assisted by Deputy Town Clerk Lanelda Gaskins.
Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
When Highland Beach commissioners decided to break with years of tradition and move the polling place for municipal elections into the town’s public library, skeptics worried that a lack of parking, confusion and other issues would negatively impact voting.
But commissioners, concerned about impartiality and thinking elections should be held on neutral public property rather than at nearby St. Lucy Catholic Church, decided to move forward anyway.
The gamble paid off.
“It was perfect,” said Vice Mayor Bill Weitz, who was one of the strongest supporters of moving the election site. “This town has shown that elections can be held at a municipal facility.”
During a special commission meeting last month to swear in the winners of the March 14 election — Mayor Carl Feldman and commissioners Elyse Riesa and Rhoda Zelniker — Weitz took the opportunity to answer each question that had been raised.
“Did a lot of people vote?” he asked. “Yes. Did people vote unimpeded? Yes. Did people have a problem getting to the voting site? No.
“Did people have easy access getting to the voting site? Yes. Were there huge lines at the voting site? No. Did people have an opportunity to speak to candidates who were on the side in an appropriate free-speech area without being harassed or hassled? Yes. And most of all, was there a parking problem? Hell no.”
By the time the polls closed at 7 p.m., 760 voters had cast ballots at the library, according to Town Manager Valerie Oakes. Another 372 voted via mail-in ballots, according to the county supervisor of elections. The total of 1,132 ballots were cast by almost 32 percent of the 3,558 registered voters in town.
“Getting a turnout of more than 30 percent in a municipal election is incredible,” Weitz said.
To ensure the safety and convenience of residents, the commission took the unusual step of closing all the town’s administrative offices and the town’s post office as well as the library, freeing up parking spaces that normally would be used by municipal employees and visitors.
“At no point was the parking lot ever full,” Oakes said. “There were no accidents or incidents.”
To avoid confusion, the town sent postcards announcing the change to all registered voters and posted additional signs on Election Day announcing the polling location.
In addition to welcoming newly elected members, commissioners recognized the accomplishments of outgoing Mayor Bernard Featherman, who had to give up his seat after six years because of term limits.
“It’s been one of the great privileges of my life to be able to serve you, the people of Highland Beach,” Featherman said. “I have loved the job as your mayor, I have loved working with our wonderful staff, I have loved working with our outstanding commissioners, and I have loved this special slice of heaven and the people I have met here.”
In the mayoral race, Feldman, who relinquished his post as commissioner, outpolled former Vice Mayor Ron Brown 612 to 502, or 55 to 45 percent.
Incumbent Zelniker turned aside a challenge from architect Barry Donaldson to keep her commission seat, 601 votes to 511, or 54 to 46 percent.
Newcomer Riesa gathered 527 votes (48 percent) to Melissa Ebbs’ 468 (43 percent) and Carl Gehman’s 102 (9 percent).