Voter fraud in Delray? And more on Atlantic Crossing

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Wow. You go on vacation for just a week, and all sorts of news happens.

Ballot fraud?

Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher told me Wednesday that she has been speaking with law enforcement officials about potential absentee ballot fraud in Palm Beach County ahead of the Aug. 30 primary, especially in Delray Beach and Boynton Beach.

Mike Edmondson, the spokesman for State Attorney Dave Aronberg, said he “could not confirm” whether the office is investigating. Bucher, however, said the office has “opened a case number.” Edmondson did say that the office has heard from Bucher about her suspicions.

Those areas of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach are mostly in County Commission District 7, where Priscilla Taylor is running for re-election. One of her challengers is Mack Bernard, who served on the Delray Beach City Commission and in the Florida House. Like many who live in those Delray Beach neighborhoods, Bernard is Haitian-American. So is Al Jacquet, the current city commissioner who is running for the state House.

Requests have gone to those neighborhoods seeking absentee ballots on behalf of Bernard and Jacquet. The Taylor campaign was concerned enough to send a mailer to all District 7 residents warning them that it is a crime for anyone but the voter even to fill out an absentee ballot application, let alone fill out the ballot. “We are very much concerned,” said Taylor campaign consultant Richard Giorgio, “that absentee ballot fraud has occurred.”

Absentee ballot questions have arisen in elections involving both men.

In 2012, Bernard ran against fellow Democrat Jeff Clemens for a Florida Senate seat. Clemens had big margins among early voters and on Election Day, but Bernard got nearly 1,300 absentee votes.

The race was close enough to trigger a manual recount, and then a hand recount. Clemens won by 17 votes after a judge rejected Bernard’s attempt to have Haitian-American voters testify that they really had filled out 40 disputed absentee ballots. The canvassing board determined that the signatures on the ballots did not match the signatures on file at the supervisor’s office. When that happens, the ballot is rejected.

In 2014, Jacquet won reelection in Delray Beach thanks to absentee ballots. Challenger Chris Davey led by 429 votes at the polls, but Jacquet got nearly 700 more absentee votes. Many came from Haitian-American neighborhoods. Jacquet’s 1,223 absentees were a remarkable 61 percent of his total. In his first city commission race, Jacquet got just 318 absentee votes.

Once, only those who physically couldn’t get to the polls used absentee ballots. Both parties now rely heavily on them. Absentee votes gave Gov. Rick Scott his two narrow margins. Absentees also are probably the least regulated parts of Florida’s election system.

Atlantic Crossing: time for a deal?

A federal judge finally may have compelled the developers of Atlantic Crossing to stop paying lawyers and cut a deal with Delray Beach.

Last week. U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks granted the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit that sought $40 million in damages from what Atlantic Crossing claimed was a conspiracy to withhold final approvals for the mixed-use project west of Veterans Park. Middlebrooks kicked the case back to state court, where Atlantic Crossing is not seeking monetary damages.

Atlantic Crossing can’t amend its complaint and try again with Middlebrooks. The developers could go to the 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals, but that might take as long as a year, and Atlantic Crossing would face long odds. If the developers tried to amend the complaint in state court, Delray Beach surely would oppose that.

The issue remains an access road to the project from Federal Highway. A two-way road was in the original site plan, but it wasn’t in the version the city commission approved in January 2014. A previous city commission approved the project in December 2012.

Even the harshest critics of Atlantic Crossing understand that the developers will build something on those two blocks north of Atlantic Avenue. This commission can’t undo that 2012 approval. The city’s priority has been to make Atlantic Crossing as compatible as possible. That means easing the traffic impact.

A year ago, when an agreement on that access road seemed possible, the commission tied itself in knots trying to decide which sort of road would work best. The city hired a consultant, who concluded that a one-way road actually would be more helpful than a two-way. The commission, however, never blessed any option.

The turning point came in April, when the commission could have approved the one-way road. Instead, Mayor Cary Glickstein and commissioners Mitch Katz and Shelly Petrolia rejected it. The problem wasn’t just that it would have been a one-way road. Glickstein said the road would have looked more like a “service alley.” The commission’s action started the city and the developers on a schedule that could have led to a trial in October with much at risk for the city.

