By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach voters will be visiting a new polling place when they select a mayor and two commissioners on March 14, and they’ll see more names on the ballot than they have in recent memory.
In a town where candidates — especially incumbents — often run unopposed, the 2017 municipal elections mark a vivid departure from the past.
Three candidates, Melissa Ebbs, Carl Gehman and Elyse Riesa, are vying for a two-year commission seat that opened up when Commissioner Carl Feldman decided to make a run for mayor.
Feldman is running against former Vice Mayor Ron Brown for the mayor’s seat, which becomes opens this month when Mayor Bernard Featherman steps down due to term limits.
In a race for a three-year term on the commission, incumbent Rhoda Zelniker is facing a challenge from architect Barry Donaldson.
With the appointment of resident George Kelvin last month to fill the seat of Commissioner Lou Stern, who died on Feb. 8, residents are now assured of seeing at least two new faces on the commission and possibly four.
One reason for the increased interest from candidates this year may be that there are two seats — the mayor’s seat and Feldman’s commission seat — that won’t be filled by the incumbent.
But Feldman said he is intrigued by the additional interest.
“I don’t understand this election at all,” he said, trying to explain why so many candidates are running this year. “The town is in great shape.”
Feldman cites as successes the tax cuts residents have enjoyed for two consecutive years as well as a more collegial attitude among commissioners.
But Brown, his opponent, thinks the increased interest may be a reflection that some in town are seeking change.
“I think this commission has pursued a path different from what residents want,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest change residents will notice when they cast ballots this month is a switch in the polling location.
As a result of a dispute between Gehman and leaders of St. Lucy Catholic Church, which has hosted the town’s only polling location for many years, town commissioners decided to move the election to the town library.
To maximize available parking at the town’s municipal complex — which includes the library and Town Hall — town leaders are taking steps to reduce the inconvenience, including limiting the number of town offices open during the election.
The decision to move the polling place came after church leaders revoked permission to use the facility because of a verbal skirmish with Gehman, who said the church was supporting another candidate. He was upset that a meeting he requested to ask for equal time was canceled at the last minute.
Church leaders later reversed course and sent word that voters would be welcome, but town commissioners decided to stay with a plan to move the polling place to the library.
The church came under fire from some residents again last month amid complaints that signs favoring certain candidates were allowed in front of church property and visible to A1A. In response, church leaders asked that all signs be taken down.Ú
The Highland Beach municipal election will be held on March 14 at the town’s public library, 3618 S. Ocean Blvd. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.