Related Story: Lantana declines invitation to bid on policing South Palm
By Dan Moffett
South Palm Beach council members say they’re determined to get their debate over police services back on track after a raucous council meeting raised complaints and divisions about process and agendas.
Mayor Bonnie Fischer said the Town Council was caught off guard when a half-dozen representatives from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and police union showed up for the council’s May 14 meeting.
“We were surprised,” Fischer said. “We didn’t know the Sheriff’s Office was coming.”
Surprises aside, council members voted 4-0 (with Vice Mayor Robert Gottlieb absent because of illness) to allow Frank DeMario, the sheriff’s chief of law enforcement operations, to make a 20-minute presentation on what his agency could offer South Palm Beach if it took over policing.
DeMario’s appearance and presentation were not advertised in the town’s agenda for the meeting. To promote transparency and public participation, the state’s Sunshine guidelines recommend that municipal commissions give adequate notice when substantial issues are brought up for discussion.
That didn’t happen, and Fischer said that was a mistake. Kevin Hall, property manager of the Palmsea Condominiums, agreed.
“I appreciate you looking into this,” he told the council. “However, I’m highly insulted that you did this tonight. Everybody’s been watching the agendas. Nobody’s here who should be here. This shouldn’t have happened.”
Joe Savarese, president of the Horizon West condo association, urged the council to slow down.
“I kind of object to the guys trying to push this through,” he said. “I support our police. I don’t want them to leave. But we can’t do it on the spur of the moment. Everybody has to have input.”
Councilwoman Stella Gaddy Jordan agreed: “The meeting wasn’t handled right. That shouldn’t have happened.”
Fischer said the council is a long way from making a decision and was merely “seeking information.” But nonetheless, the public should have been informed, she said.
Council members have been considering options for police service since the town’s eight officers came forward two months ago and supported merging with the Sheriff’s Office. Under state law, police mergers are possible only for contiguous jurisdictions — meaning South Palm’s options are the sheriff and the towns of Palm Beach and Lantana.
The council ruled out Palm Beach, citing recent reports of turmoil within the department. Lantana has ruled out South Palm Beach, voting against expanding the department.
Newly seated Councilman Mark Weissman has been pushing efforts to negotiate a deal with the Sheriff’s Office. Weissman cites the town’s pay scale, which puts officers at the bottom in Palm Beach County, and safety concerns because of the department’s small size. He said the town recently went unprotected for four hours when two of its officers were called to Lantana to respond to an incident there.
“We have many shifts where we only have one person on,” Weissman said, “and there’s been times when we have nobody here.”
He said the council needs to move quickly to make a decision.
“I believe the town has a responsibility to our officers to let them know what our intentions are,” Weissman said. “We can’t continue to kick that can down the road.”
Councilman Bill LeRoy also has called for action, proposing a $10,500 yearly raise for each officer in the department.
“Our police officers are very poorly paid,” LeRoy said. “I proposed the raise before the Sheriff’s Office even came into view. The $10,500 would take us from last to sixth in the county.”
Jordan thinks the pay issue is overstated. “For our size town and what we ask our officers to do, our salaries are pretty good,” she said. “This is a cushy position, so to speak.”
Town Manager Robert Kellogg said he is working on a five-year police budget projection with the town’s accountant. Kellogg said the estimates will be available soon and will help the council compare costs with merger proposals from other agencies.
The council intends to discuss the police issue again at a workshop scheduled for 4 p.m. June 18, followed by the regular council meeting at 6 p.m.
“This is not just about money,” Fischer said. “This is a change to something we’ve had for 50 years. That’s what people are concerned about.”