The 2019 mayoral race began in earnest Wednesday afternoon as Keith James, a city commissioner since 2011, threw his hat in the ring to replace Mayor Jeri Muoio, who will step down because of term limits.
James, 59, a Harvard-educated lawyer and one of two African-American men on the five-person commission, said he is “focused on supporting city initiatives that keep taxes low, increase job opportunities for residents, improve public safety in our neighborhoods, support our local schools and education programs, manage transportation and traffic issues and encourage diversity.”
He faces potential opponents in colleagues Shanon Materio and Paula Ryan but neither has filed candidacy papers yet.
He has represented District 4, which consists of western, relatively wealthy sections of the city, and with few exceptions has been a supporter of Muoio’s initiatives. The district traditionally has heavier voter turnout than the rest of the city, giving James an early advantage.
“As a city commissioner, I have provided a level of experience and collaboration that has helped West Palm Beach become the city of excellence we have today,” he said. “As mayor, residents can expect from me leadership that listens, a champion who looks out for all our neighborhoods and a vision for the future that unites our city.”
James has served during a period when the city was pulling out of recession, a time of tight budgets that the commission has gradually relaxed as it unfroze employee pay and played catch-up with maintenance, equipment and program shortfalls, from police cars to road repairs and parks improvements. Even as real estate values rose and the city raked in increasing amounts of tax revenue, the commission has not reduced the property tax rate.
James pledged Wednesday not to increase the tax rate if he’s elected and said it’s possible he would move to reduce it.
As for addressing the city’s areas of generational poverty, he said, “We’re pecking away at it through our Housing and Community Development Department at the city, as well as the Community Redevelopment Agency, to try bringing projects that add to employment possibilities.”
“It’s a matter of continuing to push away at the buttons and address the problems,” from employment, to education and real estate ownership in those areas, he said. “We have to continue to expand our tax base so we have monies available to pursue these programs.”
He cited his early support for The Bristol, a luxury waterfront condominium project now rising at the former Chapel-by-the-Lake site, which was controversial for its view-blocking size but which is expected to bring the city millions of dollars in additional property tax revenues.
He stirred controversy in 2015, when a developer proposing a major medical campus on the downtown “tent site” alleged that James angrily refused to support the proposal because the developer had sided against the mayor in a recent election. A state ethics complaint filed against him by developer Michael McCloskey was dismissed.
James declined to say Wednesday where he stands on another controversial project, the proposed 25-story One Flagler office project proposed for a site currently zoned for a maximum of five stories, also near the waterfront. He said he wouldn’t comment before that project is formally presented to the commission.
Recently elected president of the Palm Beach County League of Cities, James also serves as one of the city’s representatives on the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, which focuses on regional transportation and other growth issues.
Along with the rest of the commission, he has consistently voted to fight the extension of State Road 7 near Grassy Waters Preserve and the Ibis Golf and Country Club community. He recently persuaded a majority of the city commissioners to remove his potential mayoral opponent, Materio, from her seat on the MPO, for a vote she cast for a project priority list that included the road extension.
As a lawyer, James represents small- and medium-sized businesses in corporate, real estate and governmental law. He graduated from Harvard in 1979 and Harvard Law School in 1982.
He and his fiancée, Lorna, live in the Andros Isle neighborhood.
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