Boca coun­cil mem­bers call for probe of mayor

Coun­cil takes no ac­tion amid de­bate over who should do in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The Palm Beach Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Lulu Ra­madan Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

BOCA RA­TON — A ma­jor­ity of Boca Ra­ton City Coun­cil mem­bers called for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Mayor Su­san Haynie’s vot­ing con­tro­versy Mon­day but couldn’t yet agree on who would do it or what they would in­ves­ti­gate.

Haynie said lit­tle in the twohour pub­lic air­ing of a con­flict that’s grip­ping the city.

Haynie, who is run­ning for Palm Beach County Com­mis­sion, has taken at least 12 votes on pro­pos­als

by the largest landown­ers in the city, James and Marta Bat­masian. At the same time, a com­pany she founded with her husband was em­ployed by a firm con­trolled by the Bat­masians. She also never re­ported her firm, Com­mu­nity Re­liance, on her state-re­quired fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure forms.

“I have al­ways fol­lowed the process and re­lied on pro­fes­sional le­gal guid­ance,” Haynie said. “As an elected of­fi­cial, I have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to vote if there is no con­flict. And that’s what I was ad­vised to do.”

Most coun­cil mem­bers did not get into a pub­lic lash­ing of the mayor. How­ever, they lamented the at­ten­tion the is­sue has drawn.

One coun­cil mem­ber, An­drea O’Rourke, wanted an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by an in­de­pen­dent body that didn’t have any­thing to do with the city or the Palm Beach County Ethics Com­mis­sion. Two oth­ers said the mat­ter should be bumped back to the state or

county ethics com­mis­sions.

City At­tor­ney Diana Frieser went through a de­tailed ex­pla­na­tion of what hap­pened in 2013 when she sought on Haynie’s be­half an ethics opin­ion that Haynie is call­ing her “com­pass.”

Two coun­cil mem­bers were harshly crit­i­cal of Frieser’s role. But they didn’t press her on sev­eral crit­i­cal points ex­posed by The Palm Beach Post, such as why she didn’t iden­tify Haynie or the Bat­masians when she asked for the ethics opin­ion or whether the nar­row opin­ion ap­plied to Haynie’s votes.

In­stead, Frieser said, the opin­ion cen­tered on whether the client of the Haynies’ firm, the Bat­masian-run res­i­den­tial as­so­ci­a­tion, ben­e­fited from the Bat­masian pro­pos­als.

“You can dance on the head of the pin about the is­sue of client and all of that non­sense but it all boils down to one en­tity con­trolled by the same peo­ple,” Al Zu­caro, Haynie’s po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent said dur­ing pub­lic com­ment. He has filed a com­plaint with the state ethics com­mis­sion.

The Post re­ported that the opin­ion did not ap­ply to Haynie’s votes, Zu­caro told the coun­cil, in part be­cause it al­lowed her to vote only when Bat­masian was nei­ther the ap­pli­cant nor de­vel­oper com­ing be­fore the coun­cil. Frieser did not ad­dress that ques­tion.

Dur­ing a drawn-out ex­pla­na­tion of her role in seek­ing that opin­ion, Frieser de­fended her­self about whether she was too ag­gres­sive in pur­su­ing a fa­vor­able rul­ing af­ter the county ethics com­mis­sion twice drafted opin­ions sug­gest­ing Haynie re­cuse her­self.

“Why was it im­por­tant that this be pressed as hard as you could?” Coun­cil­man Robert Wein­roth asked Frieser, who has worked for the city for nearly two decades.

Frieser fielded crit­i­cism from Wein­roth and O’Rourke, who asked that Frieser’s in­volve­ment in seek­ing the 2013 ethics opin­ion be probed by an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tor.

Coun­cil­man Scott Singer pitched the idea of mak­ing the coun­cil aware of fu­ture ethics in­quiries when they are sought and to make those doc­u­ments avail­able on the city’s web­site. It was well-re­ceived among the coun­cil mem­bers. He said coun­cil mem­bers seek­ing opin­ions should be named. The ethics com­mis­sion re­quires that now.

