Accused of bias, judge quits case challenging Gardens ballot questions

Feb 19, 2018
Circuit Judge Jeffrey Dana Gillen listens to Abigail Jorandby, attorney for Palm Beach Gardens, during a hearing in former Palm Beach County GOP chair Sid Dinerstein’s lawsuit against the city of Palm Beach Gardens and Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher in the Palm Beach County Courthouse on Friday, February 9, 2018. (Andres Leiva / The Palm Beach Post)

A judge set to rule on four controversial Palm Beach Gardens ballot questions has stepped aside after a city attorney accused the judge of bias.

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Voters will decide the four questions — two of which would relax existing term limits — in the March 13 election, provided the new judge finds they are all “clear and unambiguous.”

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Judge Jeffrey Dana Gillen expressed doubt the questions met that standard.

“I’m concerned that the electorate is not getting the message. They need to know what they’re voting about,” Gillen said at a Feb. 9 scheduling conference.

A week later, Palm Beach Gardens Attorney R. Max Lohman moved to have Gillen disqualified. Gillen stepped aside Saturday and a new judge will hear the case at a to-be-determined date.

The legal battle began when Sid Dinerstein, a former Palm Beach County Republican Party chairman, sued the city, clerk and Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher to block the questions from going to voters in March. He argued the questions are misleading.

If the new judge throws out any questions, the election will proceed but voters will be notified that their votes for the tossed questions won’t count. The ballots cannot be changed or reprinted.

Gillen’s questions speaking to the merits of the case during a scheduling conference were “highly prejudicial” and showed a bias against City Clerk Patricia Snider, Lohman wrote in a Feb. 15 filing.

Gillen granted Lohman’s request to step down Saturday afternoon in an email to the attorneys.

The judge is not allowed to deny the allegations, reject them as unfounded or comment on them at all except “obvious misunderstandings, misconceptions or misstatements,” Gillen wrote in his order granting Lohman’s request for a new judge.

Gillen previously quizzed City Attorney Abigail Jorandby about the timing of the election, public notice requirements, the number of words used in the ballot summary and the implications of throwing out one of the questions — all of which were inappropriate for a scheduling conference, Lohman wrote.

Most of the judge’s comments centered on the first of four ballot questions. The city has said the question merely cleans up an outdated City Charter that has some conflicts with state law.

If approved, it would also remove requirements in the charter that the city manager be a resident and undergo yearly performance reviews by the council, among other things.

“I’m just laying the cards on the table, folks. I think it has to do more than it’s done, at least with respect to 26. That does an awful lot more than what is identified in the language of the summary,” Gillen said at the scheduling conference.

Lohman wrote that Gillen’s “blatant prejudging” and profuse apologies for exceeding the scope of a scheduling conference proved the city wouldn’t get a fair hearing.

Dinerstein said he’s not happy about the recusal of the judge, but it shouldn’t matter.

“The ambiguity of the questions speaks for itself to every judge,” he said.