Boca Raton stops playing Grinch on holiday decorations

The Boca Raton City Council stepped into it deeply when it chose to ban all holiday decorations in City Hall, libraries and other municipal buildings this season.

The flak was so heavy that the mayor and council members aborted the prohibition one day before demonstrators launched a full-blown, take-it-to-the-streets protest opposing the ban.

Leader of the upstarts, Mark Boykin, senior pastor of Church of All Nations in Boca Raton, is well-known for firing up the electorate, usually summoning the media before talking to local officials. This year, Fox News broke the story nationally – and many regional news outlets followed suit.

Mayor Susan Whelchel lamented the “negative” national attention. “Most of the time, it’s a good thing, but this time, it was a little awkward,” she said.

At a council workshop Dec. 12, Whelchel led the debate that prompted municipal leaders to scrap the ban.

Deputy Mayor Susan Haynie said Boykin and his protests during the last two Christmas/Hanukkah seasons prompted City Manager Leif Ahnell to slap the prohibition on holiday accoutrements this year. It was a two-pronged effort to stop the pastor’s noise-making and to promote the use of Sanborn Square, Boca’s free-speech zone, for decorations.

Ahnell’s effort, Haynie said, apparently felt short. Boykin and his churchgoers still hit the streets a day after the city re-opened the door to holiday finery within the walls of government.

“During the last two years, there has been a constant barrage by Pastor Boykin,” said Haynie.

The ban on holiday trimmings, meant to quiet Boykin, instead ignited a reverse explosion, raising the ire of many municipal employees and residents. Haynie said everyone seemed happy when the council had its official change of heart.

“The display at the city clerk’s office was up within a few hours,” she noted. “In Boca Raton, we probably have more lights per capita than anywhere. We have the largest holiday parade.”

And both winning floats this year, she added, had religious themes.

Councilwoman Constance Scott noted that city workers have been slammed with layoffs and demands for more work – and still had to deal with the disruptions caused by protesters.

“It was a major distraction,” she said. “It takes time away from our staff when they are trying to focus on business.”

Scott said “the spirit and morale among city workers are much more positive” since the ban ended.

Whelchel said she turned to the clergy for help. She met with the Interfaith Council before suggesting the ban be lifted. When she did, other council members voiced their support.

During that discussion, Haynie said, “We are not the city where the Grinch has stolen the holiday from us.”

In spite of the municipal flip-flop, Sanborn Square remains decorated, with a large Christmas tree, a crèche and a menorah, among other signs of the season.

When the dust settled around municipal corridors, Whelchel noted: “We inadvertently created a negative impression. Employees have the right to enjoy the holiday season. Something was missing without the decorations.”

In other matters, those planning to run for office in Boca Raton’s March 13 municipal election will have to get their act – not to mention their candidacy papers – in order a little more quickly than in the past. The City Council recently adopted a new ordinance amending the City Charter to change the candidate qualifying dates from the first seven days of February to the first seven business days of January. The change, city officials said, is designed to give candidates more time to campaign.

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