By Charles Elmore
Outgoing District 6 Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said it feels “bittersweet” to bid farewell to her time on the Palm Beach County Commission. She is leaving due to term limits. The Tuesday, Nov. 22 meeting will be her last on the dais.
Asked how she views her legacy, the Wellington resident said she sees three things at the top of the conversation: the Glades, response to addiction and firefighters.
“Over the past eight years, there have been some amazing accomplishments I am proud of, some district-specific and some countywide,” she said.
In a huge district that runs from the western suburbs of Wellington, Royal Palm Beach, Loxahatchee and The Acreage, to the county’s agricultural west, McKinlay, 51, said she felt motivated to back up a campaign promise to serve as a genuine voice for the Glades.
Working with municipalities and legislators, she helped achieve upgrades to roads, parks, workforce development programs and water utilities, with some long-running Herbert Hoover Dike improvements slated for completion by year’s end as well.
Not everything happened as fast as she would like. McKinlay has pushed for better farmworker housing but chafed at obstacles to condemn buildings or find safer places for residents to stay, even as one landlord near Pahokee piled up more than $350,000 in fines without paying.
“I was not shy about my disgust with slumlords and doing everything possible to shut them down,” she said.
Elsewhere in District 6, she was pleased to help bring about projects like a new fire station ahead of schedule for The Acreage, better lighting along State Road 80 and more county tourism resources to help Wellington’s crucial equestrian industry.
“When I first got elected, our tourism marketing materials and staff focus was coastal-community heavy,” McKinlay said, explaining that her office worked to change that.
Other issues carried countywide resonance. She advocated for responses to an addiction crisis that eventually drew state and federal support and helped create, in Palm Beach County, a drug czar, an addiction stabilization unit and other approaches, including pilot projects with first responders that now serve as a state model.
“We listened to the families most impacted by this disease and allowed their experiences to guide our response,” she said.
Then there was her campaign to help firefighters deal with health risks.
“Firefighters are increasingly more likely to receive a cancer diagnosis for 22 different types of cancer than the average person because of the on-the-job exposure they face to toxins,” McKinlay said.
She wanted firefighters to be granted the presumption that their illnesses were work-related, providing important financial benefits and protections.
“I became frustrated with the legislature failing to pass this into law, so when it was time to negotiate the employment contracts with the local fire union, I demanded this presumption be included in the contract renewal,” McKinlay said. “It was not met with immediate support from staff, but I pushed anyway. We got it in the contract, the union supported it unanimously, and we became the first county in the State of Florida to offer this coverage to our firefighters.”
Weeks later, she said, the legislature “followed our lead and passed this as a statewide requirement for all firefighters in Florida.”
A Democrat, McKinlay was first elected to the county commission in 2014. After serving as mayor in 2017 and 2018, she was re-elected to the commission without opposition.
Before that, she advocated for policies helping children and families as an aide to the Palm Beach County Legislative Affairs Office, among other roles.
One project she helped launch as a legislative aide, and continued to support as a commissioner, specializes in care for victims of sexual crimes.
At Wellington Regional Medical Center, the county’s first comprehensive sexual assault response care center, Butterfly House, has pioneered ways to collect forensic evidence efficiently while focusing on the comfort and care of victims.
“We developed an award-winning response team,” McKinlay said. “It’s caring. It’s a warm environment.”
Republican Sara Baxter, a business owner and Realtor, will succeed McKinlay in the District 6 seat. Her campaign web site calls for simplifying regulations, lowering taxes and fees, and avoiding “overdevelopment of our beautiful western communities.”
McKinlay said holding the line on development in unincorporated areas was “one of the things I’m most proud of in the western region.”
“There’s a misperception that a lot of development has been approved,” she said. “We approved one major project in The Acreage.”
Cities, villages and towns control projects within their municipal limits, so the pace of development is not always steered solely by the county commission.
McKinlay’s name came up as a possible Democratic candidate for state agriculture commissioner, but she decided against running. Yet the mother of three said she has not ruled out further public service at some point.
“I had four years, and they gave me another four years to make a difference,” McKinlay said. “I never had a problem going to sleep and being OK with the person in the mirror when I woke up.”