Monday, September 25, 2023

Wildflower Park Costs Rise Again, and an Update on Delray Lawsuits

Boca Raton may not be willing to break the bank for Wildflower/Silver Palm Park, but the city seems likely to spend more than budgeted.

As I reported last week, the contractor had proposed a $10.3 million guaranteed maximum price for the roughly 6-acre park. It will include the former Wildflower nightclub site at Palmetto Park Road on the Intracoastal Waterway and the existing Silver Palm Park south of the bridge. Silver Palm features the city’s only motorized boat launch.

At one point, the budget was about $7 million. The revised budget was $8.3 million, which rose to $8.8 million after council members added changes. The construction estimate pushed the projected cost even higher for what still looks mostly like a neighborhood park.

By Monday’s workshop meeting, staff members had met with the contractor and proposed cuts and “value engineering” that brought the cost to roughly $270,000 over budget. An example of the excess: City Manager Leif Ahnell said the first estimate had called for “etched lettering” on signs that he deemed more suited to a “Washington Monument” structure.

Council members in general seemed to understand the need for scaling back the costs. The most resistant was Andrea O’Rourke, which is not surprising.

O’Rourke launched her political career by opposing the original plans to lease the Wildflower site for a restaurant and bring revenue to the city. O’Rourke backed the 2016 petition drive for a deceptive referendum. It falsely claimed that the city wanted to “sell off” waterfront parks. In fact, the Wildflower land, which the city bought in 2009, was not a park.

Based on that rhetoric, however, voters backed the referendum, which prohibited the restaurant. There followed a long campaign that touted Wildflower/Silver Palm as Boca Raton’s version of Riverwalk in San Antonio and other well-known waterfront gathering places.

That hype has now met financial reality. To come in on budget, the council would have cut the “interactive water feature” on the Wildflower side. The staircase feature would become benches. Almost all the elements would have to be cheaper, from pavers to light poles.

And there will be no place to launch non-motorized boats, such as kayaks and canoes, which at one point had been a touted amenity. Coastal Project Manager Jennifer Bistyga, who made the presentation, helpfully noted that people could launch those boats when the renovated Lake Wyman/Rutherford Park “a short distance away” opens.

O’Rourke dug in. She claimed that her idea of the park “had been voted on by the people of our city.” In fact, no plan was on that 2016 ballot item. The supposed “vision” didn’t grow out of any widespread public demand for a fancy park at this location.

In O’Rourke’s mind, however, people will sit under sail shades and “watch the boats go by.” The park will be one stop on a “blueway”—boat service that connects waterfront locations. Take out the neat features, O’Rourke grumped, and “we might as well put grass down.”

Mayor Scott Singer suggested diplomatically that O’Rourke’s comment was “not quite fair.” He tried to keep the discussion focused on cuts where there was consensus. “We need to get this done.” Prices in the proposed contract will rise if the city doesn’t act soon.

Council members ended things Monday with a request to staff for more details but a willingness to go over budget in hopes of saving that “vision.” They hope to agree on a price in two weeks. If that happens, construction could start in June. The work will take a year.

But if they build it for all that money, will many people come?

Coleman and Stewart lawsuit status

At last week’s Delray Beach City Commission meeting, Mayor Shelly Petrolia wanted to indirectly discuss a major lawsuit against the city. It didn’t happen, which probably was good for the city.

The lawsuit is from Michael Coleman and Jamael Stewart, who were the top two administrators of the Community and Neighborhood Services Department when they resigned in June 2019. Coleman and Stewart allege that they were forced into departing because they found “malfeasance” concerning former Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher. She had been their supervisor.

Investigations of Coleman and Stewart followed. The Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics cleared them.

In February, however, the Office of Inspector General reached a different conclusion, finding that the two men had violated city policy in how they directed private grant money. Inspector General John Carey said his agency and the ethics commission “dug in different places and reached different conclusions.”

