By Joe Capozzi
Three candidates seeking two seats on the Ocean Ridge Town Commission pleaded their cases for election to nearly 100 voters at a candidates forum Feb. 9 at Town Hall.
Mayor Susan Hurlburt, Commissioner Martin Wiescholek and challenger Carolyn Cassidy answered 25 questions over 90 minutes in their only public forum together before the March 14 election.
The questions, submitted by residents, touched on wide-ranging topics from growth management and aging infrastructure to dogs on the beach and the town’s building permit process.
Each question was asked by moderator Marcia Sherwood of the League of Women Voters of Palm Beach County and each candidate was given one minute to answer.
Although the format did not allow for any one-on-one debate, differences among the candidates were apparent in their comments.
“Please understand what is at stake in this election. The building department is under attack,’’ Wiescholek said in his closing statement seeking support for another three-year term.
Cassidy, a member of the town’s advisory Board of Adjustment, has been endorsed by two critics of the town’s permitting process, commissioners Geoff Pugh and Steve Coz.
“I would like to see some major changes in the building department if I’m elected,’’ she said after describing the current permitting and review process as “onerous and cumbersome” for homeowners and builders.
Hurlburt, who has served on the commission since 2019, agreed that the process can be “incredibly slow” but blamed that on a lack of staff members. She asked for patience from residents and builders.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with our building department,’’ said Wiescholek, who credited town staff for following through on Town Commission directives to clean up nuisance properties.
He said the building department enforces rules approved by the Town Commission, which has strengthened the town’s building and zoning codes.
“We have people saying ‘well, the building department should look at things differently and should be more flexible.’ The building department is not there to be flexible. The building department is there to enforce the ordinances that are on the books,’’ Wiescholek said.
“If you don’t like what the building department says, come back to the commission, change the ordinance and we’ll discuss it on the dais,’’ he said.
Wiescholek said he would support a charter revision requiring a supermajority vote — four instead of three — on substantial changes to town land development codes.
Hurlburt said she’s leaning in favor of that, but is not ready to commit. Cassidy does not support a supermajority vote for such changes.
“Advocating for it suggests you don’t have faith in your elected officials,’’ said Cassidy, who ran unsuccessfully for commission in 2021.
Another critique Cassidy repeated during the forum was what she said was a lack of proper communication between commissioners and residents, especially at Town Commission meetings. Current decorum rules at commission meetings do not allow commissioners to respond to remarks made by residents during the public comment segment.
Hurlburt said she tries to direct staff to respond after the meeting to comments made by the public. She also stressed the public is allowed to comment on agenda items, too, and commissioners can respond to those comments while deliberating the agenda item.
Wiescholek said he’d be open to tweaking the rules to allow some interaction, but warned that a full discussion would add length to meetings that at times run close to four hours.
Cassidy said residents who take the time to come to a Town Commission meeting to offer comments deserve a response.
“Otherwise they think no one is taking them seriously and their concerns are not valid,’’ she said. “People make public comments. It goes into the abyss. You never get a response.’’
All three candidates said they support the police department and agreed the town needs a master plan to deal with aging infrastructure. But a question about flooding problems drew different replies.
Hurlburt said the town’s infrastructure “is not prepared for what comes down,” a problem exacerbated by sea level rise and climate change.
Wiescholek said roads need to be raised.
“Our roads are too low. Sea level is rising,’’ he said. “The only way is to raise the roads. Nobody wants to hear that in general, but we are looking at very costly things coming down the road that we need to address and that is one of them.”
Cassidy disagreed. If the town raises roads, the focus should be on areas most prone to flooding, she said.
“To say a blanket statement about raising roads in the town I think puts an undue burden on homeowners,’’ she said, because water from higher roads will end up in the front yards of homes.
Cassidy and Wiescholek said they support efforts to restrict the placement of “No Trespassing” signs on the beach, a contentious issue between beachgoers and residents of Turtle Beach of Ocean Ridge, a condominium that has posted signs about the condo’s private property rights on the beach.
Hurlburt, who lives in Turtle Beach, said: “Private property is private property, but when you have a problem with trespassers that needs to be addressed. Traversing and using the rest of the beach, which is below the mean high water line, has never been an issue.’’
Taking a jab at Hurlburt, Cassidy said: “I don’t think it’s right that the same person who initiated the signs on the beach and sought the permitting for it is presiding over the meeting when these signs were discussed.’’
Hurlburt did not respond to that remark, saying, “I’m trying to keep my campaign moving positively."