The Curious Case of the New Hallandale Beach Commissioner

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Hallandale Beach—the small, coastal city located on the southern edge of Broward County—is a hotbed of political rancor, infighting, and corruption. Hallandale residents such as myself have become accustomed to our city making the local news for all the worst reasons. Our City Commissioners are perpetually under investigation and embroiled in scandal. Last August, Commissioner Anthony Sanders resigned following an unfavorable report from the Office of the Inspector General, forcing a special election that will occur on March 13, 2018. Most recently, Hallandale Mayor Joy Cooper was arrested and charged with 3 felonies: money laundering, exceeding campaign contribution limits, and official misconduct.

Mayor Cooper’s arrest led to her suspension by Governor Rick Scott, leaving a second vacancy on the five-member City Commission. This was a huge victory for Vice Mayor Keith London, whose hatred for Mayor Cooper has been on shameful display at nearly every Commission meeting over the past several years. London unsuccessfully ran against Cooper for the Mayor position in 2012 but has now ascended to Mayor in the wake of Cooper’s suspension.

Last week, on February 13, 2018, the Hallandale Beach City Commission held a special meeting to fill the vacant Commission seat that opened as a result of Mayor Cooper’s suspension. This article will explain all the ways in which this meeting was truly special—including the lack of notice to the community, the violation of a City Resolution, the lack of debate, and other suspicious circumstances. Compared to the process used the last time a vacancy arose in February 2014, the appointment appears to be the latest act of political deviancy by Hallandale Beach’s deviant political actors.

Procedure May 2014 February 2018
Notice to Community > 1 week < 72 hours (if at all)
Vacancy Advertised Yes No
Applications Solicited Yes No
Formal Process Yes No
Candidates 19 3
Q&A for Candidates 3 Rounds None
Deliberation Following each round None
Length of Meeting 3+ hours Less than 1 hour

Hallandale Beach Rules for Filling a Vacant Commission Seat

Next month, Hallandale voters will have an opportunity to elect a new Commissioner as a result of Commissioner Anthony Sanders’ resignation in August 2017. Because Sanders resigned more than 12 months before the next scheduled election, Section 3.09(3)(b) of the City Charter mandates that the City hold a special election to fill his seat.

Sec. 3.09: – Vacancies; forfeiture of office; filling of vacancies.

(3)   Filling of vacancies. A vacancy or vacancies in the city commission shall be filled as provided in the following.

(b)   Special elections. If no regular city or general election is scheduled within twelve (12) months, the commission shall schedule a special election to fill the unexpired term held not sooner than sixty (60) days, nor more than ninety (90) days following the occurrence of the vacancy or vacancies. In any special election held for the purposes of this section, the provisions for nominations and elections contained in article IV of this Charter shall apply.

However, because Mayor Cooper’s vacancy came about less than twelve months before Hallandale’s next regular election in November, the City Charter requires the commission to appoint a replacement:

Sec. 3.09: – Vacancies; forfeiture of office; filling of vacancies.

(3)   Filling of vacancies. A vacancy or vacancies in the city commission shall be filled as provided in the following.

(a)   Appointment. Whenever there is a vacancy in the commission and there are less than twelve (12) months remaining before the next regular city or general election, the commission, by a majority vote of the remaining members, shall choose a successor to serve until that election. In the event of a vacancy in the office of mayor, the vice mayor shall serve as the acting mayor until the mayor’s seat is filled. If a majority vote cannot be reached within thirty (30) days of the creation of the vacancy, then the vacancy shall be decided by lot.

Mayor Cooper was suspended by Gov. Scott on January 26, 2018, meaning the 30-day window to appoint a new Commissioner by majority vote would close on or about February 25. On February 6—11 days into the 30-day window—Hallandale Beach City Attorney Jennifer Merino sent out a memo to the City Commission alerting them of the provision in the charter requiring them to fill the vacancy. This memo, however, surprisingly omitted the 30-day window and did not alert the Commissioners of what would happen if the vacancy was not filled by majority vote within 30 days of the creation of the vacancy.

Merino’s memo also did not mention the procedure for filling the vacancy. The procedure was memorialized by City Resolution following the last appointment of a new Commissioner by majority vote in 2014. On May 20, 2014, the Commission held a Special Meeting to select a new Commissioner to fill a vacancy created by the resignation to then-Vice Mayor Alex Lewy. The process—which will be discussed in further detail below—was deemed by the Commission to be “transparent, fluid, efficient and effective” and was established as the uniform process for filling a City Commission vacancy by a 4-1 vote on June 4, 2014. The lone vote against adopting the process was cast by Commissioner Michele Lazarow, the only Commissioner still actively on the Commission. Lazarow had issues with the process because there weren’t enough questions posed to the candidates “having to do with budgets, having to do with Safe Neighborhood districts; things that I think people should really know if they’re going to be appointed.”

The City Commission did not follow this procedure on February 13. Instead, the Commission used a slipshod, improvised procedure that was highly suspicious and in no way transparent. City Attorney Merino, when alerted to Resolution 2014-61 by former Commissioner Leo Grachow after the meeting, claimed that she was unaware of the Resolution, and that, in any case, it was non-binding. Contrary to Merino’s assertion, former City Attorney Lynn Whitfield did not say that the Resolution was non-binding on future Commissions, but rather that future Commissions could amend the process at a later point if they determined they did not want to use that process. The City voted to repeal Resolution 2014-61 on February 20—without debate or discussion—after already ignoring it completely a week before.

