The town commission of Highland Beach could get a makeover, with two commission seats and the mayor’s post being contested on Tuesday.
With Mayor Bernard Featherman termed out, a former vice mayor, Ronald D. Brown, is facing a current commissioner, Carl Feldman. The two have clashed over a 2012 ordinance that raised the town’s spending cap to $1.7 million from $350,000 to finance renovations to the town hall and police station.
Brown is proud of the renovations; Feldman objected to the ordinance, which ultimately drew a ruling from the county Inspector General, who said it violated the 1991 town charter requiring voter approval for any expenditures of more than $350,000.
A retired pilot of fighter jets and commercial airliners, Brown, 70, was vice mayor from 2012 to 2015 and is president of the Bel Lido Property Owners Association. He said he wants to the job of mayor “because the town is standing still.” Feldman, a retired manufacturing engineer and businessman who has lived in the barrier-island town of 3,700 since 2000, declined to meet with the Post Editorial Board.
Once again, spending is an issue: Brown says the current commission has become so intent on keeping the millage rate low that the town’s quality of life is hurting. Chief example: town employees, feeling the pinch in their paychecks and benefits, voted to form a union.
“I think we had a commission that wasn’t working with the town employees. They were working for themselves,” Brown said. He noted that his own taxes were reduced by just $146 a year; he’d much rather see the town, where the median household income in 2015 was an estimated $103,000, have “topline services.”
Brown wants to improve relations with the employees; undertake a restoration of the three-mile walkway that’s heavily used by walkers and joggers; and secure rapidly dwindling green space.
With Feldman abdicating his council seat to run for mayor, three newcomers are vying to fill the remaining two years of his term: family physician Dr. Melissa Ebbs; retired vice president of AT&T sales Elyse Riesa; and retired Vietnam veteran Carl Gehman. Gehman declined to meet with the Editorial Board.
Riesa, 65, who became interested in town affairs by founding a volunteer emergency-response team, says her top priority is keeping taxes low. She faithfully attends town meetings. “I have been holding them accountable. I’ve been keeping watch,” she said. “We have lot of retired people on fixed incomes.”
Ebbs, 36, says she “feels very strongly about our green spaces; we don’t have many left.” She should know. She grew up in Highland Beach before going to the University of Miami and then to London for medical and surgical studies. Now she’s back. “I’ll be a fresh face,” she said. Among her ideas: call on the doctors she knows to hold health-based seminars in the town library.
Competing for another seat on the council are Rhoda Zelniker, the incumbent, and Barry Donaldson, an architect who has chaired the town’s Board of Adjustment and Appeals. The council term is for three years.
Zelinker, 70, retired from the corporate furniture industry, touts her opposition to the 2012 spending-cap raise and her vigilance in keeping taxes low. Donaldson, like Brown, argues that the council has become too tight-fisted, and blames it for souring relations with employees.
And as an architect, the 67-year old Donaldson says he can offer expertise as the town grapples with persistent flooding, redesigns the walkway and upgrades building codes.
With the town nearing build-out and the increasing prospect of rising sea levels, “I think we’re at a very pivotal point in our small town,” he said. That kind of strategic thinking is very valuable.
We’re recommending Brown, Ebbs and Donaldson.
Palm Beach Post endorsements for the March 14 municipal elections will be posted online throughout this week on a city by city basis. They will be published in total in the Sunday, March 12, print edition.