Boca Raton: Council seeks clearer ethics procedures

By Mary Hladky

    Boca Raton City Council members asked the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics to clarify if Mayor Susan Haynie can vote on matters coming before the council that involve James Batmasian, the city’s largest commercial landowner.
    They also want more transparency about how to handle potential conflicts of interest involving council members.
    These issues arose after a Nov. 5 Palm Beach Post report found that a property management firm — Community Reliance — owned by Haynie and her husband, Neil, has been paid $12,000 a year since 2010 by the master association of Tivoli Park, a 1,600-unit apartment complex in Deerfield Beach.
    Batmasian and his wife, Marta, own 80 percent of the Tivoli Park units, and five of the six Tivoli board members work for the Batmasians’ company, Investments Limited, the Post reported.
    Haynie has denied that she acted improperly, noting that she requested an opinion from the ethics commission on whether she could vote.
The article raises the question of whether Haynie has a conflict of interest in voting on matters involving the Batmasians and if she should recuse herself. Haynie has cast at least 12 votes on such matters, according to the Post.
    Haynie was one of the registered agents for Community Reliance, but her name was removed last year. About half her votes took place after Haynie left the company, the Post reported. Palm Beach County’s ethics code prohibits an official from casting a vote that benefits a spouse.
    The commission determined in 2013 that there was an “insufficient nexus” among the Batmasians, the master association and an issue coming before the City Council for Haynie to be prohibited from voting. But in that specific case, Batmasian was neither the applicant nor the developer.

A county ethics investigator has filed a public records request for some of Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie’s emails.  Haynie said earlier that she relied on legal guidance before voting on issues that might have raised questions about conflicts of interest.  Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

    “I have always followed the process and relied on professional legal guidance,” Haynie said at a Nov. 13 Community Redevelopment Agency meeting at which ethics issues were discussed. “As an elected official, I have a responsibility to vote if there is no conflict. And that’s what I was advised to do.”
    Yet Mark Bannon, the commission’s executive director, signaled in advance that the commission would not revisit its 2013 opinion.
“We would not be able to give an ethics opinion about an ethics opinion,” he said after the Nov. 13 meeting.
In a Nov. 28 letter to City Manager Leif Ahnell, Bannon confirmed that, saying that an ethics opinion must be requested by the public official or employee who is affected, and not by the entire city council. As a result, the ethics commission can not “affirm or re-address” its 2013 opinion, he said.
Asked after the Nov. 13 meeting if the opinion allowed Haynie to vote on projects the Batmasians are involved in, Bannon said “no.” He then added, “That opinion is a very narrow opinion. It talked about a specific circumstance. That does not mean anything [Haynie] has done violates that opinion.”
But a commission investigator has filed a public records request with the city. Abigail Irizarry asked for copies of emails from Haynie, Boca Raton City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser and Joshua Koehler between January and December 2013 that contain certain key words. She also requested all site approval plans from January 2013 until this November containing many of the same key words. Those key words include Batmasian and Investments Limited.
Koehler was not identified in the request, but a Joshua Koehler was Boca Raton’s senior assistant city attorney as of Oct. 19.
Bannon would not comment on the records request. But he did say the commission has the authority to investigate if it gets new information, including from a media report. He would not comment on whether the Post article was sufficient to spark an inquiry.
Council member Andrea O’Rourke asked for the matter to be placed on the Nov. 13 meeting agenda.
“This is something we cannot ignore,” she said at that meeting, adding that many matters coming before the council directly or indirectly involve the Batmasians.
O’Rourke called for a review by an outside agency other than the ethics commission.
    She also expressed concern that the council never knew Haynie requested an ethics opinion. “Should we not have known about this?” she asked.
    O’Rourke is an ally of Al Zucaro, and was editor of his BocaWatch blog, which is often critical of the council, until she resigned in September 2016 to run for City Council. Haynie defeated Zucaro in the March mayoral election. She has since announced she is a candidate for the Palm Beach County Commission seat being vacated by term-limited Steven Abrams, a former Boca Raton mayor.
    Zucaro filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics against Haynie in April accusing her of failing to disclose her interest in Community Reliance. That complaint is pending.
    Zucaro was critical of the council’s decision to seek a review of the opinion by the county’s ethics commission.
    “They kicked the ball over to somebody else because they are impotent in not wanting to address this issue in the city,” he said after the Nov. 13 meeting. “They have the responsibility for bringing this forward and taking appropriate action. … They should be looking at it themselves.”
    O’Rourke also has been caught up in the ethics quandary, although she insists she has done nothing wrong. Her husband, George O’Rourke, is employed by Merrill Lynch and served as financial adviser to the Batmasians until his wife won election to the council in March.
Andrea O’Rourke requested an opinion from the ethics commission, which determined she had no conflict of interest because her husband no longer advises the Batmasians, she said at the meeting. She said she recused herself from a June 12 vote on a matter involving the Batmasians before the opinion was issued “to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
    O’Rourke and council member Robert Weinroth were critical of how Frieser handled on Haynie’s behalf the request for the ethics opinion.
Frieser disputed Weinroth’s contention that she pushed hard to get an opinion that allowed Haynie to cast votes.
“I don’t think the city attorney has done our mayor any favors in being as aggressive as she was in pushing for a ruling that eventually allowed the mayor to vote,” Weinroth said.
Frieser denied that she sought an outcome that favored Haynie, saying she simply notified the ethics commission of relevant legal issues.
    “My goal was to act as an objective and neutral city attorney,” she said.
    Frieser approached the ethics commission in 2011 and obtained an informal opinion that Haynie had no conflict of interest. In 2013, Haynie asked her to seek a formal written opinion. A draft opinion found Haynie could vote, but included a recommendation that she abstain based on an “appearance of impropriety.”
    Frieser responded, saying why she thought the recommendation was not warranted. More back-and-forth followed over five months until the final opinion determined Haynie could vote.
    The first draft opinion said Haynie could vote, as did the final opinion.
    “There is nothing I did that altered that,” she said.
    With public scrutiny on Haynie and what other members of the council will do about it, council members agreed that they needed to be more transparent on ethics matters.
    Council member Scott Singer proposed, and other members supported, measures aimed at keeping themselves and the pubic informed.
They include notifying each council member and the public when one of them requests an ethics opinion, when any additional communication about the request takes place, when an ethics opinion is issued, identifying in requests for opinions the person seeking the opinion and bringing in an ethics expert to give guidance to the council. When the proposals came back to the council on Nov. 28, they were expanded to include restrictions on outside attorneys advising the city on ethics issues.
Attorneys could not be hired if they had participated in a city political campaign or made a campaign contribution six months before they are retained and for six months after their work is done. Attorneys also will be ineligible if they have served as an officer or director of a “political committee” or “electioneering communications organization” involving a city issue or campaign during the time they work for the city and six months afterwards.
During discussion about the proposals, O’Rourke said the proposed time restrictions were too short, and suggested they apply for six years before an attorney is retained and six years after their work is done
Other council members agreed changes should be made, with specifics to be worked out when the council votes on the proposals at its next meeting.
Investments Limited is primarily known as a buyer and seller of properties. But it also has been a developer.  Most recently, the company submitted plans for redevelopment of two portions of its Royal Palm Place, a 14-acre downtown destination featuring retail and restaurants.
Investments Limited describes the property as the “crown jewel” of its property portfolio. Plans call for two buildings with luxury rentals, retail, restaurants and parking.

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