Petrolia wanted to discuss Carey’s report. Cryptically, she said, “The whole truth hasn’t come out.”

Commissioner Juli Casale said, apropos of nothing, “We need to work on our transparency.” Petrolia noted the “two scenarios” and added, “We need to get to the truth.”

Coleman and Stewart had high standing in the community. They retain that, which explains Commissioner Ryan Boylston’s reference to “pressure from the public” on behalf of the two men. Still, Boylston said, “I’m not going to let Facebook posts push me.”

Things got weirder when Petrolia responded, “I’ve heard from actual people.” Casale chimed in, “These are reputable people.”

Ultimately, the discussion never came up, which made sense. The commission has an executive session—public excluded—today on the litigation. A hearing on the lawsuits is scheduled for May 6. Soon enough, Boylston said, a judge will tell the city whether the lawsuit has merit.

Lauzier lawsuit headed for trial

Speaking of lawsuits against Delray Beach, the wrongful termination claim by former City Manager Mark Lauzier seems headed for a trial.

Last week, the city filed its list of 56 exhibits. In February, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Samantha Schosberg Feuer ruled against the city’s motion for summary judgment. “There are genuine issues of material fact,” Feuer said, “that remain in this case.”

The commission fired Lauzier on March 1, 2019 after giving almost no public notice. He claims that he was fired in retaliation for questioning Petrolia’s attempt to have the city pay for her son’s trip to Tallahassee. The chain of events he alleges is similar to that of George Gretsas, who succeeded Lauzier and was fired last November.

Firearms regulation

On Friday, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled against Boca Raton and 29 other cities that had challenged a state law on firearms regulation.

In 1987, the Legislature preempted all such rules to the state. In 2011, however, Tallahassee went further by seeking to intimidate city and county elected officials who try to enact rules that the preemption didn’t cover.

The new law subjected those officials to a $5,000 fine if the courts struck down any rules a local government approved. In addition, the officials could face civil lawsuits—from gun-rights groups, for example—and damages up to $100,000 for which they would be personally responsible. Officials cannot defend themselves based on good faith or advice of counsel. Finally, the governor can remove officials who back such rules.

The plaintiffs argued that the penalties violated the separation of powers by stripping local officials of immunity that applies to the legislators who passed the law. In July 2019, the trial court judge sided with the plaintiffs on most issues.

Last week, however, the appeals court overturned that decision. Writing for the unanimous three-member panel, Judge Susan Kelsey called the provisions “valid and enforceable.” Separation, she said, matters less than “legislative authority.”

Former Gov. Rick Scott, who signed these provisions into law, appointed Kelsey and one other judge on the panel. Kelsey gratuitously scolded the plaintiffs for “testing the boundaries of the Second Amendment.”

Weston, in Broward County, led the lawsuit. The plaintiffs could appeal, but the mindset of the Florida Supreme Court is similar to that of the appeals court.

Delray Affair

Though some vendors complained, no one in Delray Beach was especially concerned about the one-year move of Delray Affair to the Boynton Beach Mall.

Boylston said trying to hold the event at its usual downtown location–and closing streets–would have disrupted outdoor seating for restaurants. Many are using that amenity to get through the pandemic.

Popup vaccines at Wayne Barton Center


Another local official helped get a supply to COVID-19 vaccines to an underserved area.

The Wayne Barton Study Center, which operates out of Boca Raton’s Pearl City neighborhood, hosted a popup site last Friday and Saturday in its gymnasium. The event advertised 800 doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Appointments were not required.

According to a news release, state Sen. Tina Polsky—who represents Boca Raton—and the Florida Division of Emergency Management collaborated on the event. Previously, Sen. Bobby Powell and County Commissioner Mack Bernard worked with Delray Beach Police Chief Javaro Sims to set up a site at Mount Olive Baptist Church.

Reaching herd immunity—and returning to normal life —depends on such micro efforts. Keep them coming.

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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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