By Dan Moffett
For decades, South Palm Beach has prided itself in being a coastal condo community with a down-home, small-town feel. But some of that laid-back charm and innocence appears about to be lost to the changing times.
Town Council members are moving forward with a plan to beef up security in the lobby area at Town Hall — a project that could include putting staff behind bulletproof glass and reinforced counters.
And Police Chief Carl Webb has dramatically increased the firepower of his department, adding a half-dozen military rifles to his officers’ arsenal.
“It’s not Mayberry anymore,” said Mayor Donald Clayman.
Town officials say several incidents involving angry visitors to the Town Hall have raised concerns about the security of office workers.
“It is not something you want to have to think about and do,” said Vice Mayor Joseph Flagello. “But in this day and age, unfortunately all it takes is one unstable person to do something crazy.”
Flagello said it would be a mistake to assume that employees are safe because their offices are next door to the Police Department.
“There’s not always someone in there,” he said, “because they’re out on the road protecting our town. We have a half of a little wooden door and counter, and they (employees) feel very vulnerable. We can’t have our people feeling vulnerable.”
Town Manager Rex Taylor said he is looking for contractors to make proposals for overhauling the lobby and “will get this thing done” as soon as possible.
Webb, during the same Sept. 23 meeting, told council members he had purchased six tactical weapons — AR 16 A-2 rifles — from a state program in Starke that makes surplus military items available to law enforcement agencies. He said he spent $400 for the rifles, five of them are new, and the retail cost would have been about $5,000.
Police in neighboring Lantana, Manalapan and Palm Beach are equipped with similar weapons. Webb said his officers currently are armed only with handguns that have an effective range of less than 40 feet.
The chief says South Palm Beach has two banks nearby, school buses going down A1A and many high-profile visitors — such as members of Congress and diplomats — that warrant extra security precautions.
Webb also said that the opening of the new Lantana Bridge last November is likely contributing to a new problem: young thieves crossing from the mainland to steal from cars in coastal communities. Ten unlocked cars were burglarized in South Palm Beach on the nights of Aug. 12 and 22, Webb said.
“They were crimes of opportunity,” he said. “Now with the Lantana Bridge open it’s easier to get in and out of town.”
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has alerted police in coastal communities that a street gang known as YNIC (Young … (racial slur) … In Charge) that operates between Greenacres, Lantana and Boynton Beach may be shifting activities to A1A.
“They prefer a quieter approach down A1A rather than Dixie Highway,” said police Lt. Robert Rizzotto.
YNIC is responsible for dozens of auto thefts and burglaries in the last year, Rizzotto said. The thieves are typically on foot and go building to building through parking lots and garages, between 2 and 4 a.m.
Webb said most of the items taken from cars were sunglasses and loose change, though one woman said a purse and jewelry worth $11,000 were stolen.
In other business:
• The Town Council will hold a workshop beginning at 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 9 to consider possible changes to the town charter. Councilwoman Bonnie Fischer proposed the meeting and said she wants to discuss term limits for council members, among other things.
• Town Manager Taylor said he is beginning to receive applications for his replacement.
Taylor is retiring at the end of the year after 9½ years as South Palm Beach’s top administrator.
Cheryl Blackerby contributed to this report.