Monday, October 25, 2021

There’s One Thing Susan Haynie and Robert Weinroth Can Agree On

It’s this:

On the morning of Jan. 9, Boca Raton’s mayor texted the city councilman that she would run for the Palm Beach County Commission in November. They don’t agree on what happened before that “Final Answer” text.

Weinroth (pictured, left) contends that Haynie (pictured, right) told him the previous day that she would withdraw from the county race because polling showed that county and state ethics investigations were hurting her candidacy. Haynie, Weinroth says, told him, “It isn’t the right time.”

Haynie responds that Weinroth had been “promoting” the idea of her withdrawing for two months because he was worried about winning reelection against Monica Mayotte. “He had been priming the pump for a long time.”

On that Monday, Haynie acknowledges, she was considering whether to stay in. Supporters of Weinroth, who had raised $115,000 for his council campaign, wanted a viable replacement if Weinroth switched races so late. Qualifying for the city election ended on Wednesday—two days away—and voting is on March 13. Time was short.

Campaign consultant Rick Asnani has worked for both Haynie and Weinroth. In an email sent at 1:35 p.m. on Monday, he laid out a scenario under which Andy Thomson —who ran unsuccessfully for the council last year as an Asnani client—would take Weinroth’s place. Thomson confirms that Weinroth approached him about running for the council and that he remained undecided on Monday. Thomson eventually declined to run.

The email said Haynie and Weinroth had “spoken,” that “Susan’s statement is being worked on” and that county commission paperwork for Weinroth and city council paperwork for Thomson also was “being worked on.” Asnani said he had talked with Eric Johnson, who is running Weinroth’s county campaign.

Under the scenario, Thomson would file for the council on Wednesday morning, after which Haynie would issue her statement and Weinroth would announce his switch. “Please let me know,” Asnani said, “if this is a plan we can all live with should this move forward.”

To Haynie, the “should” confirms that she had not decided. To Weinroth, the totality of the email confirms his account. “I felt sucker-punched,” he said.

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Haynie and Weinroth were working on different timetables. His was tight. Haynie, though, has until June 22 to qualify for the county commission. So she still could withdraw if the ethics issues become problems, though she’s acting like someone who’s in all the way.

Whatever happens from here, feelings between Haynie and Weinroth aren’t just bruised. They’re battered. “I thought he was a colleague,” Haynie says of her former political ally. Last week, she sent a letter to Weinroth’s contributors, telling them that their donations for one race now might be used against her in another. Haynie and Weinroth have had many similar contributors for city races.

For his part, Weinroth complains that because he and Haynie were in Tallahassee before the city qualifying deadline he couldn’t file for the county commission in time to have a better chance of shifting his donations. On Monday, Weinroth said he would return all council donations. “I’m starting from scratch.”

Weinroth is starting over in other ways. He has been a regular critic of BocaWatch, which has responded by regularly ripping Weinroth. As late as Jan. 7, BocaWatch criticized Weinroth for taking money from developers. In November, BocaWatch ran multiple of pictures of Haynie and Weinroth together, citing the mayor’s ethics investigations and calling them “two peas in a pod.”

Yet BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro was front and center at Weinroth’s kickoff last week. BocaWatch then gave favorable coverage to the event.

Weinroth supporters have noted this change of heart. They also note Weinroth’s shift on Midtown to the position BocaWatch has favored. (More about that later in this post.) Perhaps Zucaro, who lost to Haynie last year, considers Weinroth the enemy of his enemy. Or maybe there’s more. I emailed Zucaro to ask why he has embraced Weinroth. I didn’t hear back.

Post overreach?

In its Sunday story on the Haynie-Weinroth race, The Palm Beach Post ran this headline: “Broken deal leads to contentious race.” The implication is that there was a deal, and Haynie broke it.

Actually, to use the cliché, this is a she-said, he-said story. The principals disagree on whether there ever was such a deal. This is the second time The Post has overreached on a story involving Haynie.

A previous headline stated that Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics Executive Director Mark Bannon— during remarks to the city council—backed up the paper’s allegation that Haynie should not have voted on issues involving James and Marta Batmasian. A condo development in which the Batmasians own 80 percent of the units had a contract with a property management company owned by Haynie’s husband.

In fact, Bannon told me, the headline reflected the paper’s view, not his.

County Commision topics

After the initial back-and-forth between Haynie and Weinroth subsides, each will have to face the practical aspects of a county commission campaign.

Not only will the topics spread far beyond Boca Raton to the White House, Haynie will be running as a Republican and Weinroth as a Democrat. City races are non-partisan.

Within the city, voters are more likely to disregard party labels, if the labels are known. In November, though, the commission race will be part of a national mid-term election. Party labels will matter a lot to many voters. Most county issues also may be nonpartisan, but both parties keep track of who holds county office.

District 4 leans Republican. No Democrat has held it since the district was created in 1990. Boca Raton makes up nearly 50 percent of the district, but it also includes about half of Delray Beach and all areas east of Federal Highway as far north as the oceanfront condo town of South Palm Beach.

So Haynie’s material for her kickoff lists current and former elected officials from Boynton Beach, Lantana, Lake Worth and Palm Beach Shores, among others. It lists current city council members Jeremy Rodgers and Scott Singer. Most notably, she has the backing of District 4 incumbent Steven Abrams. Though a Republican, Abrams always has run well in heavily Democratic precincts in northwest Boca. So has Haynie.

