SUN SENTINEL EDITORIALS: The long, hidden reach of developers in Delray Beach
by Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
South Florida Sun Sentinel January 30, 2023
Rob Long wants to be a Delray Beach city commissioner. To get there, he must win the Seat 2 election on March 14 and defeat City Commissioner Juli Casale, who has been a consistent voice for limited development in the city known fondly as the “Village by the Sea.”
Long has lots of experience with development issues, in more ways than one. For four years he sat on the city Planning and Zoning Board, where he regularly cast votes on real estate projects, large and small. He also owns a community engagement and grass roots advocacy business, Door 2 Door Strategies, which has advised development firms.
In fact, Delray’s most prominent land-use lawyer-lobbyist, Bonnie Miskel, has “regularly” referred possible clients to Long’s business, he confirms. Delray voters deserved to know about this cozy relationship, but they didn’t, until now.
An assistant city attorney, William Bennett, helped keep it quiet, which in our opinion — and the opinion of his boss, the city attorney, Lynn Gelin — was wrong.
The business connection between Long and Miskel is being reported here for the first time.
"Am I in the clear?"
Hours before a Miskel project, Aura Delray Beach, came up for a zoning board vote on July 20, 2020, Long sought Bennett’s legal advice.
“Hi William, I just want to make sure I’m above board regarding one of the item’s on this evening’s P & Z agenda — specifically the Aura Delray Beach SAD (2020-116) item,” Long wrote. “Bonnie Miskel, this applicant’s attorney, regularly refers business to my community engagement company, Door 2 Door Strategies. Her and I partner on projects from time to time, although I’ve never worked for Bonnie or (her law firm) Dunay, Miskel & Backman LLP directly. Further, neither myself nor my company has any involvement in the proposed project on tonight’s agenda. I did speak to Bonnie on the phone about this project last week, which I obviously intend to disclose as an ex parte communication. Am I in the clear regarding this agenda item tonight or do I need to recuse myself?”
The reason state law requires officials to publicly disclose all substantive ex parte contact with all sides of an application is to avoid even the appearance of a backroom deal.
Five minutes later, Bennett replied: “Based upon the facts provided below you do not have a conflict which would require you to abstain. I would recommend you double check the client or project list for Door 2 Door Strategies to ensure the information below is correct.”
Long voted for the project. Bennett didn’t ask the state ethics commission for guidance. If he had, he would have found a 2020 advisory opinion in which a Hialeah councilman who practices law wanted to know if he could keep receiving referrals from another law firm on real estate work, even though the other firm appears before the city. The commission said the referrals were not against the law, but the council member should limit the frequency of his referrals and contact with the other firm “to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.”
The Sun Sentinel obtained the Long-Bennett email exchange from a routine public records request. Bennett did not respond to our request for an interview.
Gelin told us that Long “did the right thing” by seeking legal advice, but that she can’t be sure Bennett rendered the right advice because she did not know all the facts.
“I think my office could have done a better job,” Gelin said.
A New City Policy
Less than three weeks ago, on Jan. 12, as the Sun Sentinel began asking questions, Gelin issued a memo that requires a series of steps city attorneys must take if similar situations arise again. They include confirming the facts, conducting research, providing a written opinion and consulting with the county and state ethics commissions if applicable.
Delray Beach City Attorney Lynn Gelin has urged her staff to take ethical questions about city board appointees more seriously.
Delray Beach grapples daily with the balance among quality of life, the need for affordable and workforce housing, and the relentless forces for more commercial and residential development.
Against that backdrop, we now learn that a lobbyist for real estate developers has referred business to and been a “partner” with a zoning board member (his word) who voted on that lobbyist’s issues. Long could have declared a conflict of interest and abstained from voting on Miskel’s project, but he voted, based on legal advice.
“I am not an attorney,” Long told us in a statement. “I was a volunteer board member, so I reasonably relied on the advisement of the city attorney’s office. I have always been transparent about my business relationships and have always sought out and followed the counsel of Delray Beach’s legal department. As a commissioner, I will continue to take the necessary steps to ensure I do not have any conflicts that would keep me from serving properly.”
In our opinion, this arrangement is just too cozy and should be avoided. Attorney Bennett should have insisted that Long disclose his connections to Miskel. He didn’t. Even if client referrals had ended, Long should have disclosed the relationship each and every time that Miskel appeared before the zoning board. He didn’t.
The voters deserve better. Delray voters should insist that Long explain how he would vote on Miskel’s issues if he’s elected to the commission.
If Long is truly transparent, he should disclose every client of Door 2 Door Strategies, both in and out of the city, and how much each paid him. That level of disclosure is not required by law, but it’s the right thing to do.
Development is far and away the biggest issue in Delray Beach. The more voters know about every candidate on that issue, the better.
The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at firstname.lastname@example.org.