Highland Beach: Civility on Town Commission a major issue in election

Four candidates running for one commission seat | RESULTS

Two vie to be vice mayorRESULTS

Streetscape Project | RESULTS

By Rich Pollack

When voters in Highland Beach take to the polls March 13, they’ll be choosing from six candidates who all say restoring civility to the Town Commission is a key issue for the community — and who all think they’re the candidate who can help make that happen.  

“Civility is a big issue,” said Peggy Gossett-Seidman, who along with Carl Gehman, George Kelvin and John Ross, is running for the three-year commission seat held by Kelvin. “I’ve sat through many meetings that are so dysfunctional that it makes people uncomfortable.” 

Over the past several months there have been several 3-2 votes, with Mayor Carl Feldman, Vice Mayor Bill Weitz and Kelvin often voting in the majority, and commissioners Rhoda Zelniker and Elyse Riesa in the minority. 

Weitz, who has served as vice mayor for the last three years, is running for re-election and is being challenged by resident Alysen Africano-Nila.

“The commission is broken down into two camps and it’s all about winning,” said Ross, who is making his first bid for public office in Highland Beach.

Like the other candidates, Ross thinks the commission needs to focus on town business and stop the bickering that has become commonplace. 

“I’m not impressed by people shouting at one another,” he said. “The reason we’ve become uncivil is because the commissioners don’t know how to properly debate issues.”

Gehman, making his second run for a commission seat, echoes Ross’ concerns, saying commissioners should focus more on setting policy and less on personalities. 

“You can’t get anything done if you’re going to talk about each other,” he said. “Let’s talk about policy.”

He thinks that if commissioners kept their focus on policy, meetings would be shorter and more productive.

Kelvin, who was appointed to the commission in 2017 for one year following the death of Commissioner Lou Stern, thinks the commission would do better if everyone on the board followed Robert’s Rules of Order. 

“There are some commissioners who aren’t aware of Robert’s Rules,” he said. “I like to live by the rules — Robert’s Rules in particular.” 

Bringing the commission’s focus back to the issues is also a priority for both candidates running for vice mayor. 

“The whole goal should be to get things done and moving forward,” said Africano-Nila, also making her first bid for elected office in Highland Beach. “Mutual respect is of the utmost importance.” 

Weitz, who recently apologized for an outburst in November while criticizing Riesa, said he believes politics plays a role in the split.

“We need to focus on town business and forget about politics,” he said. 

While the split on the commission is along gender lines — and some in the community may see gender as an issue — the candidates say qualifications are more important. 

“It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female,” Gehman said. “It should be about policy.”

Says Africano-Nila: “Gender isn’t an issue. It’s about having the right person in the office.” 

The mayor is paid $15,000, while the vice mayor/commissioners are paid $12,000.

 In addition to casting ballots for a commissioner and a vice mayor, Highland Beach voters will be asked to give the town the green light to spend up to $2.1 million on a streetscape project, which includes replacing the existing 3-mile walk path as well as other improvements. 

The project needs voter approval because the town’s charter prohibits commissioners from spending more than $350,000 on any one project without it. 

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