By Rich Pollack
“We will be respectful of one another, even when we disagree. We will direct all comments to the issues. We will avoid personal attacks. Politeness costs so little.”
For years, Highland Beach Town Commission meetings have started with that civility pledge read by the town clerk.
In recent months, however, civility among commissioners has been overshadowed by shouting, name calling and interruptions.
The commission frequently splits 3-2 on issues, with Mayor Carl Feldman, Vice Mayor Bill Weitz and Commissioner George Kelvin voting one way, while commissioners Rhoda Zelniker and Elyse Riesa vote the other.
It has reached the point where residents have been speaking out, asking for an end to the discord, while letters from residents supporting one commissioner or another make their way to Town Hall.
Now, after months of bickering and constant interruptions, commissioners are taking steps to restore calm and end the infighting.
At a meeting late last month, commissioners agreed to accept an 11-page document of conduct guidelines prepared by the town attorney’s office.
In addition, the commission listened to a 20-minute presentation from Patricia McDougle, a professional registered parliamentarian, who explained appropriate parliamentary procedure.
Feldman, who as mayor is charged with running commission meetings, said the outbursts had gotten to the point where commissioners had to take steps.
“It’s definitely an issue and it has to be taken care of, but it has to be taken care of the right way,” he said.
Having the code of conduct report from the attorney and having the presentation on parliamentary procedure, he said, are steps in the right direction.
“In the past, there have been disagreements but we always agreed to disagree,” Feldman said. “We have to return to the civility of working together.”
While there has been dissension on previous commissions — commissioners read the civility pledge now because of earlier dysfunction — the current discord reached new heights months after the March municipal election in which Feldman was elected mayor, Zelniker was re-elected and Riesa was elected to the commission seat vacated by Feldman when he resigned to run for mayor.
“I have never seen the dissension and discord handed to another mayor in the 17 years I have been working with past mayors and elected officials,” Feldman said.
The infighting includes accusations of harassment, bullying and disrespect against Weitz for a tirade of criticism and comments leveled at Riesa earlier last month, as well as counter claims by Weitz arguing that Riesa has harassed, disrespected and bullied staff and at least one vendor who appeared before the commission.
In the written conduct guidelines for elected officials, prepared by Acting Town Attorney Pamala Ryan, a common theme throughout is the need for respect.
“Demonstrating respect for each individual through words and actions is the touchstone that can help guide elected officials to do the right thing in even the most difficult situations,” according to the guidelines.
The guidelines for interaction between commissioners reiterate the need for respect and admonish elected officials to avoid making belligerent, personal, impertinent, slanderous, threatening, abusive or disparaging comments.
“No shouting, pointing, or physical actions that could be construed as threatening will be tolerated,” the guidelines state.
The guidelines also spell out the need for commissioners to be respectful of town employees and of the public when interacting with members of either group whether in public or private.
While the guidelines are short on specifics about what actions could be taken should a commissioner or commissioners fail to meet them, they do spell out in broad terms possible sanctions.
“Elected officials who intentionally and repeatedly do not follow proper conduct may be reprimanded or formally censured by the Town Commission,” the report states. “Serious infractions could lead to other sanctions as deemed appropriate by the commission, including referring matters to the Palm Beach County Ethics Commission or the state of Florida Ethics Commission.”
During their meeting in late November, commissioners agreed in principle to the guidelines, but there were indications some members of the commission, including Riesa, would like to see stronger sanctions against those who don’t abide by the conditions outlined.
Commissioners will be submitting recommendations to Ryan in the next few weeks and are expected to revisit the guidelines in January.
“After hearing the presentation by Patricia McDougle and receiving the guidelines from the town attorney’s office, conducting ourselves by these guidelines should help eliminate discord and dissension,” Feldman said.
The presentation by McDougle and guidelines followed comments at an earlier meeting from resident Carol Stern, whose husband, Lou Stern, served on the commission until shortly before his death in February.
“Highland Beach is a small, beautiful community and it should be run and taken care of without the chaos that is being seen at these meetings,” she said.
Stern called out the commission for being argumentive and “not nice to each other” or to others who speak in the public setting.
“This is not to say that you are not good intending people,” she said. “But you have to turn down the animosity.”