to have started on Dec. 17 has been removed from the court docket so Baron and the city can try to “renegotiate terms” of the contract.

As with the trash-hauling contract that the city extended in 2012 without seeking bids and which a judge voided, the Match Point contract was awarded without a competitive process. Baron argued that Match Point was the only company capable of promoting the event.

The lawsuit laid out the commission’s complaints. The city was paying roughly $1.5 million a year, and the contract included annual increases. Because of the contract, the city couldn’t retrofit the tennis stadium to accommodate other events that might draw more people.

But during the mediation, Lohman told me Monday, the tone was “less adversarial.” Bathurst, Lohman said, made clear that “the goal of the commission is not to make tennis in the city go away.”

At this point, the city is moving toward a revised contract. Lohman said he wants to schedule another executive session, at which the full commission can hear about the mediation and “figure where we want to go.” After that, Lohman said he would like to schedule a special commission meeting—in public—at which Match Point is the only topic, to get community input.

I spoke Monday with Bathurst, who Lohman said “did an outstanding job” at the mediation. Like Baron, Bathurst is a businessman—managing partner at Golden Bear Realty. He’s used to negotiations.

“I want tennis in Delray Beach to be even better than it is now,” Bathurst said. “This was the first time everyone could get together without lawsuits flying around.” Regarding tennis in the city, Bathurst said, “We want to have a revised contract and a revised vision.”

Sober home lawsuit

Lohman struck a much different tone when he warned the commission about a lawsuit that doesn’t involve Delray Beach, but could affect Delray Beach.

Sunrise Sober Living and The Edge Recovery, which are based in Coral Springs and do business in Delray Beach, has sued the Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR). That’s the sober home trade group. The dispute centers on the state law that prohibits treatment centers from referring patients to sober homes that FARR hasn’t certified. Participation in the certification program was voluntary at the start, but the Legislature made it mandatory in 2017.

Unlike treatment centers, sober homes don’t need a license from the state. That is just one reason the industry escaped regulation for so long.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, mentions Delray Beach because the city has based its recent regulation program in part on sober homes obtaining FARR certification. Owners who obtain certification, the thinking goes, are more likely to run homes that actually help patients rather than churn through their insurance and dump them.

Last month, a sober home applied for an exemption from the city’s rule that group homes be at least 660 feet apart, to avoid clustering. The city conditioned approval on the home obtaining FARR certification.

The lawsuit alleges that FARR has wrongly delayed certification of Sunrise Sober Living and The Edge. It also alleges that FARR is acting like a state agency with regulatory powers while not following state laws on open records and open meetings. Finally, the lawsuit alleges that the state law requiring mandatory certification for referrals from treatment centers is unconstitutional.

It’s odd to find mistakes in such a legal brief. The lawsuit refers to a “principle” place of business. A lawyer says he responded to an email on Dec. 5, 2018.

Still, the litigation worries Lohman enough that he wants the city to intervene on behalf of FARR, which would require city commission approval.

Lohman said of FARR, “If they lose, we lose. It would undercut the city’s ordinance. It’s a big deal.”

New Tri-Rail boss in the works

Boca Raton Tri-Rail station. (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

Last Friday, the board that oversees Tri-Rail was supposed to choose a new executive director for the agency. One of the five candidates is term-limited Palm Beach County Commissioner and former Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams.

Instead, the board postponed its decision for a month. The board chairman said Tri-Rail’s general counsel had advised him that the board “should not discuss in public the details and circumstances of a pending investigation of one of the candidates, as the privacy of the parties involved and the allegations are both protected from disclosure at this time under Florida law.”

In a text message Monday, Abrams said the complaint was not filed against him. The other candidates are: Joe Giuletti, a former Tri-Rail director now retired after working for Metro North Commuter Railroad in New York; Benjamin Limmer, assistant general manager of Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority; Mikel Oglesby, Tri-Rail’s deputy director; and Timothy Tenne, chief operating officer of the Maryland Transit Administration.

The next director of Tri-Rail may get the chance to begin commuter service on the coastal FEC corridor that Brightline uses.

And the vetting…

The vetting for that Tri-Rail job is very thorough. It includes professional and personal information about Abrams down to his credit score.

The headhunting firm’s report noted Abrams’ performance as mayor after the Anthrax attack in 2001. Based on interviews with, among others, Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell, the report summarizes Abrams’ management skills this way:

“References described Mr. Abrams as a very strong, civil, and task-oriented leader; an educator; a good listener; a visionary who does not micro-manage; inclusive of all views; hard-working and proactive; bright; honest; a dedicated and thorough problem solver who takes in all points of view and works toward solutions; a leader who gives staff the resources needed to get job done; patient, thoughtful, non-judgmental, and a good project manager.”

Delray’s not-so-great open spaces

At tonight’s meeting, the Delray Beach City Commission will discuss an update to the parks and open space portion of the city’s comprehensive plan.

According to the staff memo, one of the major changes involves the city’s golf courses. Due to a comparative lack of open space west of Interstate 95, the memo says, Delray Beach won’t try to sell the courses. However, “If it is determined that a golf course cannot be maintained, the city will engage the public and conduct a study to identify how to best meet community needs and desires.” Complaints about the condition of the golf course have arisen during many recent meetings.

In addition, Delray Beach will consider an art in public places program. Boca Raton just started one.

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