Related: Recusal order affirmed

By Steve Plunkett

U.S. District Judge Rodney Smith took a dim view of how the city of Boca Raton did business.

Smith presided over a non-jury trial last year of a lawsuit brought by beachfront property owner Natural Lands LLC seeking to overturn the city’s denial of a variance to build a home on a narrow, undeveloped lot at 2500 N. Ocean Blvd., east of the Coastal Construction Control Line.

Boca Raton’s elected officials and city staff “were so tainted with bias that there was no building that could have been built on this property by plaintiff, regardless of whether the building met the ‘minimum requirements’ for a CCCL variance,” Smith wrote last month in a document titled Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.

Particularly egregious in Smith’s eyes were the testimonies by Mayor Scott Singer and then-Council members Andrea O’Rourke and Monica Mayotte.
Singer, he wrote, “although he agreed that a fair and impartial hearing means that a council member could not pre-judge an issue prior to the hearing, he nevertheless believed that ‘fair and impartial are ambiguous terms.’ His bias was clear. Despite being an attorney, defining the term ‘fair’ proved difficult.”

Singer disputed the judge’s characterization and noted that the city is appealing the case.

“My testimony was that I am fair and impartial in quasi-judicial hearings and was at this hearing as well,” Singer said.

O’Rourke, the judge said, “feigned ignorance of her multiple communications with individuals who opposed the plaintiff’s CCCL variance application. Although not the subject of this litigation, the court notes that her conduct potentially violated not only the city’s codes, but the Sunshine Law as well.”

And Mayotte, like O’Rourke, was “not a credible witness,” he wrote.

“Despite testifying that she was a rule follower, she failed to follow the rules outlined in the City Code and other guidelines for the conduct of city officials. She feigned ignorance until her ex parte communications with council members and others were explored on direct examination,” Smith said.

The judge also wrote that the trio of elected officials appeared to have been coached on how to answer questions while on the witness stand.

“On cross-examination, the mayor and council members gave planned speeches on plaintiff’s ability to build a smaller home on the property,” Smith said. “The court finds that the mayor and council members were merely pandering to the court and that their testimony did not represent the positions they sincerely held or believed during the hearing on plaintiff’s CCCL variance application.”

Equally “tainted” in Smith’s view was “the conduct of the City Manager (Leif Ahnell), Deputy City Manager (George Brown), Development Services Director (Brandon Schaad), and many other employees of the City who were involved” with the variance application.

The judge noted that the council members did not ask a single question of the experts who testified in support of Natural Lands at their hearing before voting unanimously to deny the variance.

But Smith stopped short of declaring that the variance must be approved. The plaintiff’s lawyers had argued that if the three council members had abstained from voting on the variance, the city would not have had the required quorum.

“Plaintiff neither cites to legal authority in its pleadings for default grant of a variance on these or other grounds, nor was the issue raised or elucidated during the trial held from March 20 through March 24, 2023,” Smith said.

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