The Loxahatchee Groves Town Council approved the preliminary reading of an ordinance Tuesday that will place a referendum question on the March 2019 municipal election ballot asking to strike a provision in the town’s charter that requires the town to contract services with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
In October, after disagreements over his agency’s contract with the town, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw sent a letter to Loxahatchee Groves Town Manager Bill Underwood indicating that the PBSO would terminate its law enforcement services in the town at the end of the current contract next year.
Town Attorney Michael Cirullo explained that the ordinance up for consideration would set up a charter amendment referendum regarding law enforcement services in the town, removing a requirement that the town use the PBSO or a nearby police force.
The referendum striking the requirements would be on the town’s municipal election ballot on March 12, 2019.
Councilman Dave DeMarois asked if the ordinance was necessary for the town to create its own police force, and Cirullo explained that the ordinance eliminates special conditions in the charter, but if the town wanted to create its own police force, it would have to conduct a specific referendum for that.
Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia said that Underwood had explained to her earlier that Wellington enacted a similar ordinance a few years ago. “This is just opening doors to see if there is another option up the road,” Maniglia said. “It is absolutely not getting rid of the sheriff.”
Mayor Dave Browning said a referendum striking the law enforcement clause would eliminate the town being tied to requirements in the charter that mandate using the PBSO.
“It takes away the fact that we could be caught between a rock and a hard spot,” Browning said. “We could have the contract cancelled, and [we’d] have no ability to do anything.”
During public comment, Loxahatchee Groves Planning & Zoning Committee Member Robert Shorr expressed concerns about striking the entire paragraph.
“Whoever approved this charter from the state level could read the charter and take this as you are striking the need for additional police protection for the community,” Shorr said. “I could understand modifying the paragraph, so you can create your own police force without the referendum vote, but I’d be concerned about striking this entire paragraph.”
Shorr said that it was his understanding that the City of West Palm Beach could provide law enforcement service, according to the Palm Beach County League of Cities.
“They are really close, with their jurisdiction coming up to Okeechobee Blvd. and [State Road 7], but as far as totally eliminating it from the charter, I don’t know how that’s going to work out in the long run,” he said. “I think it might scare the residents voting on this.”
Browning said he understood Shorr’s concerns, but the problem is that Florida Statutes state that the town must use an adjacent law enforcement agency, but there are no adjoining municipalities that have their own law enforcement agencies.
“When we first put it together, our intent was to always stay with the sheriff’s office because they were our number-one choice, but then we thought that to give us another option, we had Royal Palm Beach, which then had its own police department, and we had other agencies,” he recalled.
Shorr said his concern was that the town needs the voters to approve the referendum. “My concern is that they are going to be afraid if you strike the entire paragraph,” he said.
Maniglia shared Shorr’s concern and asked if there was a way to simply remove the charter requirement that the town use the PBSO, as well as the requirement for a referendum, but Vice Mayor Todd McLendon felt that would essentially gut everything in the paragraph.
“We’re just going to have to do an education, a mailer that explains why we’re doing it,” he said. “I’m not sure what else to do.”
Cirullo said the most problematic part of the paragraph is the referendum requirement to change the police force.
Maniglia asked about having PBSO 911 service — which will always be there — and hiring off-duty police officers from West Palm Beach or another agency for additional service. Cirullo noted that those officers would still be under their agency’s requirements for off-duty details.
DeMarois said having 911 service only would have consequences, as pointed out by a recent letter from Palm Beach County Mayor Melissa McKinlay asking to be kept informed about the town’s future plans for law enforcement.
“Law enforcement is crucial to promoting safety within the community and must be a top priority of any public servant,” McKinlay wrote.
Cirullo said that there is no standard for law enforcement protection as a basic service to residents.
“I would believe that you have the duty to ensure some form of law enforcement,” he said. “How that is done, you’re going to need to decide.”
DeMarois said the state has standards for officer certification.
“There’s a number of things that must be met,” he said. “There are going to be some expenses involved.”
After more discussion, McLendon made a motion to approve the preliminary reading of the ordinance, which carried 4-0.
On Wednesday, the following evening, at the council’s reconvened meeting, the council discussed making another effort at convincing the PBSO to continue providing contract services to the town.