What is the Gardens Election About?

Palm Beach Gardens is a nice place to live. A collection of mostly upscale, private communities, surrounding a business core along PGA Boulevard that features the Gardens Mall, Downtown at the Gardens, and Legacy Place among others, it is green, attractive, safe and prosperous. Taxes are not too high, planning and zoning rules ensure that new development adheres to standards of attractiveness, and the economy is improving. City government has been fiscally responsible for the most part, and no officials have gone to jail recently.

Yet this year, two of the three council members up for election in March have drawn an opponent, a group is circulating a petition to enforce term limits on the incumbents, and large numbers of red-shirted protestors invaded the usually staid Council Meetings. Is there trouble in paradise?

It is easy to conclude that the proposal to place a large baseball stadium in close proximity to schools and quiet residential neighborhoods is the cause of the angst, or more specifically the way the proposal was managed. Backroom discussions between the team owners, county officials and the city were ongoing for over a year before the public became aware of it. A minor story in a Houston paper that quoted Astros Owner Jim Crane that the Palm Beach Gardens stadium was 95% complete and only needed a final vote by the City Council took many by surprise. What followed was a series of obfuscations and denials from city officials that went on long enough to generate a large and vocal opposition.

To many, the handling of the stadium proposal by City Manager Ron Ferris, and the reluctance of any of the sitting council members to disclose if they support it or not, showed arrogance and a distinct lack of transparency. Although restrictions do exist on divulging the content of confidential discussions related to economic development projects, once Jim Crane let the cat out of the bag the Council should have been more forthcoming.

So let’s stipulate that the stadium is a black eye for the current Council. But is this serious enough to threaten the seats of the two incumbents, Marcie Tinsley and Eric Jablin?

Incumbents rarely lose, unless they are tainted by major scandal, or voters perceive the government has gone off the rails in some way. In Palm Beach Gardens, there is no scandal that we know of, and most residents who are not actively involved with the city have little about which to complain. At least on the surface, the stadium is now a non-issue, as the Council has voted to terminate the project.

On the “typical” issues of taxes and the budget, economic development, the environment and growth, the candidates are really not very far apart.

So what is this election really about?

At PBG Watch, we strongly believe that no elected officials should get a free ride. It is good for our system of government when there are challengers, and since no official or group of officials is perfect, there are always shortcomings to criticize. After several years of observing Council meetings, we have seen a certain smugness from the dais. The mishandling of the stadium project suggested a lack of preparedness for hard questions, and the refusal to fully disclose the true status of the project is a symptom.

Over the past weeks, the candidates met the voters and each other in various meet & greets, forums (including ours on February 25), gave interviews to the media, sent many pieces of mail, and otherwise got out their message. They used many different issues to differentiate themselves from each other and to educate the public on what is important.

In our view, the Council’s biggest area for improvement is in transparency and respect for due process. Listed below are several actions taken by the current Council that could have been handled better. This election, in our view, is really about these things, and whether the voters will decide that a change is needed. Hopefully, we will have a more open and responsive council going forward, whoever wins.

The following are some past council actions that we hope will be considered by the voters as the make their choice on March 11:

  • While details of the stadium proposal were being suppressed, the Council moved ahead on Ordinance 16 and 19 – which eliminate the “uplands setaside” provisions for land owned by a government. While staff denies that it was introduced specifically for the stadium project, they do admit that not having it would make the stadium harder.
  • The Waste Management contract was renewed for 5 years without going out for bids. This was done a year ahead of schedule, added to the Council agenda a month before it had been advertised, not included in the printed agenda at the meeting, and voted on near 11:00pm when most of the meeting attendees had left. Inspector General Sheryl Steckler admitted the action did not violate the letter of the law, but it should not have been done this way. When Delray Beach did this, new Councilmen were elected who then moved to void the contract after the fact.
  • When the Inspector General Ordinance that extended jurisdiction over the city was passed by 72% of the voters in 2010, the Council and staff moved quickly to add definitions of “waste, fraud and abuse” to the city code with the effect of obstructing the jurisdiction of the IG over city business. Similar definitions had been proposed and rejected by the county ordinance drafting committee.
  • When West Palm Beach brought suit against the county, objecting to the ordinance requirement to pay for the Office of Inspector General, our Council voted 5-0 (again late at night) to join the lawsuit and withhold payment for the OIG. The net effect is to limit the investigative power of the OIG by constraining staffing.
  • When the City Attorney determined that the City Charter was in conflict with state statutes, the Council directed him to create a ballot question for the 2012 election. Rather than introduce individual changes to the charter, the entire document was scrapped and re-written from scratch, without convening a charter review committee or drawing from the work of the previous committee report, and public comments were entertained only after the fact. The first iteration contained an “incumbent protection” provision that eliminated runoff elections for city council when a race contained 3 or more candidates and no majority is attained. That provision was dropped only after significant public opposition. The ballot amendment was defeated by the voters and the existing charter still stands.

Have the challengers, Robin Deaton and Michael Peragine made their case for change on these issues? Have the incumbents, Marcie Tinsley and Eric Jablin offered explanations that are acceptable to the voters? We will find out on March 11.

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