Goal is to stop clashing messages, redundant legal fees
By Rich Pollack
In an effort to reduce confusion and communicate more efficiently, the Highland Beach Town Commission in February established a list of rules that govern its interactions with outside agencies, town staff and boards and with the town attorney.
Under a resolution passed unanimously, commissioners agreed to have all communications with other agencies and staff flow through Town Manager Marshall Labadie.
Ryan and Labadie said the town needs guidelines to prevent an overlap of commissioners contacting the same government agency and not being able to communicate their findings with one another because of Florida’s Sunshine Law requiring open meetings.
They also said that some employees were complaining about interactions with commissioners.
“We need to have more of a regimented and reliable plan going forward,” Ryan said.
The confusion over communication with outside agencies reached a head in late January when Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman received a letter from a regional Florida Department of Transportation official, apparently in response to a request from Gossett-Seidman.
In that letter, the FDOT’s Stacy Miller, the agency’s local director of transportation development, told Gossett-Seidman the department could accommodate a request to delay the resurfacing of State Road A1A for one year, a move that would make it possible for the town to delay a referendum on the issue if it wanted.
A few days later, however, newly appointed Commissioner Barry Donaldson sent a letter to Gerry O’Reilly, who leads the FDOT’s regional operation, saying Donaldson didn’t think the town needed the delay.
Donaldson and Gossett-Seidman said they were communicating as private residents and not as commissioners representing the town.
“I think the DOT is pretty much fed up with Highland Beach right now because they’ve heard so many different things from so many people, and that includes the commission and staff as well,” Ryan said.
Donaldson said he welcomed the new rules.
“It’s inevitable that we’re going to be falling all over each other if we continue doing it this way,” he said. “This was an excellent lesson for everyone. It has got to stop.”
The new rules specify that the Town Commission as a whole must agree if an elected official wants to interact on behalf of the town with an outside agency or business.
“The elected official must explain to the Town Commission the reason for the interaction, the scope, the time frame, the form of the interaction, and the cost, if any,” the resolution states.
Mayor Rhoda Zelniker said she agreed that rules needed to be in place.
“I’m just saying we shouldn’t work this way,” she said. “We need to go through Marshall, he’s the town manager.”
Gossett-Seidman said commissioners might have taken on more of an operational role because the town didn’t have a manager for several months before Labadie’s arrival in October.
With Labadie now in place, she said, it’s time to let him be in full control.
“I would like to give the town manager full authority,” Gossett-Seidman said. “I don’t want any more nonsense. I don’t want any more miscommunication.”
Under the new rules, commissioners are expected to work through Labadie before contacting Ryan with specific questions in an effort to avoid overlap and reduce legal costs.
Ryan, of the law firm of Torcivia, Donlon, Goddeau & Ansay, charges the town $226 an hour, and the firm billed the town $24,621 for work it did in January.
During that period, commissioners interacted with Ryan 45 times, either by phone or email.
The resolution also lists sanctions, which include a reprimand, formal censure or possible referral to the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics or the Florida Commission on Ethics. Ú