- Lulu Ramadan Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
In a remarkable turn of events, Boca Raton leaders plan Monday to publicly confront allegations reported by The Palm Beach Post that Mayor Susan Haynie hid financial ties with the largest commercial landowner in the city.
In a town torn by hostile factions, a councilwoman aligned with Haynie’s opponents put the issue on the agenda when council members meet at 1:30 p.m. Haynie, urged by allies and opponents alike to explain her ties to developer James Batmasian, said she would be there.
She said she’s looking forward to ending the controversy “in an open, transparent and public fashion.”
Haynie, a candidate for county commission, has voted at least a dozen times on real estate proposals benefiting Batmasian. During that time, a company founded by Haynie and her husband has collected thousands of dollars from a business controlled by Batmasian and his wife, Marta.
“We can’t not talk about this,” said Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who put it on Monday’s agenda.
Haynie defends her actions with a 2013 Palm Beach County ethics opinion that allowed her to vote in limited circumstances. Though she said she sought the opinion, she did not use her name or Batmasian’s.
At first, the ethics commission said no, the city official could not vote. But City Attorney Diana Frieser continued to press Haynie’s case until the board relented.
Now Frieser will be in the cross hairs, asked to explain what happened and why the council never knew.
Robert Weinroth, a four-year councilman, said Frieser owes the council an explanation.
“I think she didn’t do the mayor any favors, and that perhaps she was overly zealous in trying to solicit an opinion that the mayor was seeking,” Weinroth said.
A city divided
Haynie’s controversy is another brawl on the battlefield that is Boca Raton.
It plays out in the blogosphere, where warring camps with drastically different visions for Boca face off daily.
Haynie’s political rival Al Zucaro, a former West Palm Beach commissioner turned Boca Raton blogger, lost to Haynie in the March mayoral election. He has since filed a complaint against Haynie with the state ethics board. Zucaro ally Frank Chapman has brought the matter to the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office.
Zucaro’s focus has been on Haynie’s failure to list her property management firm’s earnings on mandatory financial disclosure forms. Haynie said she didn’t disclose them because the money went to her husband, Neil.
She called Zucaro’s complaint a “repulsive form of political retribution.”
Zucaro, who married Boca Raton heiress Yvonne Boice in 2010, created a name for himself in the city as publisher of BocaWatch, a blog that often criticizes his adversaries, Haynie included.
O’Rourke wrote for the blog for about a year but distanced herself from it when she ran for council.
BocaWatch shared a link to The Post’s Haynie coverage on its website, and Zucaro published a video titled “Drain the Political Swamp,” in which he questioned the mayor’s potential conflicts of interest.
But even a moderate blogger who often sides with Haynie, Randy Schultz, published two columns focusing on the controversy. In one piece, Schultz, a former Palm Beach Post editor, also questioned Haynie’s decisions.
“One wonders why she didn’t tell her husband just to end the contract and avoid any controversy,” he wrote.
In her first interview with The Post, Haynie suggested O’Rourke had her own conflicts with Batmasian.
O’Rourke submitted a question to the county ethics commission in June. Unlike Haynie, she identified herself in the question.
The conflict revolves around her husband, George, who works at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. He managed a stock portfolio for the Batmasians until O’Rourke’s election in March.
While Batmasian supported Haynie’s run for office, he backed O’Rourke’s opponent.
“I had no relationship with them, nor have I ever personally had a relationship with the Batmasians before and after I took the oath of office,” O’Rourke told The Post.
O’Rourke and Zucaro both ran campaigns centered on low-growth, a dividing line between Boca’s factions.
They both backed a citizen-initiated campaign to preserve Boca-owned waterfront properties for public use, defying the council at the time. They won.
Buoyed by that success they ran for city office in March, with O’Rourke winning her seat but Haynie defeating Zucaro.
Zucaro called out City Attorney Frieser for pursuing the ethics commission opinion in 2013 without informing the council. Citing the city charter, he said the attorney is meant to represent the city, not individual council members.
“How can she represent both the city and the mayor when those two positions are now at odds with one another?” Zucaro asked.
Frieser wrote detailed arguments supporting Haynie’s right to vote on Batmasian projects between April and August 2013, when the commission on ethics finally gave the go-ahead.
The ethics commission ultimately said Haynie could vote under limited circumstances that include Batmasian being neither the applicant nor the developer coming before the city council.
In all 12 votes cited by The Post, Batmasian or one of his companies was the applicant, the developer or both.
When asked to explain this discrepancy before The Post’s first story ran, Frieser said she does not speak to the media and referred all questions to a city spokeswoman, who did not comment beyond pointing to the August 2013 ethics commission ruling.
‘Air our laundry in public’
Haynie has defended her votes, asserting to The Post before and after the story published that she hasn’t violated any ethics laws. Haynie said she would welcome a probe into her business relationship with the Batmasians, and is confident there are “no secret financial ties and no conflict of interest.”
Weinroth, too, defended Haynie’s votes, saying, “We are legally bound if we are at that meeting to offer a vote. You really are between a rock and a hard place.”
State law requires elected officials to vote on most matters unless the elected official has a conflict of interest. Haynie said she was cleared of any conflict by that 2013 ethics opinion.
In 2014, state law changed to allow elected officials to abstain if recusal assures a “fair proceeding free from potential bias or prejudice” in certain hearings involving zoning and other matters considered “quasi-judicial.”
Most of the votes Haynie took on Batmasian projects were quasi-judicial.
Weinroth is ready for Monday’s discussion.
“It’s uncomfortable to have to air our laundry in public, but we’re public officials,” Weinroth said. “We have to address our issues in public.”