Ab­sent from the au­di­ence — and hardly named in the con­ver­sa­tion — was Bat­masian, the largest com­mer­cial landowner in Boca.

City at­tor­ney’s de­fense

O’Rourke, aligned with Haynie’s po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, ques­tioned the “ne­go­ti­a­tion” of lan­guage be­tween Frieser and the ethics com­mis­sion at­tor­neys in 2013.

Frieser asked the ethics com­mis­sion in April 2013 whether an uniden­ti­fied “city of­fi­cial” could vote on a project brought for­ward by an uniden­ti­fied “de­vel­oper” who owns most of a con­do­minium com­plex in Broward County. That city of­fi­cial’s prop­erty man­age­ment firm was work­ing for the con­do­minium as­so­ci­a­tion for $12,000 a year.

At first, the ethics board ruled that the “city of­fi­cial” should re­cuse her­self, and that the sce­nario had an “ap­pear­ance of im­pro­pri­ety.” But Frieser con­tin­ued to press Haynie’s case, and ad­justed the lan­guage of the re­quest.

The ethics board re­lented in Au­gust 2013 — af­ter the term “de­vel­oper” was re­placed with “in­vestor,” say­ing it was a more ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion of the Bat­masians.

Frieser, who has avoided pub­licly com­ment­ing on this mat­ter un­til Mon­day, took is­sue with the term “ne­go­ti­a­tion,” say­ing it has a “bad con­no­ta­tion.”

“I don’t be­lieve I ne­go­ti­ated any­thing with any­body ... I did think it was im­por­tant to bring to their at­ten­tion what I thought were rel­e­vant le­gal is­sues,” she said, adding that she wel­comes “crit­i­cism of that.”

Haynie said she wasn’t aware of the change from “de­vel­oper” to “in­vestor” in 2013. Frieser said she would have con­sulted Haynie if it had been “a fac­tual change,” de­scrib­ing it in­stead as a le­gal is­sue.

The fi­nal word­ing of the ethics opin­ion gives Haynie per­mis­sion to vote in very lim­ited cir­cum­stances, specif­i­cally sce­nar­ios in which James and Marta Bat­masian are not the de­vel­op­ers or ap­pli­cants. But in the dozen votes that Haynie took, James Bat­masian or one of his busi­nesses was the ap­pli­cant, de­vel­oper or both.

Launch an in­ves­ti­ga­tion

O’Rourke said a probe by the county ethics com­mis­sion was not enough, as they were in­volved in the opin­ion Haynie sought four years ago.

Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers thought the county ethics body was the ideal party to re­ex­am­ine the is­sues.

“The (city) coun­cil doesn’t have the power or the au­thor­ity to po­lice mem­bers,” Rodgers said. Coun­cil mem­bers agreed to re­visit the is­sues at a fu­ture city coun­cil meet­ing.

Re­gard­less, Haynie re­it­er­ated that “there’s no se­cret here.” She said that in 2011, she re­cused her­self from vot­ing on a Bat­masian pitch to build a 7-Eleven on the city’s bar­rier is­land. She claimed that she openly dis­cussed her con­flict at the time, but meet­ing video and city records re­veal that she never de­scribed her fi­nan­cial ties to Bat­masian.

Haynie has said she would wel­come an in­ves­ti­ga­tion from the ethics com­mis­sion.

“I want to see this re­solved as quickly as we can so we can get back to the busi­ness of the peo­ple,” she said.

DA­MON HIG­GINS / THE PALM BEACH POST

Boca Ra­ton Mayor Su­san Haynie lis­tens dur­ing a zon­ing dis­cus­sion Mon­day. Haynie has said she would wel­come an in­ves­ti­ga­tion from the ethics com­mis­sion. “As an elected of­fi­cial, I have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to vote if there is no con­flict,” she said Mon­day. “And that’s what I was ad­vised to do.”

DA­MON HIG­GINS / THE PALM BEACH POST

Boca Ra­ton Mayor Su­san Haynie speaks at Mon­day’s coun­cil meet­ing. Most coun­cil mem­bers did not get into pub­lic crit­i­cism of the mayor at the meet­ing, but lamented the at­ten­tion the is­sue has drawn.

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