Civics and Government Day
September 11, 2013
By: Pepe Sosa
The 48 members of the “Dirty Thirty” Leadership Palm Beach County Class of 2014 eagerly arrived at West Palm Beach City Hall for easily the most anticipated leadership day to date – “Civics and Government”. After shaking off the cobwebs of an early start, shaking hands with classmates not seen since the retreat, and shaking the cream and sugar into our coffees, we were more than ready to begin, in earnest, our commencement into the adventure that is “Palm Beach County”.
The day started, fittingly, with the Pledge of Allegiance in remembrance of the tragedy that befell our country 12 years ago to the day, and a somber reminder to all of us that not everywhere – and not everyone – has the same values, responsibilities and sensibilities that we possess, nor does everyone possess the same opportunities that our class – and those leadership classes before us – do. That makes this journey much more important that just gaining simple knowledge; we have the responsibility to use our knowledge and position as leaders to help better ourselves, our families and our communities.
With regard to our communities, Todd Wodraska, a Councilmember for the Town of Jupiter, was the first speaker and his offering shed light on exactly what we are as the Palm Beach County Community. Wodraska, who just recently suffered the personal tragedy of having his house burgled, yet not even the apprehension of those burglars could keep him away from our class. Among some of the tidbits that Wodraska taught us are the fact that 38 municipalities exist within Palm Beach County – including something called Cloud Lake; that our county is larger than both the State of Delaware (Delawhere?) and the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the official name of the State); and that somewhere between 8% and 12% of registered voters actually vote during most municipal elections. And, in a bit of foreshadowing, Wodraska gave us one town’s viewpoint on the highly volatile issue of payment of the Inspector General.
Perhaps the most memorable quotation from Wodraska’s speech was his verbal missive to “follow the money”. Wodraska used this phrase as a precursor to his identification of where our tax monies actually go, but as fans of both the television show The Wire and the movie The Distinguished Gentlemen know, the tactic of “following the money” can lead to a lot more information than just the end recipients of our tax dollars.
From Wodraska’s initial overview, the planners of the day turned to the highly entertaining Harvey Oyer, III to address the history of Palm Beach County, and as a 142nd generation Palm Beacher, Oyer has first-hand knowledge. (OK, only 5th generation – but still lots of knowledge). I could write a book with the information provided by Oyer to our class, and in fact Oyer has, but some of the more interesting include:
The first people in Palm Beach County date back to 12,000 years ago;
The Seminole and the Miccosukee peoples are genetically the same;
The Seminole Indians are an unconquered tribe, having neither surrendered nor signed a peace treaty;
The wreck of the Providencia in 1875 gave the area enough coconuts to ultimately lead to the names of the Town of Palm Beach, City of West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County (and ultimately the Providencia awards);
The Jupiter Lighthouse was designed by General George Meade; and
The Underground Railroad ran South (YES SOUTH) to Palm Beach and points beyond.
Oyer spoke about many interesting people, events and times in Palm Beach County’s history. “Oyer’s talk was fascinating”, said none other than Max M. (last name omitted for humor purposes, not to actually hide identity), and the majority of the class widely echoed this sentiment.
From Oyer’s historical perspective in the aptly named Flagler Gallery, the entire class moved to the library auditorium to hear from a panel that included Robert Weisman, the County Administrator for Palm Beach County, and Shannon Ramsey-Chessman, the COO of Finance for the Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller’s Office. The information that Weisman and Ramsey-Chessman provided focused on the proverbial “day-to-day” activities and the overall operation of the county, including budgeting, technology and personnel. Among the more intriguing facts Weisman told are that the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is 50% of the county budget, and that the county commissioners cannot – I repeat cannot – tell any county employee what to do. In lauding the county, the panelists informed the class that Palm Beach has the #1 ranked website of all counties in the country.
This talk was not all positive, as Weisman and Ramsey-Chessman identified several areas of opportunity for us current and future leaders, including the effects of public safety pension plans on future budgets, the problems of paying for the Inspector General (and the dispute with the municipalities over payment) and the fact that even projects in the Glades that start with good intentions may often be ineffective.
