Hiring the right attorney is an opportunity for Delray to clean up its act     

Hiring a city attorney usually is a routine matter for elected officials in South Florida. Not so in Delray Beach, where little these days is routine.

Next Tuesday and Wednesday, the city commission is scheduled to interview the finalists for Delray’s top legal adviser. The job has been vacant since January, when Brian Shutt resigned to take a job with a private firm. Until last week, there were four finalists. Then Interim City Attorney Terrill Pyburn resigned to become city attorney in Coconut Creek, near Coral Springs.

Of the remaining finalists, the most credible candidate is Noel Pfeffer, who has spent 35 years in the Broward County attorney’s office. Broward being the political rat’s nest that it is, Pfeffer presumably could withstand whatever Delray has to offer. Another possibility, though, is that the commission could disband Delray’s legal department and contract with a private firm, as Boynton Beach, Palm Beach and many other cities do.

If the commission wants to discuss this idea, any discussion could lead quickly to the Fort Lauderdale firm of Weiss Serota Helfman Pastoriza Cole & Boniske. One of the firm’s name partners, Jamie Cole, successfully represented Delray Beach in its lawsuit to overturn the 2012 extension of the trash-hauling contract to Waste Management without bidding.

That contract shows why the city attorney choice is anything but routine. Shutt had advised the 2012 commission that Delray Beach did not have to bid the $65 million contract extension. Shutt argued that because residents pay Waste Management through fees, not property taxes, the city was just a middle man, and thus didn’t need to follow its rule that states contracts of $15,000 and more must go out to bid.

Shutt’s argument was ludicrous. Palm Beach County’s Office of Inspector General, responding to a complaint from within the city, reported that Delray Beach would be violating its own policy by not seeking bids. But Shutt had backing from then-City Manager David Harden, long a critic of the inspector general’s office. In August 2012, then-Mayor Nelson “Woodie” McDuffie and then-Commissioner Angeleta Gray approved the contract. Adam Frankel, who is still on the commission, provided the majority. Another holdover, Al Jacquet, dissented.

After Cary Glickstein and Shelly Petrolia joined the commission in March 2103, they urged that the city hire an outside attorney to review the decision. That attorney turned out to be Cole. He agreed with the inspector general. The commission then approved a lawsuit—oddly, Delray Beach was basically suing Delray Beach, even though Waste Management was the opposing party—and Cole won, without the case even going to trial. The city is seeking bids for the contract.

To anyone who supports good government, Delray Beach’s year-plus review of questionable contracts—the beach concession deal is another—represents progress. Given the election results of the last two years, most residents agree. But this reform push is meeting resistance from the small but persistent group allied—to one degree or another—with Mary McCarty, the former Delray commissioner who moved up to the county commission and then brought herself down, pleading guilty to federal public corruption charges.

For all her comments about a new life, McCarty remains involved in South County politics. She works at her husband’s firm, Cypress Consulting, and dispenses campaign and other supposed advice. Kevin McCarty also went to prison as a result of the investigation into his wife.

Frankel is one of those McCarty allies. He voted against taking the trash issue to court. He has criticized the review of the beach concession contract, which also is tied to McCarty allies. McDuffie is another one of those allies. Many also consider Gray to be one.

Still another of those McCarty allies is Jay Alperin, a dentist and former Delray mayor and commissioner. Alperin recently sent an unsolicited email to the city attorney candidates. Without naming Glickstein, Petrolia and like-minded Commissioner Jordana Jarjura, elected in March, Alperin said the reform push by the new commission majority threatened to return Delray Beach to “the chaos of the 1980s.” Alperin added, “Our new Mayor and new City Commission have frightened away a majority of our senior staff and many others are functioning under the fear of losing their jobs.”

Alperin suggested that the applicants contact Brian Shutt “to get some insight.”

In fact, the Glickstein-Jarjura-Petrolia majority is more reminiscent of the commissions that helped lead Delray Beach’s transformation two decades ago. Since Alperin in his email also complains about what he considers poor treatment of City Manager Louie Chapman, the anti-reformers in Delray Beach seem worried. Only two employees report to the commission: the manager and the attorney. Glickstein, Jarjura and Petrolia are ready to fire Chapman for more than good cause. Al Jacquet may join them. The commission also is poised to permanently upgrade the legal department, whether with a new attorney or a new firm. These changes would make it harder for the anti-reformers to influence city government. Such changes, though, would make good government and good management much more routine in Delray Beach.

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Immigration reform only helps Florida                                  

The debate over immigration reform can sound like a 24/7 recycling of talking points, but here is a fascinating piece of information I hadn’t heard:

In 1960, half of the American workforce consisted of high-school dropouts. Today, the figure is 10 percent.

This information comes from Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorksUSA. Its members are mostly medium and small businesses that favor reform mostly because it would make it easier for them to hire workers who have legal status, and in some cases to have access to workers who aren’t always college or even high-school graduates. Since Americans don’t raise their children to be lettuce and orange pickers, Florida especially needs immigrant labor for the harvest.

Jacoby spoke last week at the Economic Forum of Palm Beach County’s monthly meeting in West Palm Beach. Though chances remain low, Jacoby said the House might vote in June or July on immigration. The Senate passed its version nearly a year ago. Florida’s delegation would be crucial in any House action. No big decisions will come until after June 10, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor faces a tea party rival—who opposes reform—in the Virginia primary.

The Senate bill provides legal status and a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million estimated illegal immigrants—roughly half of whom entered legally and overstayed visas. Jacoby believes that the House will not include the citizenship path in any bill or set of bills, but regarding this potentially contentious issue she threw out another number:

About 4.5 million illegal immigrants have children who are citizens because they were born here. The 14th Amendment grants them birthright citizenship. When they become adults, they could sponsor their parents for citizenship. Though the process would take longer, that prospect could allow Democrats, who favor the citizenship path in the Senate bill, to accept a House version that included all other aspects of reform.

From our agriculture and tourism industries to our nascent biotech industry, Florida needs immigration reform, to provide human capital from the low to the high ends of the economic spectrum. Reform has bipartisan support from all of South Florida’s nine-member congressional delegation, from the state’s other three Democrats and from a few Republicans. Florida can be a swing state in more than presidential elections, if the House gives Florida a chance on immigration reform.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.