By Rich Pollack
Just weeks after an election in which voters turned out in record numbers to overwhelmingly shoot down three referendum issues and narrowly choose a newcomer over an incumbent, Highland Beach commissioners are now focused on filling yet another vacant seat following Vice Mayor Alysen Africano-Nila’s resignation.
Following contentious campaigning, a record 55 percent of Highland Beach’s 3,712 registered voters showed up at the polls March 12 and voiced their objection to proposals that would have allowed town leaders to spend up to $45 million on improvements in conjunction with the state’s planned reconditioning of State Road A1A.
At the same time, attorney Evalyn David narrowly defeated incumbent Elyse Riesa, winning with a total of 990 votes to Riesa’s 955 votes.
Evalyn David won her commission seat with a 35 vote margin over incumbent Elyse Riesa.
Just two weeks and a day after the election, Africano-Nila submitted her resignation, citing her own health conditions and those of a close family member.
Voters were asked to give commissioners permission to issue up to $16.55 million in bonds for a stormwater improvement project, up to $11.25 million for improvements to the Ocean Walk multiuse corridor and surrounding areas and up to $17.2 million to place utility wires underground.
Only about 6 percent of those casting ballots voted yes for funding the stormwater project and yes for underground utilities, while only 5 percent voted yes for the multi-use corridor improvements.
“This was a very big vote,” said John Ross, one of the founders of the Committee to Save Highland Beach, which led the opposition to the referendum items. “It was an overwhelming rejection of half-baked plans.”
Nila, who was appointed by the commission to serve as a liaison with the state and who worked closely with the consultant developing conceptual plans for three projects on the ballot, said her decision to step down was not linked to the outcome of the vote.
“Due to the timing, I am sure most of you will think this resignation is for another purpose,” she said in her March 25 resignation letter. “That is not true, that couldn’t be further from the truth or the facts.”
Nila, who had been absent from a commission meeting, a special commission meeting and the last commission workshop, did not specify what health issues she and her family member are facing but said they demanded her full attention.
“This resignation is solely due to my declining personal health and illness, which is real, and now my family’s medical crisis and health issues, which unfortunately are also very real,” she wrote.
The vacancy leaves the five-member commission with only one commissioner — Peggy Gossett-Seidman — who has been in her same seat for more than three months.
In January, Commissioner Rhoda Zelniker was appointed mayor, filling the spot left open by the December death of Mayor Carl Feldman. At the same time, the commission appointed a former commission candidate, Barry Donaldson, to fill Zelniker’s spot. David attended her first meeting as an elected official last month.
Town Manager Marshall Labadie told commissioners they had 30 days to fill the vice mayor vacancy, according to the town charter, and that would make it difficult to hold a special election.
Instead, he recommended filling the open slot through a short application process that would include background checks, work history and affiliations, followed by public interviews and a selection.
Labadie discussed a timeline that would require applications by April 9.
Commissioners agreed to allow public comment about each candidate during interviews before final selections.
During a workshop meeting late last month, commissioners also discussed moving forward with any work that could be done regarding issues such as drainage and walking path improvements that were put in front of voters in the referendum.
“We have to move forward with transparency and truth,” said Gossett-Seidman, who did not feel that was the case with the way the referendum issue was handled.
Other commissioners joined Gossett-Seidman in calling for possibly a citizens committee or an open forum to discuss the issues.
“Let’s work this out together,” she said. “I want everyone together to decide what we want to do with the street.”