Weinroth has run once outside of Boca Raton, getting 30 percent of the vote in 2012 in the partisan race for property appraiser. Haynie never has run outside the city.

More on Midtown

Here are more thoughts about the Boca Raton City Council’s delay last week of a decision on rules for redevelopment of Midtown.

If the Midtown landowners at last lose patience with the city and sue, that vote will be a big reason. The landowners’ contention for months has been that Boca Raton is seeking to impose “arbitrary” restrictions that don’t apply to landowners in similar areas.

In 2010, the council designated five sections of the city for Planned Mobility Development, designed to reduce dependence on cars. One of those sections is Midtown. The council voted last Tuesday to require a “small area plan” for Midtown. The council made up the term on the spot. (Think “double secret probation” in “Animal House.”) There are no specifics about what this “small area plan” is supposed to study. The council hasn’t approved it.

Practically speaking, however, the action again will delay a decision on Midtown. Among the landowners, it reinforces the belief that the council intends to stall while pretending to negotiate better terms.

Boca Raton did not require a “small area” or any sort of plan for other PMD areas. Mayor Haynie noted this. The city did not require any such plan for Mizner Park.

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who first proposed the idea, responded, “Just because we never have doesn’t mean we can’t.”

Her comment shows the risk of placing politics over policy. Some speakers that night opposed any residential development in Midtown. Others opposed allowing up to 2,500 units, even though the landowners had shown interest in a total barely half that number.

O’Rourke said of her proposal, “This is our community. This is what they want.” Actually, it’s what those in the council chambers wanted. There’s no way to tell what the wider community wants. More important, what some members of the public demand and what is legal may not align. South Florida is replete with cases where elected officials wrongly denied a project and the government in question paid big money.

Writing about this last week, I said the council had given city planners no guidance on negotiating with the landowners. Jeremy Rodgers, who voted with everyone except Haynie to ask for the vague study, emailed me to say that he suggested specifics. He does not believe that a Tri-Rail station is necessary for development approvals, that infrastructure be planned—though not built—before any approvals and that building height should “remain reasonable”—meaning less than 145 feet—next to existing residential neighborhoods.

The council could have agreed on suggestions and given staff two months more to negotiate. By refusing to do so, the council all but invited a lawsuit. You often hear politicians aspire to a “win-win solution.” If the Midtown landowners sue and win, and if the planned Midtown makeover doesn’t happen, the Boca Raton City Council will have found a lose-lose solution.

Chabad idea back in court

The effort not just against the first version of Chabad East Boca but against any version of a Jewish religious center near the beach is back in court Wednesday.

After the city council approved Chabad East Boca in 2015, a lawsuit in state court alleged that the council wrongly granted extra height for the cultural center that the chabad billed as a museum. The plaintiff won at trial and on appeal, thus killing the project.

In a separate, federal lawsuit, Gerald Gagliardi and Kathleen MacDougall have claimed that the city violated the First Amendment ban on establishment of religion by conspiring to move the chabad from the Golden Triangle to the site of the former La Vielle Maison restaurant at 770 East Palmetto Park Road. The Christian plaintiffs, who live in the nearby neighborhoods of Por La Mar and Riviera, argue that the city “disenfranchised” them by creating a “special benefit” for a “religious entity” that is Jewish.

After a district judge twice dismissed their lawsuit, the plaintiffs appealed. The issue before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week is whether the federal case is moot because of the ruling in state court.

The plaintiffs argue that they retain a “concrete interest, however small” because the zoning that allowed the chabad “remains in place.” Translation: The city might approve a new site plan for the chabad that adheres to the state ruling.

Attorneys respond that because the plaintiffs couldn’t prove damages from the old site plan, they certainly can’t prove damages from an invalidated site plan. In addition, the council subsequently limited building heights in that area to 30 feet. The conditional use had allowed the chabad’s original project to be 40 feet tall in some places.

By pursuing this appeal, the plaintiffs show that they oppose Chabad East Boca in any form. They contended that the project would have increased the risk of flooding and made it harder to evacuate ahead of storms—even though the chabad was less intense than other development allowed on the property.

This has been an ugly issue in Boca Raton’s history. Any damages are to the city’s reputation. One hopes that the court will side with the city.

School crowding

Boca Raton’s effort to reduce school crowding continued last week with release of a statement from the city and the Palm Beach County School District.

The statement came three days after the city council approved a resolution that would allow Boca Raton to donate 15 acres of land next to Estridge Middle School for a new elementary school. District planners now must prepare a proposal for the school board’s approval.

Luck helped Boca Raton. The deal for a developer to donate land near West Palm Beach fizzled. Money for the elementary school is in the district’s budget. If the board goes along, construction could run concurrent with the building of a new Verde Elementary west of Town Center Mall. Both could open in 2020. It takes roughly 10 months to build an elementary school.

Eventually, the new school would be K-8. At first, though, it would hold students from Addison Mizner Elementary. Discussion goes on about rebuilding that school or moving it. A lawsuit likely will prevent shifting to the southeast corner of Sugar Sand Park. The city and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District now are checking whether the northeast corner of Sugar Sand could work, despite it being near the Interstate 95 interchange at Palmetto Park Road.

If all elements fall into place, Boca Raton could gain significant capacity at several city schools. Though donation of the land helps, the biggest factor is revenue from the sales-tax surcharge. It passed in November 2016, getting 57 percent of the vote countywide. The margin was about the same within the city.

So if you hear an elected official touting the school plan, ask if he or she voted for the one-cent surcharge.

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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