PAHOKEE – Newly-elected Pahokee City Commissioners Juan A. “Johnny” Gonzalez Jr. and Sara Perez arrived at the March 23 city commission meeting ready to get to work.
That didn’t happen.
At the start of the meeting, when asking for additions or changes to the agenda, City Manager Chandler Williamson asked if the commission wanted to move the swearing in to the top of the agenda, which was the normal procedure.
Mayor Keith Babb indicated he had been led to believe the newly elected commissioners did not want to be sworn in before the business portion of the meeting because they had not had time to review the issues that would be voted on during the meeting.
Not so, said Perez, who added she was ready to do the job the voters sent her there to do.
Gonzalez said he also wished to be sworn in at the start of the meeting.
Commissioner Regina Bohlen made a motion to move the swearing in to the top of the agenda. Babb seconded the motion. The motion failed with Commissioners Felisia Hill and Benny Everett, who did not seek re-election in the March 9 election, voting against it. As a result, Hill and Everett retained their seats and were able to vote during the meeting while the newly-elected commissioners sat in the audience as spectators.
During the meeting, the commissioners approved contracts for work on Barfield Highway, approved a storm water improvement project and voted on zoning and land use plan changes for a new housing development.
They also accepted the resignation of the city manager.
The housing development will include 141 apartments to be built in three-story buildings on a 7.86-acre property between Amaryllis Avenue and E Lake Avenue.
Jeffrey Costello, representing the developer, said the multi-family housing will be a range of income levels from very low to low to moderate-income levels
The 7.86-acre property is currently vacant. The larger portion of the property was already zoned for 18 units per acre. The change to the zoning was required for the 2.72-acre portion of property which previously belonged to the school district was zoned for public facilities. The change requested to the land use map makes it consistent with the zoning, Williamson explained.
Bohlen questioned the traffic the new development will put on already busy roads in the area, especially in the mornings when children are waiting at the bus stop.
Speaking as a member of the audience, Perez questioned if the zoning change had been properly advertised. The city clerk said it was advertised in the Palm Beach Post on Feb. 19.
The zoning and land use map changes passed 4-1 with Bohlen the sole opposition.
In other business, the city manager submitted his resignation effective April 2.
“In 2014 we had an opening for a city manager,” said Williamson. “Ultimately I was provided the opportunity to come to the City of Pahokee.” He thanked the selection committee who ranked him among the top candidates for the job and the commissioners who gave him the opportunity at the time.
He said at the time he took the position, the community had seen 30 years of neglect in housing, in streets and roads.
“Taking this job, I understood what comes with it are many challenges,” he said. “We have been successful in facing some of those challenges.
“We haven’t solved all of the problems in Pahokee,” he said but added the city has made a good start. About 68% of the streets in the city have been resurfaced, he said.
“We have re-branded the messaging for the City of Pahokee,” Williamson continued. “We have re-calibrated our dealings with Tallahassee. We’ve been awarded close to $12.9 million in state funding.
“The relationships that have been built here will continue to bear fruit for this community,” he said.
“This city is moving,” he said. “It is a place where folks can live, play, retire and raise their kids. That is what we have been trying to promote in this city.
“In 2016, we started Progress Pahokee. Every time we started a project for the city, you would hear the theme, Progress Pahokee.
“Our marina will play a major part in moving this city forward,” he said. He explained that when he arrived in Pahokee, he said the city needs $10 million in improvements at the marina. “We have gotten $3 million so far,” he said.
“Thank you for your work,” said the mayor. “Not dismissing any clouds that may have lingered, but just work performance on its own, I think you have done a great job.”
The mayor noted that in March 2022, Pahokee will celebrate its centennial. “A lot of people doubted that we would make it 100 years,” he said.
“I just hope with the new commissioners coming in, there will be times we disagree, but I hope that we can disagree in an agreeable manner,” said Babb.
He noted there were comments in opposition to the housing development on social media.
“We’re that close to getting a major hotel and a luxury resort. It’s already designed. The letter of intent is already signed,” said Babb. He said he is fearful the agreement will not move forward if the developers view Pahokee as a divided community.
“This commission all ran on change, but I hope they don’t change the positive things that will move this city forward,” he said.
Before swearing in the new commissioners, Babb also made a motion to reappoint Clara Murvin to another term as vice mayor.
“I move that the current vice mayor remain vice mayor and if she declines, my second nomination would be Juan Johnny Gonzalez,” said Babb.
Bohlen pointed out the city charter states the selection of the vice mayor shall be done during the first regular meeting in April.
The city attorney advised if they selected a vice mayor at the March 23 meeting, they would still have to vote on it again at the first meeting in April. The city charter says this “shall” be done, the attorney explained.
The attorney also advised the mayor that he could not nominate Gonzalez until after he had been sworn in.
“Whatever happens in April happens in April,” said Babb. He proceeded with his motion which was seconded by Everett.
Babb, Everett and Hill voted “yes.” Bohlen voted “absolutely no.” Murvin voted “absolutely yes.”