- Tony Doris Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
For Riviera Beach, with a third of its population in poverty, a new, $4.1 million business linking the Port of Palm Beach with multiple island nations of the Caribbean would provide jobs, tax revenues and a strengthened commercial base.
But a company trying to provide just that says the city’s administrative paralysis has delayed the opening of its cold storage facility near the port by 11 months and cost the owner tens of thousands of dollars and counting, while prospective customers call for its services.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” said Michael Drew, owner of Port of Palm Cold Storage, who expected to open Caribbean Freezer Services at 1800-1830 Martin Luther King Blvd. last January. “I’ve had a business in Riviera Beach for 21 years. I’ve never had a problem until this.”
In a legal action filed Nov. 10 in Palm Beach Circuit Court, his company asks that the court force the city and its building official to do their jobs and restart the permitting process required to open the plant. Judge Edward Garrison has given them until Dec. 11 to respond.
The suit alleges that the building, though 90 percent complete, lacks final approvals it needs to open because it is the victim of changes in city government personnel, conflicting demands and a building official not licensed to hold the position.
Indeed the city administration has been in chaos for months. The city council fired the city manager in September — a manager brought in to clean up the mess left by the previous manager, who was fired. A few months before, the assistant city manager who’d been passed up for the manager job resigned. The human resources director gave notice in October. The internal auditor resigned. The city has no assistant human resources director, purchasing director, IT director or building services director.
The suit alleges that although the previous building official approved the project’s construction, the current interim building official, Ladi March, “not only refuses to perform her statutory duties, she even refused to attend a meeting setup by the city attorney on Nov. 2, 2017 to resolve the issues ….” What’s more, she only received her provisional building code administrator license in May and has yet to receive her permanent license, said Charlie Bennardini, Drew’s attorney.
Attorneys for March and the city said they hadn’t had enough time to analyze the complaint to comment on it.
“Many of those allegations are salacious indeed,” said March’s attorney, Malcolm Cunningham Jr. ” There’s a lot of assertions in that complaint that have no basis in fact.”
According to the suit, the company paid in advance for a master permit for construction. The prior building official did not issue that master permit but authorized the company to start and issued sub-permits to build without it. But on March 9, March slapped the company with a $228,000 fine for having built without permits.
“At the time, she was not a licensed building official and had not yet even obtained her provisional building code administrator license,” the suit alleged. Nonetheless, the city demanded the penalty be paid within 24 hours or a stop work order would be issued. And on March 10, a contractor hired by the city to stand in as its building department slapped a “no trespassing” sign on the property and police locked the access gate, the suit alleged.
The company sought the help of the just-hired city manager, Jonathan Evans, who arranged to meet with the company and its representatives and March and iron out the problems.
“Evans reasonably stated the city’s desire to welcome new businesses and to cooperate in getting new businesses up and running,” the suit said. The city agreed to lift the stop work order and Evans and March agreed that the issue of the $228,000 penalty would be resolved “at the point compliance has been achieved.”
But then March wouldn’t approve the needed inspections unless the company paid the penalty, the suit said.
The company couldn’t return to Evans for redress because on Sept. 20, the city council fired him, for unspecified reasons.
A meeting was scheduled for Nov. 2 between the company and its representatives and the city attorney, interim city manager and other officials. But March, the one person with the authority to resolve the issues, “intentionally and defiantly refused to attend,” even though she was believed to be in city hall at the time, the suit alleged.
According to owner Drew, Caribbean Freezer Services would be the only public cold storage facility of its kind near the port. It would provide Caribbean suppliers a place to freeze and store food as cold as minus-20 degrees, prior to shipping to the islands.
Because it was supposed to be open by now, its website already is operating and potential customers have been calling, only to find out the facility remains closed indefinitely.
“I get a lot of phone calls,” Drew said. “I’m turning away business but once it opens, I think it’s very rapidly going to grow.”
Cunningham, meanwhile, also is fending off a $1.5 million lawsuit against the city by a utility contractor, a case the firm says also stems from the city’s disarray. Close Construction LLC of Okeechobee alleges the city breached the firm’s $4 million contract, delayed payments and then fired it for problems caused by the outside engineer the city hired to administer the project, an engineer who doubled his own pay by doing so.
The city contends Close didn’t do what it was paid to do.