From Palm Beach County, the class moved metaphorically to Tallahassee as we heard from State Senator Maria Sachs (D-34) and Todd Bonlarron, the Legislative Affairs Director for Palm Beach County. The back-and-forth witty repartee between the Senator and Bonlarron was entertaining, and enlightened the class about how the inner workings of the state houses affect Palm Beach County, and how Palm Beach County tries to affect the inner workings of the state house members. That being said, the most informative statement to most came from Senator Sachs who said, “The House is chaotic” and “The Senate is boring”. What was missing was any sentiment that either the House or the Senate “is working”.
From the discussions, the class moved onto the portion of the day which will most likely make the longest lasting impression on the community – the selection of the civic engagement projects. The class, via caucus style voting and only after some successful advocacy by some dedicated members, resurrected the projects of the Drowning Prevention Coalition and Healthy Mothers/Healthy Babies, two projects which upon initial ranking seemed to be disfavored by the class. (OK you got me – not just disfavored but they ranked last in the pre-selection voting.) Joining those two projects are the ever popular CROS Ministries gleaning project and the Families First of Palm Beach County scavenger hunt style project, along with the Senator Philip D. Lewis project of “no more turkey bologna sandwiches”. It seems that the Class of 2014 is primed to put its everlasting mark on not only the Leadership Palm Beach County program, but also the community itself.
After settling down, the class entertained another panel, entitled “A Tale of Two City Mayors (and Two Forms of Governance)”, with the Honorable Jeri Muoio – Mayor of West Palm Beach – and the Honorable Cary Glickstein – Mayor of Delray Beach, as the speakers. The session focused on the strong-mayor versus council-mayor forms of governing, and the biggest difference based upon the sentiments of the Mayors is that a strong mayor is a full time job with the ability to hire and fire. To this writer the most interesting part of the conversation was not the differences and similarities between the two positions, but the snippets of information gleaned from the two speakers themselves about their respective municipalities, particularly that West Palm Beach plans to start an elementary charter school as early as next school year, and that Delray Beach modeled its “Visions 2000” development plan after the City of Stuart.
In the third installment of “The Inspector General Daily”, both mayors discussed their opposition to the payment plan for the Inspector General as dictated to them by Palm Beach County. Regardless of which camp in which each of us may fall, “It was good to hear the different perspectives [between the municipalities and the county] so that we can make up our own minds,” said Abbie R.
As the class reminisced on their education into the state and local governments, along came former U.S. Senator George Lemieux to enlighten us on the workings of the federal government. Although Lemieux himself is fascinating, the talk itself was rather discouraging, as he reflected on the facts that a budget has not been passed since 2009, that the members of Congress – and others in DC – can find a camera whenever they want if they choose to speak negatively about the other party’s leaders, and that nothing seems to be getting solved. Lemieux was not pessimistic, however, in his instructions to us to, “Be more involved and send good people” to DC and in his warning that, “We get the government we deserve.” Whether each of us agree with Lemieux’s politics or not, most of us have to agree with the Senator’s comment that no matter what anyone else says or thinks, “Jenni [G.] is really the boss.”
The class then moved, literally, back to City Hall to the Commission Chambers, where David Goodlett was ready to discuss “Lobbying in the Sunshine State”. Goodlett discussed his general rules for lobbying, among them, “be respectful of people”, “respect the process”, “follow protocols” and “know your audience”. I don’t think Goodlett was speaking about lobbying, but about life in general.
In wrapping up the day’s lessons on civics and governments, the class broke into 4 equal groups to participate in their own lobbying practical. The first two groups argued for/against a new residential high-rise project. The local neighborhood association presented its case to the commission first, behind the stellar argument of Pepe S. The developer followed with an equally stellar argument from Greg Z. The commission, in a 3-1 vote (in which Commissioner Zach B. was obviously on the take) sided with the developer.
The second presentation involved a retail developer who needed a variance to extend loading dock times from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., in addition to extending the allowable square footage to turn an office building into a grocery-style store. Caroline V. more than ably argued for the developer, even though the commission sided with the very successful argument of Jack R. At least I think that was the decision as I was busy lining up the next local candidate to replace Commissioner Zach B.
A big thank you to all those involved in organizing the day’s activities and speakers, including, but in no way limited to, the Day Co-Chairs Iva Grady and Dorritt Miller, and everyone else on the committee.
Another thank you to everyone that organized the Leadership Plus at the Lake Pavilion, where Tomas awarded the bicycles built during the retreat to the recipients from Families First. I just wish I could have been there to see it and to enjoy the festivities.