Recently appointed Palm Beach County State Attorney Peter Antonacci spoke April 18 at the monthly public forum meeting hosted by County Commissioner Jess Santamaria at the original Wellington Mall.
Antonacci, who lives in Tallahassee, was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in March to finish the final 10 months of former State Attorney Michael McAuliffe’s term. McAuliffe left earlier this year for a private-sector job.
“It has been a real honor not only to provide this service to this community, but it has also been a very warm and welcoming community to me,” Antonacci said. “After all, in many ways, I’m just a tourist here for 10 months, but the people that I’ve met have reached out and offered a helping hand.”
Antonacci said he had spent some time with Santamaria discussing issues in the community.
“I was struck from a general government point of view how complicated things are and how challenging things are, but how fortunate you are as a community,” he said, explaining that Palm Beach County is fortunate to have a great deal of resources and the ability to ask local government to help it solve problems.
“I spent the day yesterday in Belle Glade and Pahokee, and there are problems that need attending to in the community, and I know Commissioner Santamaria has rolled his sleeves up to do what government can do to help improve those things,” he said.
The state attorney is the chief prosecuting attorney for all crimes in the jurisdiction. “The state attorney and staff are responsible for taking those cases from the law enforcement community, sorting them out, deciding what charges are appropriate and carrying those cases before the court,” Antonacci said. “Every little thing that happens in Palm Beach County ends up coming across our desk.”
He noted that the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office has about 325 employees in five different offices. There are 130 prosecutors who have the power to sign charging documents.
“I can tell you it’s a very competent staff,” Antonacci said. “They’re very young. As you know, in public service, oftentimes the salaries aren’t as rewarding as they are in the private sector. Our young people come into the office and they tend to get good experience, and they go on and do something else in life.”
A handful of prosecutors stay and make a career of it. “That’s a wealth of experience they bring of value to you as citizens of the community, and certainly of value to the criminal justice system,” he said.
An additional responsibility of the State Attorney’s Office is as legal adviser to the grand jury. “The grand jury really is the voice of the people in the criminal justice world,” Antonacci said.
The grand jury is composed of about 18 people serving for six months. The state attorney is required to bring them cases that the grand jury has jurisdiction over, primarily first-degree homicides.
“The grand jury also does something very special, and that is they have the authority to review and comment on public institutions,” Antonacci said. “To his great credit, my predecessor was very interested in deploying the grand jury for purposes of reviewing how governance works in Palm Beach County.”
After several years of review, the grand jury issued several reports called “presentments,” he said.
“Those presentments are intended to be factual, not biased in any way, although certainly some could say otherwise, but the purpose of them is to get the facts out so that the world at large has the benefit of the grand jury’s thinking on a particular topic,” Antonacci said.
One of the topics on the front burner the past few years has been ethics in government. “I don’t need to recount to you the challenge that this county had over the last few years of seeing to it that elected public officials are held accountable,” he said.
Antonacci credited the numerous community and business groups that raised their voices to enact ordinances creating the Commission on Ethics and the Office of the Inspector General, followed by a charter change that added jurisdiction over municipalities.
“The community acted and valid measures were put up, and the votes were overwhelming, and as a result, we have a Commission on Ethics and we also have an inspector general,” he said.
Antonacci offered his congratulations to county residents and organizations for their determination to create the two offices.
“You did a great thing, and something that’s very unique in local governments around the country,” he said. “We take a lot for granted in Florida, because now for 40 years, we’ve had Government in the Sunshine.”
Antonacci said Florida has a great tradition of transparency, and with that opportunity to see the papers, e-mails and other communications created by government, citizens can see what governmental bodies do in the decision-making process.
“We are very special,” he said. “We are the only state in the country that has this very special blessing. Because of Sunshine, because of open records law, things like the inspector general grow out of it, because people have an expectation.”
Antonacci will finish out the 10 months remaining in McAuliffe’s term. Filing closed last Friday in the election to replace him. Three candidates qualified to run for the office — attorney and former State Sen. Dave Aronberg as a Democrat, attorney Dina A. Keever as a Republican and attorney Robert Gershman without a party affiliation. The election will be held at the general election in November.