Over the past few years, there has been great controversy within City Hall concerning how and why certain development orders were granted by the City to the Chabad of East Boca, Inc.; a house of worship requesting approvals to build on land within a B1 Zoning district in the City of Boca Raton.
After numerous public hearings, the development orders for height and site plan were approved by the P&Z Board and the City Council based upon the strained review and recommendation of the City Administration. These approvals resulted in two state court lawsuits and one lawsuit in federal court. Of these, only the federal court case remains to be resolved. (U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida Case No: 16-cv-80195)
In the state court cases, one challenged a development order concerning the height of a proposed structure. That case was resolved without actual validation on the issue but viewed by the City Attorney as being a victory in favor of the city and the Chabad of East Boca. The second state court action resulted in the court ruling against the city and the Chabad. The court determined that the city’s action was in violation of the law. Essentially the court’s order finds against the development for two reasons; to wit: 1) that a ‘museum’ is not included within the city code’s definition of ‘places of public assembly’, and, 2) since the relevant city code does not allow for museum, the submitted plan did not meet the parking requirements under the code.
A fair reading of the certified copy of the Attorney-Client session held in June 2016 reveals the City Attorney’s advice to the City Council in this matter. In short, the City Council decided to let the intervenor, Chabad of East Boca, take the lead and the City would join in with the Chabad’s independent decision to motion for rehearing or file an appeal. What is most interesting about this privileged discussion is revealed on pages 53 and 54 of the transcript (a public record now that the case has been resolved) where the City Council comes to consensus that the city would participate in further legal activity only if the Chabad initiated such a filing and primarily for appearance purposes; to wit “…so that…it doesn’t appear to the Court that we are abandoning the development order.” Direction was then given to the City Attorney to act accordingly.
Subsequently, an appeal was filed in the 4th District Court of Appeals in West Palm Beach where the city joined with the Chabad for appellate relief. In November, the 4th District decided not to hear the appeal by the Chabad of East Boca leaving in place the lower court’s ruling that the city erred in allowing the project’s development order within the city’s B1 zoning code. Hence the end of the controversy….
Reported in the local press since the 4th DCA’s ruling were comments from Rabbi Ruvi New and City Council member Robert Weinroth where both men reluctantly accept the District Court’s ruling and state that a new application for the ‘house of worship’ without the museum would be forthcoming. Further stated by Rabbi New was that the museum would find a new site to locate within the city.
That is a good thing….
Councilman Weinroth, appearing to be a spokesperson for the Chabad, goes on to state that “When we had our hearings…the community said it wasn’t a synagogue they objected to, but it was the size and scope of the museum project attached to it and what that level of development could bring to their neighborhood…” He goes on to say “I want to take these residents at their word….However, if suddenly the community finds something else objectionable….then we would have to look at this situation and say that maybe something else is going on here.” Suggested in this statement and supported by comments from the Rabbi is that there may be some anti-Semitism involved in the community’s objection. A rhetorical question arises with Councilman Weinroth’s use of the pronoun ‘we’….Who is the ‘we’ he is referring too? No further comment can be made on this suggestion until the new project is brought forward and measured within the context of the then prevailing city code.
The actual circumstance, however, is that there remains the Federal Court action; an action against the city of Boca Raton as the sole Defendant with the Chabad of East Boca, Inc. as an Intervenor. This action alleges that the city ignored its own code in granting a religious organization rights, privileges and considerations beyond those of other ordinary citizens. Also suggested is that the city conducted the public’s business through private conversations between numerous interested persons with the City Manager/Administration and individual City Council members, both past and present.
This Federal lawsuit alleges that the city’s actions violated the Plaintiffs’ Constitutional Rights under the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution; a charge that must be taken seriously as it goes to the heart of how the public’s business is conducted in the city of Boca Raton. The city, not the Chabad, is solely responsible for its actions; the actions that are the subject of this Federal Court filing. Allegations of this nature are not new in the city of Boca Raton. The state court actions described above have behind the scene inferences similar in nature; behind the scene discussions resulting in strained presentations to support predetermined outcomes are the subject now being alleged and investigated in the Federal suit.
The Federal Court action asks the questions of how and why were these two development orders passed to allow this particular structure in a B1 zoned district with technical deviations approved that set aside considerations specifically in place to protect the residents whose homes border the B1 zoned area.
Resolution to these questions is still pending and, until resolved, Council Member Weinroth’s comments should be viewed as premature. This remaining Federal Court legal action addresses the serious issue of who runs the city and how decisions are actually made. It addresses whether Boca Raton’s government is transparent and operating under the letter and spirit of Florida’s Sunshine law and further suggests that there is reason to believe that the answer to these inquiries may be NO.
This Federal lawsuit is aimed at these issues….
The Federal Rules permit discovery and depositions to be taken to ascertain the facts to support such allegations. Plaintiffs have filed their initial disclosure pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. They have listed some 28 people and/or entities for deposition purposes along with specific requests for documents from the various entities involved. (See below)
Plaintiffs, actually representing all city residents, will get a chance to peak behind the scene as to how Boca Raton politics actually are conducted. Who are the power brokers; how the public’s business decisions are made; how the City staff prepares strained presentations supporting the developer’s interest over the interests of resident; and all this under penalty of perjury with Federal Court supervision. I, for one, am very glad that my name is not on this list of witnesses to be deposed….Subpoena power in Federal Court is very serious and being under the penalty of perjury is truly an uncomfortable position to be in….
Hence, Councilman Weinroth’s statements are premature pending the result of the Federal inquiry….Especially since he is one of the 28 witnesses subject to deposition with serious questions outstanding as to his travel to Israel during the height of the approval process to visit with the maker of the ‘My Israel’ video; with whom he met; the topics discussed; and, the influences, if any, on his vote in the quasi-judicial procedure requiring such disclosures, disclosures that have yet to be forthcoming.
Stay tuned for further updates on the Federal Court process; a process that promises to be an extremely revealing public interest matter….
These are the witnesses:
Derek Van der Ploeg
Rabbi Ruvi New
*Deceased – Paul Slattery
Representative of Seacoast Bank
Representative of Chabad of East Boca, Inc.
Representative of TJCV Land Trust
*Deceased – Irving Litwak