Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay on Thursday asked Florida Gov. Rick Scott to investigate the founding of the county’s newest city, Westlake, which sprang to life Monday with the support of only five voters.
McKinlay’s request came as the new city’s mayor, Roger Manning, made his first public comments about the unusual circumstances of the city’s incorporation.
In an interview with The Palm Beach Post Thursday, Manning, the 62-year-old owner of Banyan Printing who lives west of Lake Worth, said he agreed to serve as the city’s mayor at the request of John Carter, the vice president of Minto Communities, whom he knows because both serve as board members of the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce.
Asked whether he could be independent of Minto — or even oppose the developer if he felt its actions wouldn’t be in the city’s best interest — he nodded in the affirmative.
“I’m my own man,” he said. “I’ve been in business for over 30 years. I operate by doing what I think is best.”
Minto plans to build 4,500 houses and develop 2.2 million square feet of commercial space in Westlake. Carter has said the firm backs incorporation in part because of difficulty in working with the county on such issues as permitting, a charge county officials dispute.
Incorporation could allow Minto to expand its plans beyond what it agreed to two years ago, when commissioners approved Minto’s project over the strong objections of Acreage and Loxahatchee-area residents who complained it will bring traffic and sprawl.
McKinlay, whose district includes Westlake, has been critical of Minto’s push for incorporation of the former Callery-Judge Grove and questions whether it was accomplished legally.
A 2012 state law, signed by Scott, carved out a fast, easy path to incorporation for so-called special districts like the Seminole Improvement District, the Acreage-area entity that has overseen roads and water there for many years.
Minto is the largest landowner in the district. Its holdings include the improvement district’s office building, which also was listed in elections records as the address of each of the five voters whose support led to the incorporation of Westlake as a city.
Three of those five voters, including Anthony Fritz, who remained in the Palm Beach County Jail Thursday, agreed to serve as transitional council members for the new city. Fritz, however, resigned on Tuesday, 10 days after he was arrested on a battery charge for allegedly beating his girlfriend.
Westlake’s charter requires only that two transitional council members live in the county. There is no requirement that they live in the city itself, one of several issues McKinlay pointed out in a letter to Scott requesting an investigation.
“I understand that no law requires municipal officials to reside in the city they serve, but allowing a majority of the Transitional Council to live not only outside Westlake but also outside of Palm Beach County, strains accepted principles of representative government,” McKinlay wrote.
She also raised questions about the residences of the voters who backed incorporation.
“My concern lies in the fact that the conversion process requires only the support of just three of the five registered voters listed as living within the SID,” McKinlay wrote. “These voters, remarkably, shared the same address. It would appear that renters were brought in by the property owner to fulfill this ‘voter’ requirement.”
A spokeswoman for Scott said the governor’s office has received the letter and will review it.
In an interview with The Post, McKinlay said she believes the process used to incorporate Westlake is not what legislators had in mind when they passed that 2012 bill.
“I don’t think it was the intent of the Legislature for this process to be handled in the manner it’s been handled,” she said.
Efforts to reach Carter were unsuccessful.
For his part, Manning said he believes the furor over Westlake’s founding will die down.
He said that as he considered Carter’s request that he be mayor of Westlake, he toured the area and concluded it needs much of the development Minto plans to bring.
“There is a real need for services,” he said.
Manning had no quibble with how the city was founded, alluding to the difficulties Carter said Minto has experienced in trying to move forward with its development plans.
“My feeling is, if you can’t get things done and you can’t move forward, you have to back up and move forward,” he said.
Other than Manning, The Post has been unable to reach any of those who have agreed to serve on Westlake’s transitional council. Manning acknowledged that he was reluctant to comment on the Westlake controversy and agreed to do so only when a reporter showed up at his business.
He expressed revulsion at the alleged battery by Fritz, who also was serving probation for the crimes of failure to return leased property and cocaine possession. In the settlement resulting in Fritz’s probation, adjudication of guilt was withheld in both of those cases.
“I don’t know the guy,” Manning said. “I’ve never met the guy.”
Manning said he has met the other transitional council members but doesn’t know them well, either.
Still, he was upbeat about the city’s prospects and confident he could be of assistance.
“If it wasn’t me that was approached and asked to do this, it would have been someone else,” Manning said.
Manning said he expects to be officially sworn in on Monday — in the Seminole Improvement District offices owned by Minto.
“In the long run, this is going to be good for the west, good for the residents,” he said. “If we work together and be good neighbors, it’ll all work out.”