By Dan Moffett
Gulf Stream commissioners moved with unusual speed to pass unanimously an emergency ordinance that brings the town’s code in line with federal disability housing requirements.
The new law took effect immediately, without the typical second reading and the typical second commission vote for approval, according to Town Clerk Rita Taylor.
Why the hurry and what’s the emergency? Sober houses. And Martin O’Boyle.
A week before the June 13 commission meeting, O’Boyle sent a letter to the town announcing he was moving forward with a plan to open sober houses in Gulf Stream.
“I have made a decision to form a company to acquire houses in Gulf Stream for use as Sober Houses,” O’Boyle said in a letter to Town Manager William Thrasher. “I intend to begin the implementation of this program forthwith.”
O’Boyle, a longtime resident and unsuccessful candidate for commissioner who has filed numerous lawsuits against the town over a wide range of issues, ended the letter with an admonishment, if not a warning: “And, I remind you, that it is our intention to move forward in a rapid fashion. Consequently, we would intend to hold the Town of Gulf Stream accountable for any damages we incurred as a result of purposeful delays.”
Mayor Scott Morgan declined to draw a connection between the hastily passed ordinance and O’Boyle’s announcement.
“We thought we had to act in an expedited manner because this issue has been coming up here and in other communities,” Morgan said. “The recent case in Boca Raton was also a factor.”
The Boca Raton case dates back to 2006, and Gulf Stream Town Attorney John Randolph said he consulted with the city’s attorneys and used the ordinance that ultimately came out of the court ruling as a model for the town’s new law.
U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks ruled that a Boca Raton ordinance banning sober houses from residential neighborhoods was discriminatory and violated the federal Fair Housing Act. Plaintiffs in the case hailed the decision as a victory for recovering addicts, who deserved protection under federal law, including also the Americans with Disabilities Act, as handicapped and disabled people.
Boca Raton City Council members had passed an ordinance in 2002 that would have required sober houses to move into areas zoned for medical centers and hotels, before lawsuits forced the city to back off.
Sober houses are homes where people in recovery for drug or alcohol problems live while they are receiving treatment at other sites. No treatment takes place in sober houses.
Like the Boca ordinance, the Gulf Stream law allows “disabled individuals (or qualifying entities) to request reasonable accommodations” that could include exceptions or modifications of the town’s housing codes.
The ordinance has a provision that could allow the town to request medical information from sober house residents to document their conditions.
The law says the town should “treat such medical information as confidential information of the disabled individual.”
O’Boyle urged the commission to delay action on the ordinance and suggested that requiring the disclosure of medical records might violate HIPPA rules — the American Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 that sets standards for patients’ privacy.
O’Boyle asked Randolph whether the town would request medical records or require them. Randolph said the language in the Boca law had been approved by Middlebrooks himself.
“This is an ordinance that was approved by a judge in the Southern District Court of Florida,” he said. “I felt it was an appropriate ordinance on that basis to present to the commission.”
To underscore the implementation of the new rules, commissoners took another uncommon step: They held a special meeting on July 1, with the sole purpose of voting for the ordinance a second time. It was re-adopted unanimously and the meeting adjourned in five minutes.