Almost certainly, that risk is over. Credit the city’s outside counsel—the Fort Lauderdale firm of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman. Matthew Mandel, chairman of the firm’s litigation division, understated when he called Middlebrooks’ ruling “a very positive development” in an email to the commission.

So what happens now? From my conversations, I don’t sense much desire among the commissioners for Delray Beach to reach out. That’s no surprise. For now, Atlantic Crossing is in the far weaker position because of Middlebrooks’ ruling, so the city would be more likely to wait for an offer. I would expect the commission to discuss the issue in an executive session—closed to the public— before the Aug. 16 meeting.

As for Atlantic Crossing, Edwards Companies Vice President Don DeVere issued a noncommittal statement after Middlebrooks’ ruling. Because Edwards bought the Atlantic Crossing site in June from CDS Holdings—Carl DeSantis— there’s no longer any doubt about who is making the decisions. It’s the developer out of Columbus, Ohio, that has mystified Delray Beach officials with its seeming preference for litigation over negotiation.

I’m told that state cases like this can drag on for months, even years. Atlantic Crossing would have enough issues to work out with the city—underground parking—while getting all its permits. Why not revert to the 2009 plan with the two-way road?

Bruce Leiner, whose Harbour House condominium lost a state case against Atlantic Crossing, told me that he would be fine with the 2009 plan. “The property owner has rights,” Leiner said. Regarding that city consultant favoring the one-way road, Leiner said the consultant worked off a site plan that Atlantic Crossing could improve.

Delray Beach’s lawyers just won big. There seems no reason, however, for only lawyers to keep winning on Atlantic Crossing.

Ocean Breeze

Once Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie shifted her position on the city and the golf business, the company that wants to buy one course because of problems in trying to develop another course made its move.

In time for last Tuesday’s city council meeting, Lennar sent a proposal under which the company would buy the 27-hole course on Glades Road near Florida’s Turnpike for $37.5 million. Lennar would deliver to the city Ocean Breeze Golf Course, part of the Boca Teeca community north of Yamato Road and east of Interstate 95. Wells Fargo owns the property, but Lennar has been negotiating with Boca Teeca residents. The appraised value of Ocean Breeze would be deducted from the $37.5 million.

To Lennar executives and many Boca Teeca residents, everybody would win. Lennar wants to build at least 400 homes and 200 multi-family units on the city golf course. Lennar also would like to develop Ocean Breeze, but a deed restriction requires any developer to obtain permission from a majority of the units and then get approval from the city council.

Lennar is unlikely to secure that approval. In the letter to the city, company vice-president Bruce Grundt notes, “Unfortunately, as is so often the case in mature communities, some residents of Boca Teeca have campaigned against the redevelopment of Ocean Breeze, putting forward objections and concerns that we believe are unwarranted. . .” Note that Grundt refers to putting homes on open space as “redevelopment.”

Happily for Lennar, Haynie’s newfound interest in golf as a city amenity “could amicably resolve and assuage the dissident residents of Boca Teeca. . .” It also would move Lennar ahead of competitors for the desirable city golf course property. The swap would depend on Lennar getting county approval for at least those 600 units. The city’s golf course actually lies outside the city.

Even if Boca Raton agreed to the swap, however, would a golf course be the best use for Ocean Breeze’s roughly 200 acres? The current golf course ran a deficit of about $230,000 in the last budget year. The city’s financial forecast shows that golf course revenue this year and next year will be below what it was in 2007. Ocean Breeze would need several million dollars’ worth of improvement before opening for play.

Councilman Robert Weinroth has said he opposes using Ocean Breeze as a golf course if the city gets the land. He wants to see other recreational uses, which could come with expenses of their own.
A swap would be good for Lennar and Boca Teeca, which could be good for Haynie as she runs for re-election. The important issue, however, is whether the swap would be good for the city—or at least good enough.

 

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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.