By Dan Moffett
Joan Orthwein spent the last two years in the crosshairs of Gulf Stream’s legal battles, serving as the town’s mayor during the stormiest period in its history.
At the Town Commission’s April 11 meeting, she told a chamber crowded with well-wishers that it was time for someone else to take the helm.
“I’m not going to lie. It’s been challenging,” Orthwein said. “But you know what, the citizens have been wonderful and very supportive and caring of me. It is a wonderful community.”
The commission unanimously approved newly elected Scott Morgan as the town’s new mayor and Commissioner Robert Ganger as vice mayor, with Orthwein moving aside to a commissioner’s seat.
The reorganization is significant. Morgan, a lawyer and former chairman of the Architectural Review and Planning Board, campaigned on a platform that called for an aggressive legal defense against the town’s detractors.
Gulf Stream faces more than 20 lawsuits and numerous public records requests filed by Martin O’Boyle and Chris O’Hare, two residents who have charged the town with violating their constitutional rights. During the election campaign, O’Hare put signs disparaging Orthwein on a boat and anchored it behind her waterfront home.
Morgan didn’t waste time beginning his aggressive defense against the town’s critics. He called a special meeting of the commission for April 14 to consider an ordinance against overnight parking at Town Hall — regulation aimed at vehicles displaying political signs that criticize town officials. The commissioners unanimously approved a first reading of the ordinance, which restricts parking from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and then made it law at another meeting on April 29.
O’Boyle and O’Hare objected, saying the ordinance violated free speech and also illegally restricted beach parking.
During the special session, Morgan and commissioners also scheduled a budget workshop immediately following the regular May 9 Town Commission meeting. Morgan said he wants to find residents willing to serve on an ad hoc financial committee to help the town deal with dwindling reserves and rising expenses.
Four uniformed police officers were on duty during the April 11 meeting, a testament to the uneasy climate in the town these days. Commissioners have had to hire outside counsel to fight the suits and have set aside an additional $190,000 to cover legal fees.
Morgan says “an aggressive, proactive approach to the lawsuits is necessary to prevent further harm to our town.” He praised Orthwein’s work as mayor. “You stepped into a job at a time that was very difficult, probably the most challenging period for the town since its founding,” Morgan said. “You worked both publicly and privately to resolve the many issues we face, whether it be underground electric wires or more importantly, the onslaught of public records requests and litigation that followed. And all the time you had the best interests of the town at heart. But more than that, you did it with grace.”
Orthwein said Morgan is ideally suited to guide Gulf Stream through its legal obstacle course. “The way things are today, I don’t know why all politicians aren’t lawyers,” she said smiling.
“Scott’s a great leader who is a lawyer and a litigator. He will help streamline the legal problems we’re having, and they’re huge. I’m not an attorney. Scott brings a great deal of wisdom, leadership and respect to the party.”
Ganger said the town still will need Orthwein’s contributions as a commissioner because of her extensive experience and understanding of the town’s history.
“She’s held her head high,” he said. “She’s served us well. We’re not saying goodbye to a mayor; we’re saying thank you for all you’ve done.”
Orthwein, who came to the commission in 1995, is the second-longest serving elected official in Palm Beach County behind Cloud Lake Mayor Patrick Slatery, who has held office for 36 years.
She says moving forward with the project to put the town’s utility wiring underground is her biggest achievement.
“That was a dream of mine,” she said. “I have to say I was so excited and proud of this community when they voted for it. The underground wiring is such a positive thing.”
One of Orthwein’s last acts as mayor was presiding over the commission’s unanimous approval of a decorum policy for meetings that prohibits verbal attacks and abusive language. O’Boyle and O’Hare spoke against the measure, criticizing it as too vague and too much like an ordinance with enforcement consequences, rather than a declaration of policy with no punitive provisions.
“The town has shown great resilience,” Orthwein said. “We’ll get back to normal some day.”
In other business:
• Engineering consultant Danny Brannon told commissioners they will need about $30,000 to pay for construction work on the Town Hall’s rear entrance to make it compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. The entrance will need a new access ramp, handrails and reconfigured parking. Ú
• Town Manager William Thrasher said the town is creating more portals on its website to make public records available online.