Palm Beach County Commission divided on redistricting

In a marathon meeting of the Palm Beach County Commission on Tuesday, Peanut Island became the target of a political tug of war, with Commissioner Priscilla Taylor stopping short of calling the island’s district positioning racist.

Making a passionate case for moving Peanut Island and Phil Foster Park to her district, Taylor said any compromise was unacceptable and both parks should be moved to District 7. Taylor argued because of the geographic location, the parks should have been included in District 7 from the beginning and the commission could “right a wrong” by making the move now.

In the end, though, she lost her plea. A divided board voted 4-3 to move Phil Foster Park to District 7 and keep Peanut Island in District 1, with Commissioners Burt Aaronson, Steven Abrams and Taylor dissenting. Although residents of Ibis were requesting a move to District 1 — with Commissioner Jess Santamaria’s blessing — the community will remain in Santamaria’s District 6. A final vote on the new district map is scheduled for Dec. 20.

After a heated debate last month over which district would include Phil Foster Park and Peanut Island, county staff presented an updated map for preliminary approval. Commissioner Karen Marcus said she was willing to let Phil Foster Park go to District 7, but she wanted Peanut Island to remain in District 1.

Ned Barnes, president of the Palm Beach Civic Association, spoke in favor of keeping Peanut Island in District 1 along with Palm Beach due to the coastal nature of the district. Many residents from Riviera Beach, including former County Commissioner Maude Ford Lee, advocated moving the small recreational island into District 7.

Saying she “didn’t want to use the ‘r’ word,” Taylor stopped just short of saying the move to keep Peanut Island in the north county District 1 was racially motivated, considering the largely minority makeup of District 7.

In other business, and with little fanfare, the commission approved letting the public vote on slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities on the Nov. 6 ballot. Last month, Aaronson proposed the referendum in response to a bill, already endorsed by the Palm Beach County Legislative Delegation and sponsored by state Rep. Joe Abruzzo, that would do the same. The measure would add slot machines to the dog racing operation at the Palm Beach Kennel Club.
Dennis Grady, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, said the action could “level the playing field” for Palm Beach County, but professional blackjack player George Williams of Palm Beach Gardens spoke against the move, saying the county “doesn’t have any idea of the people they are dealing with.” Commissioners will give final approval to the ballot measure on Dec. 20.

Another emotional debate involved West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio, who rallied her constituents and filled the chamber for a last-ditch effort to save funding for median beautification on Okeechobee Boulevard from State Road 7 to Florida’s Turnpike. The county had previously agreed to provide $500,000 in matching funds required by a Florida Department of Transportation grant funding the $1 million project. FDOT requires all agreements between the entities to be in place by Dec. 31 or the funding will be lost. With a strained budget and a rocky relationship between West Palm Beach and the county, commissioners voted in October not to fund the project  .

In an effort to work with the county, Muoio offered up $100,000 from West Palm Beach to help pay for the beautification. Aaronson made a motion to provide funding in the amount of $225,000 – to cheers from the audience.

Commissioner Paulette Burdick, though, interjected, saying since West Palm Beach was coming forward with funding, the county should provide its full $400,000 share so that the integrity of the project could be preserved. Aaronson countered that he could not support the higher amount given budget constraints, and heard boos from the audience in response.

Burdick’s motion failed, but the county’s offer of $225,000 passed on a 4-3 vote, with Burdick, Santamaria and Marcus opposing. With matching funds, the project will now cost $650,000.

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