Boca council members want investigation of mayor’s voting controversy

Nov 13, 2017
Boca Mayor Susan Haynie listens to conversation about zoning during a public meeting held Monday, November 13, 2017 at Boca City Hall. Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post

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 two-hour 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.

Who should investigate?

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.