By Dan Moffett
Ocean Ridge commissioners want to make it a lot more difficult for the town to merge its Police Department with another law enforcement agency.
With a unanimous vote on June 12, the commission gave final approval to a charter amendment proposal that requires voters to pass a ballot referendum before any police merger can move forward. Beyond the consent of voters, the proposal would mandate a four-vote supermajority from the Town Commission just to get a merger referendum measure on the ballot.
Taken together, the two requirements suggest it would take a groundswell of popular support — both in the commission chambers and at the polls — before a major overhaul of the town’s policing could happen.
“The ordinance hopefully establishes a clear message to the PBA that at this time we’re not interested in making a change,” Mayor Kristine de Haseth said, referring to the police union.
The proposed town charter change still needs the approval of the town’s voters to become law. It will be on the ballot for the Aug. 18 Florida primary election, and de Haseth said she is concerned residents might not be paying attention.
“With the combination of it being in summer, and people not being comfortable going to public places because of COVID, this could get lost,” the mayor said. “People need to get their absentee ballots early and plan to vote by mail if they don’t want to go to the polls.”
In recent weeks, the Police Benevolent Association and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office have made overtures to Ocean Ridge officials and residents about the sheriff’s taking over the town’s law enforcement. Some officers in the department have expressed support for the idea and floated it to commissioners.
Last year, South Palm Beach disbanded its department and contracted with the Sheriff’s Office, citing a potential savings perhaps as high as $1 million over five years.
Facing a tight budget year and rising personnel costs, Ocean Ridge commissioners have heard from supporters of a merger, who argue that the cost of maintaining the department has grown too high and a larger agency might deliver better service.
Before the final vote on the ordinance on June 12, David Hutchins, a member of the Planning and Zoning commission, offered a defense shared by many for keeping the department and its small-town approach to policing.
“The main thing in my mind that allows Ocean Ridge to maintain its unique character doesn’t go to architectural standards, doesn’t go to building that’s going on — it’s our police force,” Hutchins told the commission. “The police force is an excellent safety department. They look in on elderly people. They know almost all of us by name. And they’re here for us.
“I’m greatly concerned that if we ever change the situation and go to another department, we’d lose that ability — we’d lose the friendliness of the police.”
De Haseth said the ordinance shows that commissioners “have our finger on the pulse of our residents.” She said requiring a four-vote commission majority to put a referendum on the ballot is warranted for major decisions, such as those concerning public safety or septic-to-sewer conversion.
“The supermajority has to be used sparingly,” de Haseth said, “but it is very important to maintaining the character and financial stability of the town on very large issues.”
Vice Mayor Steve Coz and Commissioner Phil Besler had expressed reluctance to support the ordinance’s supermajority requirement. Coz said he was “very, very uncomfortable with the concept of a supermajority” and worried it could set a troublesome precedent.
Besler said he changed his mind from an earlier “no” vote and concluded that the supermajority stipulation could end up saving the town money over the long run. Both Besler and Coz voted for the ordinance at the final reading.
“The supermajority is not something I take very lightly,” said Commissioner Susan Hurlburt. “But this is a specific situation where without it we could have some political overtones. This extra layer of defense I think is necessary.”