By Rich Pollack
A war of words between a candidate for Highland Beach Town Commission and the leader of the church that is the town’s only polling location prompted town leaders to move the March 14 election to Town Hall.
In a 3-2 vote late last month, commissioners agreed to move the polling place to the town’s public library despite being informed that leaders of St. Lucy Catholic Church had a change of heart and rethought their reluctance to continue serving as a polling place.
Last month, the Rev. D. Brian Horgan, of St. Lucy Catholic Church, told the town the church would no longer be a polling place unless he received an apology from Town Commission candidate Carl Gehman.
Gehman, who had scheduled a meeting with Horgan to ask for equal time after hearing from a third party that the church had voiced support for another candidate — a claim Horgan denies — was asked to leave the church office several times.
Church leaders say Gehman became “very agitated” when he and his wife arrived at the church for a meeting that was canceled at the last minute because of a scheduling conflict.
“This whole thing wouldn’t have happened if he had just sat down with me,” Gehman said.
Horgan’s memos revoking permission to use the church as a polling place sent town officials scrambling to find a new location.
During a special meeting late last month, however, former Vice Mayor Ron Brown — who is running for mayor — told commissioners he was bringing a message from Horgan that the church would be more than happy to host the election.
That decision brought a sharp response from Vice Mayor Bill Weitz, who said he thinks the church reconsidered to provide an advantage to a few candidates in the election.
“This is simply a political stunt to support certain candidates,” Weitz said. “I think it’s time we go on record to say we can have the election on a neutral site.”
Weitz said he thinks the initial actions of the church, in revoking permission to hold the election on its property and to not allow election parking on the site unless it received an apology from Gehman, were unfair to the town, which was an uninvolved third party in the dispute.
“It should be clear that there was an inappropriate ultimatum on this commission,” Weitz said. “We were being coerced.”
Weitz’s motion to move the election drew support from Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker and Mayor Bernard Featherman and opposition from Commissioners Carl Feldman and Lou Stern.
“I think it’s part of the charm of a small town to hold an election in the Town Hall,” Zelniker said.
Feldman, who is running for mayor against Brown, said he had no problem with holding the election at the church, but said because there are eight candidates running for three seats, it would be best to have a “candidate-free zone” to make sure candidates didn’t get in the way of church members going to Mass.
Stern said he thinks moving the election to town facilities would be an inconvenience to residents since the library would have to be closed for the day and other facilities could be impacted.
Because of limited parking, Highland Beach Town Hall and the adjacent library have not been considered as a polling place in the past, especially with the availability of the church, which has many more available parking spots.
Interim Town Manager Valerie Oakes told commissioners she is planning to close administrative offices in Town Hall and the library on election day in order to free up additional parking spots.
Horgan said that the church would open its parking lot — which is just a short walk from Town Hall — to the town on election day.
Oakes said the town has 57 spaces available, including five handicapped spots, and that the Police Department will be available to assist with traffic control and parking if needed.
She also pointed out that many residents walked to the polling place or rode their bicycles.
Resident Barry Donaldson, who is running against Zelniker for a three-year term, said he was concerned that the change in polling places could confuse some voters who have been voting at the church for years.
Oakes, however, said the town will be conducting a communication campaign, including letters to registered voters, to ensure residents know of the change.
In addition to Gehman, those running for the two-year seat Feldman is vacating are Melissa Ebbs, Elyse Riesa and Peter Rodis.