Riviera Beach’s five-member city council found itself in mounting turmoil over the past year and with two seats up for election March 13, the city’s stability hangs in the balance.
The council’s unexplained firing last September of popular City Manager Jonathan Evans, by an unscheduled 3-2 vote, exacerbated tensions within the city and exacerbated its failure to fill many key positions. Palm Beach Post coverage laid bare a council that spent heavily on council travel, car allowances and stipends and fell ever-deeper into political infighting, while the needs of residents and businesses in the low-income community went unmet.
In District 4 on Singer Island, incumbent Dawn Pardo, one of those who voted to fire Evans, faces a challenge from Julia Botel, a former deputy school superintendent in Pennsylvania, critical of the firing. In District 2, Palm Beach fire battalion chief Keith Golden, also a newcomer to politics, faces Council Chairwoman KaShamba Miller-Anderson, an assistant principal who opposed Evans’ firing and sought to undo it.
Pardo asserts that for nearly 10 years in office she has represented residents “with integrity, honesty and leadership.” She conceded the council handled the firing poorly, but said she voted for it because Evans proposed unfair taxes and hiring 24 employees despite a potential budget deficit. For months after the firing, however, she and the two colleagues who voted with her refused to explain their reasons. Her explanation came only after a sustained community uproar and amid allegations that she was angry at Evans for preventing her from spending city money for a xeriscape project on private property.
A frequent attendee at League of Cities conferences, over the past two years Pardo spent more than her colleagues on travel, including a trip to Barcelona “to learn more about the development, operation and management of a public market,” she said.
Pardo says she has accomplished a lot on the council. “I pledged to redevelop our marina and Ocean Mall, attract businesses, provide job opportunities, amend coastal codes, revitalize neighborhoods and parks, and to get a seat at the table on the county, state and federal level. I have kept my promise.” It’s difficult, she said in an interview, “when it seems like I’m the only one who has my eyes on the prize.”
Botel said she was prompted to run because of the firing of a manager who tried to rein in wasteful spending by the council. She noted that council members have given themselves an annual $12,000 stipend from the city utility in addition to their salary, to compensate them “for attending one meeting a month.” She pledged to place her stipend in a fund to pay utility bills for residents who can’t afford them.
She said she wants to make sure the city hires qualified managers, rather than easing required qualifications as the council did recently for manager candidates. She noted that the council hired a building official who hasn’t passed the licensing test for that position. She wants the government to be more transparent and business-friendly and remove roadblocks from businesses seeking construction permits.
She criticized the council for micromanaging, improper credit card spending and arrogance shown through verbal abuse of citizens speaking at council meetings.
The waterfront city needs to grow its tax base by attracting businesses, she said. “We must also take into account the need to create jobs and protect the environment. We also need to do more to create a skilled labor force for business to hire. For example, we need to replace the Maritime Academy with a vocational school for the marine industry.”
The District 2 race pits a firefighter against a council chairwoman who tried to put out political fires her colleagues’ decisions ignited.
Miller-Anderson urged the three council members who voted for the firing without discussion to explain their reasons — they wouldn’t. She urged them to reconsider their decision. When they sought to loosen the required qualifications for a city manager replacement, she resisted but again found herself in the minority.
The firing for alleged misfeasancewas not supported by evidence, she said, asserting that Evans ran the city in a responsible, appropriate and transparent manner and was fired because of that. “If there were concerns about his performance, it should not have come as a surprise to many, including myself,” the chairwoman added.
Miller-Anderson is the only council member who voted against the $12,000 stipend from the start and declined to accept it. She’s considering giving up other council benefits unique to the city, such as having a legislative aide, she said.
She serves on the Palm Beach County Democratic Executive Committee, Florida League of Cities and its Transportation and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, and on the National League of Cities Human Development Committee, among other assignments. In Riviera Beach, she’s for increased public safety, infrastructure improvements and educational programs, job creation, beach preservation and “building up the Broadway Corridor, marina and Port District with viable businesses,” to help capture some of the money for the city that cruise ship traffic generates.
Golden, vice president of Gold Coast Progressive Firefighters and board member of the Palm Beach County (firefighters) Regional Diversity Committee, said he’s running because he “ got fed up by the lack of movement.” The incumbent is “overall a great person,” he said, but the city has become stagnant and suffers from lack of vision and focus. “We need to get our marina redevelopment back on track and fulfill the promise of 2,000 jobs for our residents. He agreed with Miller-Anderson that the manager’s firing was wrong and was handled without transparency or due process.
His priorities will include greater support for police and fire services, business and job development, reinvestment in neighborhood roads and sidewalks, street lighting and landscaping and replacing water and sewer mains, while lowering the city’s high property tax rate. He also would refuse the $12,000 stipend and would either give it back or give it to local charities, he said.
“In recent years, the city’s budget has increased almost 65 percent, and with very little to show for it,” he said. “It’s time for a change.”