A discussion over the makeup of Royal Palm Beach’s Planning & Zoning Commission last week led to tense disagreements among members of the Royal Palm Beach Village Council.
After nearly an hour of discussion, the council decided April 19 to reject Councilwoman Martha Webster’s proposal to appoint two new commissioners, in favor of a compromise that kept one sitting commissioner seeking reappointment on the board and adding a new commissioner supported by Webster.
Webster, recently appointed as council liaison to the commission, said that there have been issues with zoning commissioners who did not work well with staff, as well as people going through the review process. She asserted that an effort should be made to make the board more professional and business friendly.
“Planning and zoning is the first interaction that our businesses or our applicants have with our municipality, so the face of that board is very important,” she said. “The professionalism of that board is very important. The role of that board is to apply the codes and rules, and attempt to stay away from opinions. They’re there to be problem-solvers, to help them through the process and to put on a good face.”
The three-year terms of longtime Commissioner Jackie Larson and Commission Alternate Janet Ellis expired in March, while former Commissioner Genevieve Lambiase had resigned. Larson had asked to be reappointed, while both Ellis and fellow Commission Alternate Richard Becher wanted appointments to regular seats.
However, Webster asked the council to appoint new applicants — technical writer June Perrin and architect Ana Martinez — to the two commission seats, while adding local businessman Eric Gordon as an alternate. This would leave Larson and Ellis off the board.
Mayor Matty Mattioli, who relinquished his job as liaison to the zoning commission recently at Webster’s request, was angered by the proposal, saying that in his 20 years on the council, the policy had been for commissioners who wish to stay on to be reappointed and alternates to be moved up to vacant seats.
“If we’re going to make changes, it should be by a majority of this council, not by one person,” Mattioli said.
Mattioli had not been at the previous council meeting, when Webster first proposed replacing commission members. The council postponed the issue until it had all members present last week.
The discussion began with a tense interchange. When Webster tried to raise an objection to the proceedings and interrupted Vice Mayor Fred Pinto, who had been given the floor, Mattioli shut off Webster’s microphone and demanded that she wait her turn to speak.
Continuing his comments, Pinto said he thought the council should find common ground. “I think if there are issues with the way that committee is performing, we need to address the issues,” he said. “If they are not performing in a way that’s representative of this council, you don’t have to wait until someone’s term is up to remove them.”
Councilman Jeff Hmara said that after the previous meeting, he had looked for something in writing that would help guide his decision, and he could not find anything.
“As the new guy, that seems to be the logical thing to do — to find some documented procedural process — and I couldn’t find one,” Hmara said. “For me, one of the most important things is that we maintain a respectful, civil interaction, not only for our own good, but to be able to work effectively.”
Councilman Richard Valuntas said moving alternates up to vacancies was the procedure followed in the past, but it did not necessarily have to be that way. “Nothing is set in stone,” he said.
Valuntas added that while he preferred to defer to the liaison’s preference, that is not an absolute. “One thing that the process in the past reflected to me was not only continuity but predictability,” he said. “But we’re the ones who get to decide this.”
When it came her turn to speak, Webster said that in the past, the types of applicants who came before the panel were different than those coming before the commission in the future, giving as an example the Aldi grocery chain that recently announced plans to locate a regional distribution center in Royal Palm Beach.
With the village almost built out, she said the Planning & Zoning Commission’s role will focus not so much on getting home builders to conform to codes and ordinances, but rather on working with businesses to get them through the process.
“For the financial stability of our municipality, we are now basically wooing businesses in, and that’s a different process and it’s a different way that we interact with them,” Webster said. “It’s not the aggressive approach. It needs to be about building a relationship, and I don’t see that in the planning and zoning commission that we have had up to this date.”
Village Manager Ray Liggins said that village staff always strives for friendly, courteous service to development applicants. “I think that we do have a good reputation in this county for that,” he said. “We do listen to the applicants, and we do try to work with them in hearing what they want to do on their property and getting that consistent with our rules and regulations.”
Webster said she wanted to be on the right side of building the community for the future, explaining that she wanted the best qualified members possible, and that simply being an alternate waiting one’s turn to move up was not necessarily the best process.
She added that one of the comments at the previous meeting was that the commission relies heavily on institutional knowledge. “Institutional knowledge is only valid when the knowledge is progressive and positive,” she said. “Participants can become complacent, and they are no longer creative and stimulating.”
During the public comment period, several of the candidates seeking appointment to the zoning commission addressed the council.
Webster then made a motion to appoint Martinez and Perrin to permanent seats and Eric Gordon as an alternate, but it died for lack of a second.
Hmara drew from his military background to explain his understanding of the role of a liaison.
“A liaison officer is one who is charged with the primary responsibility of acting as a communications link between the supported organization and the supporting organization,” he said. “Generally speaking, liaison officers don’t really have a lot of authority. They have a lot of responsibility, and most of it is to communicate effectively between the two organizations… [When] I hear about liaison positions having substantial authority, it doesn’t fit with my experience.”
Hmara reiterated that he was concerned about not having a written protocol. “That seems to be somewhat of a problem here,” he said. “It might be good to take some time and actually document what the responsibility, the role, the authority of the liaison officer is, and what the procedure is for selecting new members as their terms expire… It has a very healthy influence on an organization, especially when they are struggling, and I would say right now we are struggling.”
Valuntas said although the liaison brings recommendations, every commission appointment on every board is a council decision. “What protocol is or isn’t, we’re not bound to that,” he said.
As a compromise, Valuntas offered a motion to appoint Larson back to her permanent seat, Martinez to the vacant permanent seat and to return Ellis to her alternate seat. That motion carried 4-1 with Webster opposed.
Hmara said he hoped the council’s discussion had not had a negative impact on village volunteers.
“It’s difficult, as we all know, to get people to volunteer, and to have them involved in something that is as difficult as this has been, I’m sorry that that happened,” he said. “I hope it won’t turn anybody off to volunteering.”