Saturday, March 29, 2014

Decker vs. the City of Lake Worth

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the Palm Beach County courthouse to attend the hearing on the motion to dismiss by the City of Lake Worth. The lawsuit results from the city not sending the certified results of the election and the charter change that resulted from it. The major reason the city did not is that in 2013, the state legislature passed HB 537 which rendered such elections retroactively "null and without legal effect" those that had taken place after June 2011. The complaint is a writ of mandamus which, if successful, would force the city to send the results to the State of Florida.
The city was represented by Christy Goddeau who is with the Glenn Torcivia law firm. Ms. Decker is being represented by Ralf Brookes. Mr. Brookes is a well-known land use attorney who champions the side of those in opposition to development. In fact, I have worked with Mr. Brookes on two such cases in the past.

Upon entering the courtroom along with two other Lake Worthians interested in the process, there were already a dozen people seated there. Among the most notable were AnnaBeth Karson, who sat at the left knee of Commissioner McVoy. Immediately behind him was former Commissioner Jo-Ann Golden - who perhaps is funding the effort since her family owns Golden Paints? We just don't really know - unless Ms. Decker has her own vast resources from which to pull. And the city is on the hook to defend itself, which means that the taxpayers are responsible for funding the defense.
Mr. Brookes, however, made it clear that this action is filed by Laurel Decker as an individual and as chairman of the committee that put together the petition. (It should be noted that the committee filed its termination report 8 or so months ago.) Also there was intrepid "reporter" Lynn Anderson, and sitting in the prime front seats were none other than Laurence McNamara and his lovely wife Dee. There were other characters there and I will refrain from identifying them here, but they all had familiar faces.

The city questioned the "standing" of Ms. Decker claiming that she hadn't been harmed in any tangible way by the inaction of the city and she had other legal remedies available to her like striking down the retroactive portion of HB 537.

The city argued that the passage of the measure limiting height in the downtown came soon after the city adopted its comprehensive plan. The petition drive and election were caused by the adoption of the plan and designed to further restrict heights in the downtown. The city held that the comprehensive plan was the supreme document that regulates land use in the city and would have to be changed in order meet the height requirements of the referendum. Essentially, it was a backhand way to limit heights in the city, but in light of the retroactive provision of HB 537, the results of the election were "null and had no legal effect." And therefore, this complaint should be dismissed.
Mr. Brookes argued that the petition and ballot measure were explicitly written to not include reference to the comprehensive plan and it was just a charter amendment to a charter which already contained language limiting height. He cited other examples of case law to support this position.
Judge McCarthy was a quirky sort. We heard him say that he is not with the electronic world around him and that his cellphone had a rotary dial. He also said he learned COBOL and FORTRAN in 1964 and both were obsolete in 1965. He said he hasn't touched a computer since. He asked questions to both sides. He did say that he was a former Mayor of Lake Clark Shores and that he was aware of how land use was regulated in Florida and familiar with the way municipal charters work.

Cryptically, at the end of the arguments put forth by both sides, he said that regardless of his decision, he would "likely not be the last judge to hear this case." He asked that both sides put together final orders to their liking and he will use those as a basis for his decision. He asked that the draft final orders get to him within 15 days. Afterwards, I suggested all of us get a group picture taken. That didn't go over too well.