New Boynton Beach City Commission still faces major challenges

Firing a long-time city manager is normally a difficult decision. The fact that it was a largely new and untested group of elected officials who made this decision at Boynton Beach was even more extraordinary.

Last month, the City Commission voted 4-1 to terminate Lori LaVerriere, a City Hall figure who failed to win the support of three of the new commissioners.

“We have to take this step,” Mayor Ty Penserga said after the vote. “It’s difficult. It’s uncomfortable. But that’s what we’re elected to do…It’s necessary to keep us going.”

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We’ll see. Penserga, Vice Mayor Angela Cruz and Commissioners Thomas Turkin and Aimee Kelley ousted LaVerriere. Cruz and Turkin won the elections in March. Kelley was named to the commission just before voting to fire the director.

Lori LaVerriere, former City Manager of Boynton Beach

The sudden vote leaves the commission without a permanent executive to deal with challenges that would give seasoned politicians pause. Forget the typical problems that most urban communities face – crime, infrastructure demands, poverty and neighborhood redevelopment. The challenges facing the county’s third-largest municipality are daunting, especially for a new municipal commission.

It’s about resolving racial animosity in a divided community over an unauthorized police chase by a white officer that ended in the fatal crash of a black teenager on a dirt bike. The officer, Mark Sohn, remains on administrative leave, pending the results of an internal investigation.

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And what should be a breakthrough in downtown development remains pockmarked by the barren grounds of two unfinished parking lots and three apartment buildings. The Town Square project includes a new town hall, library, police and fire station and outdoor theater – completed on time, under budget with taxpayers’ money. But the private sector work that was supposed to be part of the project is stalled in court, leaving an incomplete horror, due to the city’s lack of due diligence to protect against the developer’s non-performance.

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At the western end of town, the Boynton Beach Mall remains an underutilized development. Progress in reviving it has been slow, in part due to competition from new developments, such as Main Street in Boynton, which are closer to new housing projects and more attractive to retailers.

Perhaps the most important decision for the new commission to make is to cut its city-run police department and become part of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

The proposed change was credited with the abrupt resignation of Chief Constable Michael Gregory. Gregory insisted that major crime in the city was down, but that did little to slow the pace of change. Like the post of chief executive, the post of chief is filled with an “interim” at a time when the department faces uncertainty about its future.

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LaVerriere, criticized for her administration’s bungling of the Town Square project and failure to fire Sohn, told Palm Beach Post reporter Jorge Milan it was her reluctance to move law enforcement to the sheriff’s office which led to his dismissal. She blamed two officers in particular who she said would benefit from the change. “They felt I was a hindrance, in the sense that I was going to try to prevent a merger, which I’m not,” she said. “My job would be to provide transparency and a thorough review of what will be a $40 million transaction. I don’t believe transparency is their priority.

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LaVerriere is right. City police and the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association lobbied for the change due to PBSO’s better pay and greater resources. Cruz and Turkin won with political support from law enforcement. Kelly, the appointed commissioner, is the wife of a city police captain. For residents who want to keep their city’s police, the odds are not in their favor.

The new commissioners are to be commended for acting quickly and decisively in eliminating LaVerriere, a necessary step to resolve both the Town Square debacle and the ill will caused by the deadly police chase.

But firing a city manager was easy. Now comes the hardest part: governing.