By Cheryl Blackerby
Boca Raton’s July Fourth celebration may determine who knows best how to manage Boca Raton’s parks and beaches: the Boca Raton Beach & Park District or the city of Boca Raton.
The simmering war over management of beaches and parks showed signs of boiling March 28 when a resolute Mayor Susan Whelchel called a halt to debate about where the city should hold its July Fourth fireworks celebration.
Whelchel said the City Council had decided to move from its traditional venue at Florida Atlantic University, and that decision was a “100 percent done deal.” The show will go on at the district’s pride and joy — the Spanish River Athletic Complex at DeHoernle Park. Discussion closed.
“It’s done,” she said. “That’s where it’s going to be.”
This comes as news to the district’s commissioners, who are alarmed by the thoughts of a potential traffic nightmare and thousands of July Fourth revelers trampling and trashing their brand new $14 million park and sports fields, the crown jewel of the Boca park system. District commissioners say they were blindsided by the City Council’s decision to move the July Fourth celebration to the park, hearing about it through a third party.
“There are so many challenges to moving into this spot, that you may not have given enough consideration to all the opportunities you’ve got,” a worried District Commissioner Earl Starkoff told two city officials during the board’s March 18 meeting.
Starkoff told Assistant City Manager Mike Woika that the city should reconsider: “Maybe just keep it at FAU, keep your options open and then take a year to decide.”
Woika said the move already had been contemplated for years and that, as the FAU campus has grown, the venue for fireworks has become less desirable.
“It wasn’t a change we made lightly. It wasn’t an immediate knee-jerk,” Woika said. “There was a lot of planning.”
District commissioners ended the meeting saying they wanted to get more information from the city and explore the July Fourth plan further.
District Chairman Robert Rollins asked Woika to consider having the celebration at the beach or Intracoastal Waterway, as other beach communities do, or having it at the FAU stadium, suggesting maybe it’s time to have a different kind of celebration.
But Whelchel’s pronouncement seems to have rendered exploration irrelevant.
The flap over fireworks is the latest in what already has been a year of testy relations between the City Council and park district board.
District commissioners say that this wasn’t the first time they weren’t consulted on a matter they should have been.
In February, city officials abruptly reduced two employees’ wages at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, forcing the district commissioners to scramble and cough up $26,000 to supplement the paychecks of two highly regarded workers and keep them from quitting.
Then in March, the district got a $200,000 bill from the city for dune restoration north of Red Reef Park. Commissioners grumbled that they hadn’t seen surveys or damage reports and weren’t briefed on the plans for trucking in 5,000 tons of sand or consulted on how best to deal with the damage from Hurricane Sandy. Even the amount was perplexing, given that one damage assessment had put the figure at $170,000.
“I’m relying solely on the city saying that it’s necessary to do this,” said Arthur Koski, the district board’s lawyer and acting director. “I want this district to be actively involved in planning, rather than getting a phone call saying, ‘Send me the check.’ ’’
Starkoff agreed, saying commissioners should have a voice in how Boca’s beaches are repaired and how the district’s tax dollars are being spent.
“I’d like to know we’re actively involved and not just a money pit,” he said.
Koski said the district will seek an inter-local agreement with the city to clarify the relationship between governing bodies for future beach restoration projects. But exactly how to improve the working relations between city officials and commissioners may be more than any inter-local legal document can cover.
If the July Fourth celebration is a success, Whelchel and the City Council will be vindicated and the district commissioners dismissed as worry warts. If it is a fiasco as the district predicts, the district will look like winners.
It could all come down to parking. Commissioner Steve Engel questions the math of cars and people. He said he calculates that there are 1,200 parking spots in and around the Spanish River park site and the city is expecting at least 10,000 people to turn out. Woika admitted they would have to use shuttle buses.
City Manager Leif Ahnell insists that the city has everything under control.
“I know that the Police Department is very capable of handling these types of events,” he said. “As you know, they do traffic for FAU stadium that holds upwards of 20,000 to 25,000 people, and engineers for traffic have put together parking and traffic flow plans.”
Whelchel concurs, saying the city has a “fabulous” plan: “We’re looking forward to it. We’re going to be safe and our police are going to do everything they always do, which makes us absolutely comfortable and wonderful.”
But Councilman Anthony Majhess said he had talked to two park rangers who worried aloud that the facility could not handle the traffic.
Ahnell bristled at the idea: “I suggest that maybe they don’t know what they’re talking
By Cheryl Blackerby