The Process Ignored vs. the Process Used

As stated above, the process for filling a Commission vacancy adopted in 2014 was considered to be “transparent, fluid, efficient and effective,” which is why it was adopted as the uniform process for filling a Commission vacancy by appointment. The process consisted of several steps:

  1. The City Clerk posted an advertisement for the vacancy and received applications from interested persons in the form of letters of interest, resumes, personal biographies, and letters of recommendation;
  2. The City Commission then set a date for a special meeting to select the new appointment;
  3. At the meeting, each applicant was given four minutes to speak to the Commission regarding their interest and qualifications;
  4. Each Commissioner then selected their top three applicants to move to Round 2.
  5. In Round 2, the remaining candidates were each read a predetermined list of questions and given four minutes to respond. The Commissioners ranked each candidate on a scale of 1-5 and the three candidates with the highest scores moved on to Round 3.
  6. In Round 3, the Commissioners were allowed to ask any questions they wanted to the remaining candidates for four minutes.
  7. Following the Q&A session in Round 3, the Commissioners deliberated and voted on the candidates.

The process utilized in 2014 resulted in 19 interested, diverse candidates vying for the position of City Commissioner. The position was advertised to the community in mid-April and candidates were given until May 8, 2014 to submit applications. The special meeting to appoint a Commissioner was held on May 20, 2014. The community was given broad notice of the meeting beforehand. The meeting lasted a little over 3 hours and involved quite a lot of back-and-forth between the Commissioners about the process and the candidates. Eight of the nineteen candidates advanced into Round 2 before the field was narrowed to the top 3, before Leo Grachow was appointed to the vacancy by a vote of 4-0.

Compare that process to the one that took place last week to appoint a new Commissioner to fill the vacancy caused by Mayor Cooper’s suspension. In this instance, the City did not advertise the vacancy, nor did it request applications from interested persons. Notice was allegedly given to the community about the special meeting to appoint the new Commissioner, but no one on the Notify Me list appears to have received an email alerting them that the meeting was going to take place.

In response to numerous inquiries from people who found out about the meeting only after it had taken place—including myself—the City Clerk sent a copy of the Notify Me alert that was supposedly sent out prior to the meeting. The alleged notice was dated Saturday, February 10 at 10:27 p.m. No prior notifications were sent on a weekend or nearly as late, adding to the suspicious circumstances surrounding the lack of public awareness of the meeting. At the meeting itself, Commissioner Anabelle Taub motioned for the appointment to be delayed to give an opportunity for members of the community to show interest in the position, but London and Lazarow—her former friends and current political opponents—refused to second the motion.

Appointing a new Commissioner is an issue that affects everyone in the City and would generate a significant amount of interest. Yet, little to no notice was given to the residents of Hallandale to alert them that the meeting was happening. Of course, if the meeting had been well attended, or even delayed, there would have been a greater possibility of a legitimate challenger for the Mayoral seat or a legitimate candidate for the vacant Commission seat in general. Instead, Keith London was allowed to take over as Mayor without a challenger and Michele Lazarow was allowed to take over as Vice Mayor unchallenged.

To fill the vacant Commission seat, the Commission then engaged in what can best be described as a farce. Each Commissioner was given the ability to nominate any qualified elector from the city. Despite the fact that the last appointment drew nineteen interested people and there are currently five people running for Commissioner, the Commissioners nominated only three people total. Of the three candidates—all white men—only one, Rich Dally—Lazarow’s nominee—was asked to speak to the Commission regarding his qualifications. And he was asked to speak by Commissioner Taub because she did not know who he was. He spoke for a total of 40 seconds. No questions were posed to any of the candidates regarding their knowledge, experience, or credentials.

Instead, the newly-appointed Mayor called for an immediate up-and-down vote. Dally, who was first alphabetically, was immediately voted in by a 2-1 vote, with Taub again (and as usual of recent) in the minority. I reached out to our new Commissioner Dally—who I have met through the Hallandale Beach Area Democratic Club—for comment on this peculiar procedure, but he did not respond.

The Takeaways

Near the end of the special meeting, Commissioner Taub accused her colleagues of violating Florida Sunshine Laws by coordinating to appoint Dally as the newest commissioner. Taub, who was once closely aligned with Lazarow and London, has repeatedly called for investigations into their shady behavior and backroom deals. Taub stated that she hoped the State Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Inspector General were watching the special meeting, and those of us interested in achieving ethical governance in Hallandale Beach should hope for the same. It is difficult to watch what went down at the meeting and come to any other conclusion that London and Lazarow pre-planned the outcome.

The people of Hallandale Beach were denied a huge opportunity thanks to London and Lazarow’s opportunism. Filling a vacant Commission seat is about more than the person who eventually fills the seat. The process for filling that seat provides an opportunity for those interested in a position on the Commission to stand before the Commission and the public and be heard. The process provides an opportunity for residents from all over the city to discuss what they feel is most important for the government going forward. The process helps to elevate strong future candidates and weed out weak ones. It is a learning process for the residents and those who work on behalf of the residents.

The people of Hallandale Beach were robbed last week. One can only hope that the newest Commissioner has more ethics and more respect for the people he represents than the people who appointed him do.

Suggested citation: Brian M. Stewart, The Curious Case of the New Hallandale Beach Commissioner, @LawBlarg (Feb. 21, 2018), http://blarg.legalmechanics.us/curious-case-new-commissioner.