Vice Mayor Alysen Africano-Nila (above)
and Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman (right) are sworn in to office in Highland Beach. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
Voters in Highland Beach turned out in record numbers during last month’s municipal elections, ousting two incumbent members of the Town Commission and replacing them with two first-time candidates who promised to restore civility to the board.
In a town where voter turnout rarely tops 30 percent, 1,240 voters — or just more than 34 percent of the town’s 3,619 registered voters — cast ballots, leading to larger-than-normal victory margins for the winners.
In the race for vice mayor, newcomer Alysen Africano-Nila received 752 votes, or about 62 percent of the 1,213 votes cast in that race, while incumbent Vice Mayor Bill Weitz received 461 votes.
In the race for the three-year seat on the commission, Peggy Gossett-Seidman received 651 votes, slightly more than 53 percent, while another newcomer, John Ross, received 388 votes.
Incumbent George Kelvin, appointed to the commission last year, collected 87 votes. Carl Lee Gehman, making his second run for commission, received 88 votes.
Voters also rejected, by a 53- to 47-percent margin, a proposal to allocate $2.1 million for a streetscape project that included replacing asphalt with decorative concrete on the town’s 3-mile walking path along State Road A1A.
With the addition of Africano-Nila and Gossett-Seidman to the commission, the town now has a majority of women on the board for the first time in recent memory. Mayor Carl Feldman, who was elected last year, is the only man on the historically male-dominated board.
The large turnout — with almost 10 percent more residents voting than last year — may have been the result of heavy campaigning from supporters of Africano-Nila and Gossett-Seidman and of what some see as a shift in factors that bring voters to the polls.
“I think it was a mix of reasons,” said Gossett-Seidman, who, like Africano-Nila, was supported by sitting commissioners Elyse Riesa and Rhoda Zelniker. “I had a lot of people tell me it was about women and others tell me they felt change needed to be made.”
Some residents, including resident Peggy Brown, the wife of former Vice Mayor Ron Brown, think the large turnout — and the results — are a result of longtime political differences being cast aside.
“We broke down barriers this year,” she said. “We started to care about Highland Beach and who would be the best people and not about party affiliation or religion.”
Zelniker, who campaigned for Africano-Nila and Gossett-Seidman, said more awareness of the issues may have been a factor in the large turnout.
“We were out there talking to residents and telling them about the issues,” she said.
The main issue in the election, according to the candidates and many residents, was restoring civility to the town’s leadership, which recently had displayed personal animus and shouting.
Riesa said she thinks the results will help lead to meetings with less acrimony.
“We may not always agree, but we will be civil and decent to one another,” she said during a special meeting in which the new commission members were sworn in.
Voter turnout increases in Highland Beach
Year Registered voters Ballots cast %
2018 3,619 1,240 34.2
2017 3,558 1,134 31.8
2016 No election
2015 3,438 825 24.0
2014 3,404 975 28.6
2013 3,590 738 20.5
Source: Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections