By Ron Hayes
Talk to the mayors, managers and civic activists who run the coastal communities once represented by Mary McCarty and you'll hear a common theme. Gratitude.
Whatever her failings or felonies, they say, the former District 4 commissioner was a loyal supporter of local government, and a generous friend to the cities in her district.
“I think District 4 cities to a one will tell you she was always the commissioner who stood up and was a strong advocate for them,” says Lantana Town Manager Michael Bornstein. “She was the one who was least apt to support countywide rules that affected home rule, and the cities always appreciated that.”
Beginning in 1998, when county commissioners were given $1 million a year in gas tax revenue to distribute at their discretion, subject to their colleagues’ approval, McCarty was generous to Lantana.
The town soon received $40,000 to renovate its Bicentennial Pavilion, and another $50,000 in 2003 to construct a parking area and driveway for the nature preserve on East Ocean Ave.
In 2002, she passed along about $400,000 to help the town bury its electrical lines east of the Intracoastal Waterway.
“We ran into such snags with FPL that we just couldn't do it,” Bornstein recalls. “We ended up using some of that money for beautification. We put in streetlights, sidewalks and plantings.” An unused balance of about $300,000 was returned, according to county records.
In 2005, McCarty joined County Commissioner Warren Newell and Mayor Ken Kaleel in supporting the Ocean Ridge Natural Area, a 12-acre preserve with a boat basin and 1,300-foot nature trail that opened in December 2006.
The $4 million project was primarily paid for by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Inland Navigation District, with McCarty adding $250,000 from her discretionary fund.
The commissioner had also pledged $100,000 toward a proposed boardwalk to be built behind the new Town Hall, but that action had not been acted on when she resigned.
“We’ve had our share of disagreements,” Kaleel says, “but I don’t think you’re going to find any mayor in her district that she wasn’t supportive of.”
In Manalapan, the town library already had a popular lecture series under way, but for each of the past four years, McCarty has found about $10,000 to support it. “Other than that, we’ve had no county funding,” says Town Manager Greg Dunham.
“Our water upgrades were done with state funds, but Commissioner McCarty always had regular meetings with the mayors and managers. She kept an open line with all of us.”
Even tiny Briny Breezes found a friend in McCarty until they split over a proposed sale of the town to developers.
In 2004, McCarty led the successful fight to ban dogs from Pelican Beach, a 600-foot stretch of county land just south of the mobile home community. The area had become so popular with canines and their owners that it earned the nickname Dog Beach.
“She was very instrumental in getting Dog Beach closed,” says Briny Mayor Roger Bennett. “For anyone else, it was a piddly issue, but for us it was a big issue, and she arranged to have it brought before the County Commission.”
McCarty was even a regular on the town’s closed circuit TV station until 2006, when Ocean Land Developers, a Boca Raton firm, offered $510 million to buy the park and turn it into a resort. Surrounding communities opposed the sale, arguing it would create a high-rise city on the narrow barrier island. McCarty sided with opponents.
“She was very opposed to the sale,” says Bennett, “so we never tried to lobby her. We knew we’d be butting our heads against the wall.”
To fight the plan, residents of Gulf Stream formed the ad hoc Florida Coalition for Preservation and named civic association president Robert Ganger its director. “Early on, she asked to attend one of our meetings,” Ganger remembers. “We didn't know if she was for or against it, but she gave us quite a balanced, unrehearsed talk.” He praises her for listening to both sides and keeping both opponents and proponents informed.
“I felt she was treating us fairly and had the interests of the broader community in mind,” Ganger says. The deal fell apart in 2007, but last year McCarty assigned $850 in discretionary money to have No Parking signs installed along Briny Breezes Boulevard, where beachgoers had been parking illegally.
In addition to heading Gulf Stream’s opposition to the Briny Breezes sale, Ganger is also president of the Delray Beach Historical Society. In 2002, McCarty was instrumental in transferring $200,000 in bond money from the stumbling Cartoon Museum in Boca Raton to help finance the relocation and renovation of the historic Hunt House from Federal Highway to the Delray Beach Historical Society grounds on Swinton Avenue.
“And that project (the historical society property) was not in her district,” Ganger adds. “It’s in Addie Greene's district, but I don’t think she was nitpicking. She just felt it was right for the whole community. I felt then she was a straight-shooter.”
But that was then. Now McCarty has resigned, accused of illegally benefitting from her office.
“I don’t think she’s a bad person," says Ganger. “I just think she made some dumb mistakes.”