Editorial: Boca mayor puts reputation on line with Batmasian votes

The nagging question about Susan Haynie, the now embattled mayor of Boca Raton, is: why would she put her integrity at so much risk for so little?

We see Haynie as a smart, tough, visionary public official. Qualities that helped her win this newspaper’s endorsement for mayor over opponent Al Zucaro in March.

But, as documented exhaustively by the Post’s Lulu Ramadan, Haynie has voted a dozen times on matters pertaining to James Batmasian, Boca’s largest commercial property owner, despite having indirect financial ties with him. Votes that now have some residents rightfully questioning both Haynie’s integrity, and her judgment.

RELATED: Secret financial ties between Boca mayor, Batmasian revealed

Haynie and her husband own a property management company that since 2010 has had a $12,000 annual contract to oversee a 1,600-unit apartment complex in Deerfield Beach, where Batmasian owns 80 percent of the units. Haynie’s company was paid through the complex’s master association. (It was placed in her husband’s name alone last year.)

The stakes seem small on the surface. Twelve grand per year seems well short of the market price for buying a politician. And if Haynie were trying to curry favor with a millionaire developer whom she might tap for future campaign contributions – Haynie has declared her candidacy for the county commission – her voting record doesn’t show it.

Since 2012, the Boca Raton City Council has passed 10 matters concerning Batmasian or one of his companies by 5-0 votes. One other vote went 4-0. One of these decisions helped Batmasian double the value of one his properties, and two others raised the value of another property, but the entire council played a hand in them.

In only one instance did Haynie cast a potentially deciding vote,and that was relatively trivial: a 3-2 approval, with Haynie in the majority, for Batmasian to keep the colors on a shopping plaza sign that a city board had deemed too bright.

Yet that doesn’t mean real issues aren’t at stake in the controversy over Haynie’s votes.

Haynie has used a 2013 opinion by the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics as cover to justify voting in Batmasian-related matters. But that opinion was written only after the strenuous efforts of Boca’s city attorney overturned Ethics Commission staff’s initial opinion that a conflict indeed existed. And a close reading of that opinion raises doubt that it applies to the votes that Haynie made after 2013.

City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser worked for five months in 2013 — enduring two rejections, sending emails with legalistic objections — until commissioners, expressing cautions, finally said “the elected official” could vote. They used that vague reference because Frieser didn’t name Haynie or Batmasian in her recitation of the facts – omissions that now feed suspicions.

Frieser denies that she pressed the board to bend the ruling to Haynie’s liking, saying, rather, that she was just being a conscientious attorney. An overzealous attorney, is more like it. And an overly compliant commission as well.

Haynie has treated that ruling, dated Aug. 16, 2016, as her shield against any objections to her voting on subsequent Batmasian matters. One problem: The opinion concerned a single situation, in which Batmasian was “neither the applicant nor the developer.” In the votes that followed, Batmasian was the applicant, developer or both.

There was one occasion, in 2011, when Haynie did recuse herself from a vote concerning a Batmasian project: a 7-Eleven for Boca’s barrier island. But in announcing her recusal, the then-councilwoman never said what her potential voting conflict was, nor disclose her family’s business ties to Batmasian, nor even mention Batmasian’s name.

Nevertheless, her recusal was logical and ethical. Puzzlingly, only a year later, she ignored her own sound precedent and voted on a different Batmasian project.

RELATED: Boca council members want investigation of mayor’s voting controversy

Haynie told the Post Editorial Board that, in all her actions, she was guided by a state law that obligates a public official to vote unless there’s a legal reason not to.

When the 2011 vote came up, City Attorney Frieser told Haynie she believed no conflict existed, but recommended recusal out of an “abundance of caution.”

After that, Haynie said, Frieser sought an opinion from the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics “to have a definitive answer.” Haynie said she was unaware of Frieser’s back and forth with the commission.

And Haynie strenuously denied exercising any favoritism toward Batmasian.

Fine. But that’s still no excuse for putting too much trust in a shakily built opinion.

To its credit, the Boca City Council appears ready to adopt several smart reforms to improve transparency. More importantly, on Tuesday, the council voted, with Haynie’s support, to ask the Ethics Commission for an overall review to see if the mayor misapplied the commission’s opinion to post-2013 votes.

We hope the Ethics Commission acts fast, before the city council votes on a Batmasian plan to transform his centerpiece Royal Palm Place with two high-rises, a potential flash point in an increasingly dense downtown.

But until that review is completed, Haynie should follow her 2011 gut and recuse herself from any Batmasian-related votes.

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