Thursday, July 18, 2024

Remembering Two Community Leaders & Delray Meeting Gets Testy

I last saw Susan Whelchel on July 1, 2019. We were at the ceremony to mark Baptist Health South Florida’s acquisition of Boca Raton Regional Hospital.

Susan discussed her health problems for a few minutes. She was direct about the outlook—not terribly encouraging—with no sign of self-pity. Then she got back to the moment. “Isn’t this exciting? It’s a great thing for the hospital.”

No surprise there. Susan, who died two weeks ago at 77, preferred to talk more about Boca Raton than about herself, though her contributions to the city were beyond numerous.

She served for six years on the city council and six years as mayor, from 2008 to 2014. Her priorities when she became mayor in 2008 were business recruitment and sustainability. She made good on both.

Even through the Great Recession, Boca Raton brought jobs and attracted startup companies, creating momentum that continues. The downtown library, which the recession delayed, is a “green” building that featured a community garden, since moved to make way for the Brightline station. Sustainability efforts continue.

Susan’s career as a teacher—part of that time at Boca Raton High School—motivated her to bring Don Estridge Middle School to the city. She was the Junior League’s Volunteer of the Year in 2016.

But I will most remember a conversation we had in March 2011. Susan was running for a second term as mayor, having been unopposed three years earlier. Our morning coffee amounted to her candidate interview with The Palm Beach Post, where I was editorial page editor.

The endorsement—and outcome—was not in doubt. Susan would get 85 percent of the vote against a little-known, first-time candidate. She had something more pressing to discuss.

Susan remembered when the Post and the South Florida Sun Sentinel each had reporters covering Boca Raton full-time. She remembered an even earlier time when The Boca Raton News gave residents a third local newspaper option.

By 2011, the News had folded. Online advertising had decimated the newspaper business model. Budget cuts had hollowed out the staffs. Coverage of Boca Raton by the Post and Sentinel had become hit and miss.

“We need the media!” Susan said as urgently as I ever heard her say anything. Obviously, she wanted residents to know what the council was doing. But there was more.

Susan knew about research showing that corruption rises and civic engagement falls when reporters aren’t around. She acknowledged not always agreeing with reporting—and editorials—about Boca Raton. “But I’d rather have that than not have anyone looking at us.”

That sentiment revealed so much about Susan’s love for Boca Raton. She was pleased when I started this blog, just as she was leaving public office. From time to time, she would phone with a tip or a comment, starting the call with “Hey, kiddo.”

To the end, no doubt, Susan was thinking of how Boca Raton might be better. She was a great thing for the city.

And Patti Carpenter

Boca Raton recently lost another great woman with the passing of Patti Carpenter 10 days ago.

Ms. Carpenter was one of the city’s most notable philanthropists and civic activists. Among many other things, she chaired Boca Raton Regional Hospital’s GO Pink Luncheon for nearly two decades. According to her obituary, Ms. Carpenter helped to raise $13 million for breast cancer research.

Like Susan Whelchel, she was a Junior League Volunteer of the Year. She also chaired the Chris Every Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament and the Lynn University Ball. She was 74.

Delray appointments get edgy       

It was supposed to be a routine set of advisory board appointments. In Delray Beach, however, little is routine.

Last week, city commissioners had a slew of appointments to the planning and zoning board, the site plan review and appearance board and the historic preservation board. Appointments rotate among the commissioners. In Delray Beach, all three panels are high-profile.

In almost every case, professional courtesy prevails. Commissioners may disagree with the politics of a colleagues’ choice, but they vote in favor unless there’s a serious question about qualifications. Otherwise, each nomination could turn into a political fight.

Things were proceeding normally until Ryan Boylston announced that he would nominate Rob Long to the historic preservation board. Long was term-limited on the planning and zoning board and met the requirements.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioner Juli Casale quickly said they would oppose Long’s nomination. They falsely accused him of having a poor attendance record. Petrolia said Long gave Delray Beach “a black eye” when—in his role as a member of the Palm Beach County Soil and Water Conservation District—Long had criticized the levels of possible carcinogens in the city’s water. Long’s comment turned out to be accurate.

The real reason for Petrolia and Casale’s opposition was that Long is expected to challenge Casale next year. Petrolia recruited Casale to run in 2020 and Casale remains the mayor’s most loyal commission supporter.

Adam Frankel, who tends to vote with Boylston, supported Long’s nomination. Shirley Johnson, who voted with Petrolia and Casale to end Old School Square’s lease, provided the third vote to kill the nomination. This happened after Boylston and Frankel approved the renomination of Petrolia ally Chris Davey to the planning and zoning board.

Long appeared at Tuesday’s meeting to rebut the charges, noting that he had received unanimous approval to his previous board posts. To the charge of “poor decorum” at meetings, Long defined “poor decorum” as the action on Old School Square and hiding realities about drinking water.

Long said he would be “staying engaged.” Consider it his first campaign speech.

Delray approves ordinance for removing board members

When Long criticized the city for water problems, Petrolia and Casale considered removing him from the planning and zoning board. The attempt failed, after City Attorney Lynn Gelin warned about the precedent.

On Tuesday, the commission approved an ordinance that states conditions for removing a board member. Gelin based it on policies in other cities. So perhaps there’s now a small check on Delray Beach’s nasty factional politics.

Brightline topping off ceremony

Rendering of the Boca Raton Brightline station

Brightline held a topping-off ceremony Tuesday for its station and parking garage in Boca Raton. The company plans to complete construction this year and offer service in early 2023.

News also came this week of a $25 million federal grant to further improve safety on the Florida East Coast Railway corridor that Brightline uses. The state and the company each is contributing another $10 million.

The project area is between Miami and Brevard County, where Brightline trains will go inland toward the soon-to-be-finished new station in Orlando. According to Brightline, the work could save nearly 100 lives over 20 years by preventing people from going around gates or crossing the track at places other than crossings.

Planners vote no on Ag Reserve land swap

ag reserve
PBC Agricultural Reserve Area

By a vote of 8-4, the Palm Beach County Planning Commission last Friday recommended against a proposed land swap that would allow G.L. Homes to build 1,000 luxury homes north of Stonebridge Country Club in West Boca Raton.

County planners also had recommended denial, saying that the swap would harm the Agricultural Reserve Area, where the homes would go. Approval would allow the company to trade much less potentially profitable land outside the reserve for permission to exceed the cap on residential development within the reserve. The West Boca site, nearly 600 acres, is on the southern edge of the reserve.

Unless G.L. Homes withdraws it after Friday’s vote, the proposal will go to the county commission on Aug. 31. If that happens, I’ll have much more before the vote.

Boca special meetings on Monday

It will be an unusually busy Monday of four meetings for the Boca Raton City Council, not the usual two.

Acting as the community redevelopment agency, council members first will decide whether to approve an extended-stay hotel that would be part of Royal Palm Place. The hotel would have 144 rooms and would be the first downtown hotel since the council approved the Mandarin Oriental, now under construction with an adjoining high-end condo.

After a normal workshop meeting, the council will hold a special meeting of the CRA to consider the proposed lease of land in Mizner Park for a performing arts center. If approval comes, as expected, a special council meeting will follow to approve the ordinance to authorize the deal.

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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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