12369402893?profile=RESIZE_710xManalapan Town Attorney Keith Davis (center) provides new commissioners and staff with coaching on the restrictions and rules they face. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

13 newcomers set to govern as fight against disclosure law takes shape

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Ocean Ridge: New commission appointees to serve until March election

South Palm Beach: No one ran for council seat; now at least three want it

By Anne Geggis

With five of its seven members newly sworn in — or about to be — the Manalapan Town Commission and its expected appointees received an 80-minute crash course in the new realities of holding a local elective office that pays little or nothing at all. 

Learning about how even an innocent “thumbs up” on a fellow commissioner’s social media could run afoul of state law was part of the discussion at the new Manalapan Town Commission’s workshop Jan. 23.

The lesson is bound to be repeated in some fashion elsewhere in coastal South Palm Beach County — where five towns have had to contend with 13 members of their governing bodies resigning in the past few months.

The situation also has some municipalities — including Briny Breezes and Delray Beach — interested in supporting a court challenge to the new state law that requires fuller financial disclosures of commission and council members. The law, which requires the annual filing of the state’s so-called Form 6, was the motivation behind most of the resignations.

Eighteen municipalities had shown interest as of Jan. 25 in joining the lawsuit being developed by the Weiss Serota Helfman Cole + Bierman law firm, said Jamie Cole, who is the lead attorney in the effort.

Filling empty seats
In the meantime, local governing bodies have been busy coming up with a raft of new appointees to round out their boards. The breakdown:

Manalapan: The mayor and four commissioners resigned because of Form 6. Four appointments were made in December, though one of those still needs to be sworn in, and another appointee awaits an official vote and swearing in, but the quintet sat on the dais for January’s workshop about their new, public roles.

Briny Breezes: The mayor, council president and an alderwoman resigned because of the Form 6 requirement; the council has filled the three posts, with one appointee yet to be sworn in.

Gulf Stream: One commissioner resigned in November and another in December, with new appointments made in December and January. Both have since been seated on the town’s planning board, where they are not required to file Form 6.

Ocean Ridge: Two commissioners resigned before the end of the year, with one directly connecting his resignation to the Form 6 requirements. Their two replacements took office in January.

South Palm Beach: Council member Robert Gottlieb resigned before the end of the year in part because of Form 6, but no replacement has been named yet. His seat is up for election in March, but no one filed to run for it in November — and still no candidate came forward during a special qualifying period in January. The one-short commission is now taking applications to fill the vacancy.

Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Highland Beach and Lantana escaped the onslaught, coming into the new year without having any resignations on their elected bodies.

Small towns hit hardest
The resignations have hit the smallest towns the hardest. All five of the coastal towns that had recent council or commission vacancies each have fewer than 3,000 residents.

It has raised the specter that eventually no one would be left to serve.

Form 6 is the same one that all elected members of county commissions, the state Legislature and the governor must fill out, as well as other state officials, but those exiting stage left in local municipalities see it as an unwarranted intrusion into their affairs.

Ken Kaleel, who was appointed to his second stint on the Ocean Ridge Town Commission in May, decided to call it quits just eight months later after he saw what he would have to file were he still on the commission on Jan. 1.

“I think it puts a cloud on community activism, frankly,” Kaleel said, noting that the law particularly hurts lawyers like himself who work at small firms because it would require them to list all their clients. The legislation (SB 774) that triggered this round of resignations passed the state Legislature last year with bipartisan support. The only opposition: five

Democratic senators and two Democratic representatives.

Republican Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman voted for it in the name of giving voters more information and deterring corruption. She admits to some surprise, however, at how many have opted to leave rather than fill out the form.

“The goal was to make everyone fully forthright and honest,” said Gossett-Seidman, who ascended to the Legislature from the Highland Beach Town Commission. “I don’t know that people felt that entire commissions would resign. I did not see that. I thought there might be some, but … not quite like this.”

She said that she’d be willing to consider legislation that set different levels of disclosure for different-sized towns.

Push for transparency
Professor Aubrey Jewett, who teaches a course in Florida politics at the University of Central Florida, said that he understands the desire that politicians should reveal all their entanglements.

“In the big picture, voters deserve transparency and accountability ... they should have the tools to make sure that their elected officials aren’t being unethical and aren’t in the pockets of big donors or business partners and that sort of thing,” he said.

“But having said that, you know, Florida seemed like it did OK under the old system.”

There was Form 1, after all. Form 1 required commission and council members to declare any assets worth more than $10,000. Under the new form, though, the level drops to $1,000. Some have complained that it includes a child’s prepaid college fund or a spouse’s engagement ring.

“It wasn’t as if these city councils and commission members didn’t have any financial disclosure before this,” Jewett said.

He said the smaller towns could soon run out of people willing to serve, given the dedication required while receiving little or no pay.

A portion of Manalapan’s 400-something residents might be children, ineligible to serve, Jewett joked.

He said he would be watching to see if some towns have nobody to step in to direct town managers and attorneys who oversee development, law enforcement and other municipal services.

Florida’s law is rare
At the law firm spearheading the effort against Form 6, Cole said he’s not been able to find any other state that requires elected officials to disclose so much financial information.

He said that it prompted at least 125 elected officials across the state to resign and angered many of those who remain.

“In many cities, most elected officials are paid very small amounts or not at all, and to ask them to give up so much privacy to serve the public … is not commensurate to what they’re doing,” Cole said.

Weeki Wachee was the last Florida town to be abolished, becoming  part of unincorporated Hernando County in 2020, Jewett said. That municipality had just 13 residents, however, and the dissolution occurred after it was revealed that the town manager had rung up $1 million in legal fees.

What happens next bears watching, Jewett said. And perhaps due, he said, is some legislative rethinking of the idea that elected representatives in Miami should meet the same requirements as those in Briny Breezes, which has just a smidge more than 500 souls.

Whether to go on as an incorporated town, or be absorbed into neighboring towns, had been raised in Manalapan regarding Form 6’s impact. But for now, all its chairs on the dais are filled.

Dwight Kulwin, scheduled to be sworn onto the Town Commission this month, said he didn’t mind enduring more than an hour of the town lawyer’s explanations about everything from a town manager’s duties to ex parte communications.

“It was fascinating and informative,” he said.

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