Thoughts and prayers for Orlando and updates on city issues

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Prayers

On my Boca Raton street Monday morning, everything seemed normal. Pool cleaners came and went, neighbors drove to work and ibis flew overhead.

Of course, things were not normal. We were thinking of Orlando. So before getting to other business, we start with outrage that this happened anywhere, but especially in Florida, and prayers for the victims’ families and friends.

Wildflower site predictions

Based on what happened last Thursday at the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board, one can reliably predict what will happen tonight when the city council considers the proposal for a restaurant on the Wildflower property.

• Opponents—most of them potential neighbors—will argue that the site should be a park. They may contend that the two-plus acres already are a park. James Hendrey, who led the petition drive for a referendum seeking to block the restaurant, told the board that the city wants to “sell a park.” Not true.

• Opponents also will argue that Hillstone Restaurant Group wouldn’t be paying enough. One board member noted, correctly, that though the annual payment for the first five years of the lease is $600,000, Boca Raton’s net revenue would be about $120,000 less each year because of the city paying the property taxes.

Fair enough. But here’s some perspective.

The first lease Hillstone proposed, in November 2013, called for $500,000 a year. That figure became the city’s target. So even with the city paying the tax, Boca would net out pretty much that target. And while the property tax would increase, so would lease payments.

• Discussion will go on far longer than necessary.

Opponents used Boca’s generous five-minute speaking time to make the same points over and over in increasingly tortured ways. My favorite moment came when Hendrey said using the site for a restaurant would prevent poor black kids from fishing there.

• Opponents will argue that the city council should delay any decision to introduce the ordinances that would allow a final public hearing on July 26. Critics will cite the need to wait for a supposed “traffic study” and for the petition referendum. They will be wrong on both points.

First, as Hillstone’s attorney and others pointed out, the presentation Monday from a consultant on ways to improve downtown traffic—more about that in my next item—is not a “study” of traffic related to the restaurant. That study has been done. With or without a restaurant, Boca Raton will seek to make downtown traffic flow better.

Second, unless the city attorney’s office opines otherwise, there is no legal reason to postpone debate for another five or six months.

The planning and zoning board recommended approval of the land-use and zoning changes for the restaurant and the site plan. Though the board recommended against approval of the lease, some board members said they voted no because they had received the lease only that morning.

Those statements seemed odd. A city spokeswoman said board members received the lease via email on Monday. Deputy City Manager George Brown and Hillstone General Counsel Glenn Viers agreed in response to my question that—aside from the numbers—the new lease is very similar to the original lease from 2013. It is even more similar to what Hillstone sent the city in January. I had read that lease. Anyone could have.

Tonight, at least, the critics will be speaking to the right people. The planning and zoning board’s very indulgent, aptly named chairman, William Fairman, reminded speaker after speaker that the board doesn’t set policy. Members voted on the facts before them. The council sets policy, and Boca Raton should hear what the council members think now, not in six months.

Introduction of the Wildflower ordinances at tonight’s meeting would start that discussion. Any criticism of “rushing” a decision is not credible. As noted, that first lease proposal came two and a half years ago. Opponents have ramped up their attacks only lately, when it became apparent that the deal actually might happen.

As Viers told me on Friday, he has married off a daughter and become a grandfather since Hillstone answered Boca Raton’s request for proposal (RFP.) Given that the city made the offer and the council has made the restaurant a priority, Viers said, “I just wish they would step up. Otherwise, why did they ask for the RFP?”

City or NIMBY?

Despite those pleas that the city make the Wildflower a park “for the people,” James Hendrey revealed Monday that the issue really is local, not citywide.

At Monday’s workshop, Hendrey told the city council that he and his neighbors would sue to block the restaurant on the grounds that noise from outdoor dining would be a nuisance. Hendrey lives across the Intracoastal Waterway and slightly north of the site.

Councilman Robert Weinroth responded by calling Hendrey’s comment “troubling” because what Hendrey had billed as a civic issue was now a “NIMBY” (Not In My Backyard Issue.) Though Hendrey’s comment was confrontational, at least it was finally honest.

And that pesky traffic issue

The Hillstone restaurant would be on the northeast corner of Palmetto Park Road and Northeast Fifth Avenue. During Monday’s workshop, city council members heard a consultant offer ways to improve traffic at that often problematic intersection.

According to the consultant, the most helpful change would be to add eastbound and westbound turn lanes. No other option comes close to offering that level of relief. The city also could change phasing of the traffic light and eliminate U-turns in both directions.

Yet the consultant recommends a “hybrid” option involving changes to sidewalks, road widening and traffic signals. The city council, however, indicated its presence for the turn lanes. City Manager Leif Ahnell said they could be in place by November, along with the changes to the traffic light.

The city also heard a presentation on other traffic improvements in and around downtown. I will have more about that on Thursday.

Delray’s city attorney candidates: Back stories

The Delray Beach City Commission didn’t rush its decision on a city attorney. That was the best thing to happen during Friday’s special meeting.

The commission narrowed the field to a pair of candidates—Pam Booker and Lynn Whitfield. Both have much related experience, and both present tough choices.

In February, Booker was fired as city attorney in Port St. Lucie after working in the legal department for nearly 20 years. The firing was unanimous.

Booker, who had been making $190,000, blamed the firing on city council members who did not want to hear what she believed was good legal advice. It’s true that the city can be a tough place for top administrators. Ask Delray Beach City Manager Don Cooper, who ran Port St. Lucie for almost two decades. One reporter wrote that the city manager might have been more responsible for communications problems the council blamed on Booker.

Still, one point of contention was that Booker’s office responded far too slowly to routine public records requests. In Port St. Lucie, those go through the city attorney’s office. Booker was quoted as saying that a delay of two or three weeks was reasonable. As someone who has made such requests for more than 30 years, I can tell you that such a delay for almost all requests is unreasonable.

Booker’s departure got messier when she rejected the city’s first severance offer because of a dispute over health care coverage. The package she was accepted in March was worth about $202,000.

With Whitfield, the potential issues are old and new.

In 1983, the Florida Supreme Court upheld a Florida Bar recommendation to suspend Whitfield for six months. According to the complaint, Whitfield—while working as an assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade County—had told the target of an investigation about the investigation. Whitfield also had “told an undercover agent that she knew where to obtain cocaine and that she later denied under oath making the statement and that the statement itself was true.” Embarrassingly, Delray Beach’s recruiter told the commission that the complaint had been dismissed.

Yet Whitfield later became deputy city attorney in West Palm Beach, city attorney in North Miami and city attorney in Hallandale Beach, her current position. Last year, a city commissioner tried to put on the agenda a motion to fire her. Whitfield—who is African-American— responded by accusing the commissioner—who is white—of racial and gender discrimination.

As the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported, the resulting investigation by an outside law firm found “no factual support” for Whitfield’s allegations. The report also concluded, however, that the commissioner had no credible basis for wanting to fire Whitfield.

If the commission can’t agree on either candidate, the commission could ask for more applicants or seek to hire an outside lawyer to act as city attorney. Commissioner Shelly Petrolia prefers that option, but Mayor Cary Glickstein believes that the move would cost Delray Beach more money. The current budget for the legal department, which includes five lawyers, is $1.2 million.

Unlike most cities, Delray Beach handles the bulk of its tort cases—personal injury claims—in-house. The potential cost of contracting for litigation would be a factor in any discussion of contracting for legal services.

If the city has received completed background checks on both candidates, the commission will discuss the choice at tonight’s workshop meeting.

Filling empty council seats

To understand the ordinance Scott Singer will present at tonight’s Boca City Council meeting, you need to know the back story.

For the second time in two months, Singer wants the council to consider changing how the city fills vacant council seats. Singer couldn’t get a second for his motion in May, so it died.

Currently, the council appoints someone to fill the vacancy until the next regularly scheduled city election. The winner then fills out the remainder of that term. Basically, Singer wants the city to hold a special election if the next scheduled election is more than 90 days from when the vacancy began.

Here is the back story:

Mayor Haynie’s term is up in March. She has opened a campaign account. If she wins re-election, Haynie would be a strong candidate to succeed County Commissioner Steven Abrams, who is term-limited in 2018.

If Haynie resigned to serve on the commission, the deputy mayor would become mayor, with the council filling the resulting vacancy. The current deputy is Mike Mullaugh, but he’s term-limited in March. After the 2017 election, the council will pick a new deputy mayor.

Singer, who’s up for re-election in March, and Robert Weinroth would like to succeed Haynie if she left in the middle of a second term. Moving from deputy to mayor would give someone an edge when the seat comes up again in 2020. Boca likely won’t hold an election in March 2019. Singer may believe that if he were not deputy mayor he could win a low-turnout special election.

Aside from the fact that his colleagues probably understand Singer’s motivation, there’s the issue of money. According to the city clerk’s office, a Boca-only election could cost between $120,000 and $150,000.

 

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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.