Raising the Level of Debate


I delayed this post until after the election, because I didn’t want to be accused of pushing one candidate over another (at least in this space).

(In the interest of full disclosure, while I did not endorse a mayoral candidate, I did endorse commission candidate Bruce Bastian).

You may recall that we blogged about the “silly season” right before the mail and robocalls began in earnest a few weeks back. We predicted pandering and boy were we right.

This does not make us proud or particularly prescient. In fact it depresses us because we deserve a more intelligent debate than what we just endured (and the operative word here is endured).

Now we’re sure that there are voters out there who really believe that all developers are evil and greedy and that candidates for Delray Beach elected office are magically raising test scores and have some magical elixir to relieve traffic congestion. To those who believe that, we ask that you be careful out there—please do not purchase any bridges without consulting an attorney.

You are not a hero if you bid a contract, you’re following the law. So promising to bid local contracts doesn’t make you Abe Lincoln and it doesn’t make you a candidate for a profile in courage.  All it means is that you are compliant with a city ordinance.  That said, you deserve a ton of credit for doing so. It has not been easy. It also means that you have paid attention to the mistakes of past elected officials.

And yes, they all make mistakes. In the interest of more disclosure, the commission I was on did bid the garbage contract but did not bid other contracts. We should have.

Bidding wasn’t a hot button issue in those days and we were hard at work on other things, but municipal contracts should be bid.  Period.

Still, I was overwhelmed by the vitriol and utter lack of ideas in this past campaign. So were many others who contacted us. As we predicted, everyone is fighting development, every developer refuses “to play by the rules” and every candidate is “going to fight congestion and overdevelopment”.

But I didn’t read about a single solution or idea. I visited websites, read every piece of mail and listened to every robocall (I even made one)—but ideas were rarer than snow in Florida.

Here’s a few of my favorites:

  • “Tougher rules and regulations for sober homes”—this is a new one.  I guess nobody else has ever tried.
  • “Congress Avenue is the answer”—The vision for revitalizing Congress Avenue is about 10 years old. Very little has been done since to advance the vision for a corporate mixed use corridor. We hope that changes.  But candidates talked about Congress as if they had discovered the Holy Grail. Congress does have potential, but I suspect that it was used as a pressure relief valve to guard against charges that candidates were anti-business. This way, you can rail against development downtown but pivot with your “vision” for a bustling Congress Avenue.  Smart growth is not a zero sum game. We need office space downtown and we need to redevelop Congress Avenue. You can and you should pay attention to both corridors, as well as Federal Highway, West Atlantic Avenue, south of the avenue and the four corners of Atlantic and Military. And all of those corridors need to be thought of as “complete streets” otherwise all you’ve done is create more sprawl, which is a huge cause of traffic.
  • Special Interest Groups: Everybody seems to hate them, but nobody seems to name them other than of course, developers, who are invariably “greedy” “irresponsible”, “not listening” “violating rules” and corrupting everyone in their relentless pursuit to ruin the village, city, community, neighborhood etc.

I can go on. And on. But you get the picture.

Social media was no better and seemed to reflect the nearly $300,000 spent in a concentrated period to say how awful Delray Beach has become. Really?!

If you were sent campaign mailers and didn’t know anything about the city you would have thought the town was ruined. To some it has been, but to many others it’s been improved. Me: I kind of like Delray.

There I said it. I like the vibrancy, the restaurants, most of the downtown housing projects (not all), the cultural amenities, the historic districts and some of the newer homes sprouting up (not all).

With success comes challenges—traffic, noise, etc.—but on balance I like my town. Check that: I love it.


Boca’s level of debate wasn’t any better. But it was heartening to see Jeremy Rodgers succeed with a simple message: Boca should be the best place to start a business and raise a family.


We don’t live in Nirvana, but we live in extremely desirable place. But if you read some of the vitriol on out there, you can’t help but scratch your head and wonder. And worry; especially when you see the posts knocking New Yorkers and northerners. It makes you wonder.

We spend a whole lot of time talking about the “village” and we seem to define it by how tall our buildings are, but perhaps we should spend some time thinking about how we debate issues of concern and how we treat each other.

Now that the silly season has concluded and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent spouting exactly nothing hopefully we can raise the level of debate.


Because there are real issues and opportunities that deserve a serious discussion; but you can’t make progress until you stop  blaming, start listening and start dealing in facts, not vitriol or platitudes.

The election dovetailed with college Spring Break and many of the kids we mentor at a foundation called Dare 2 Be Great were home to witness the adults at play.

The students I heard from were shocked by the lack of substance this election cycle.

One young man wrote: “Back home two days and can’t believe what I’m seeing and hearing. So disappointing!  Integrity has left the building. We need to do better.” Out of the mouths of babes; we need to do better. Yes we do.

One final note on the issue of dark money or funds raised by ECO’s: Personally, I have always donated directly to campaigns. But companies I have been involved with or worked for have been solicited to donate to ECO’s and have done so.  After this cycle, I think the practice, while legal, is ultimately detrimental to raising the level of debate and ends up actually backfiring on candidates the PAC’s are supposed to be helping. I suppose there are exceptions, but often funds are commingled and donors have no control over the messages they are financing. Ironically, many of the messages run counter to the donors interests. For example, developers contributing to ECO’s that send out mail pieces slamming development.  It makes no sense. Hopefully, it stops.

I do however believe that business has a strong interest in good government and a right to participate in the political process. It’s not wrong to have a commercial interest in a community. All strong towns need to have strong neighborhoods, strong schools and a thriving business community.

One positive takeaway from this election is that in a world of PAC’s, ECO’s etc. grassroots campaigning still works. There’s just no better substitute for knocking on doors. Commissioner elect Mitch Katz proved that.

Passionate candidates and passionate supporters still win local elections. And that’s the silver lining in the last cycle.






7 Traits of Leadership: A Voter’s Guide

Vote tomorrow

Vote tomorrow

Tomorrow, voters will go to the polls in Boca Raton and Delray Beach for municipal elections.

In both cities, the stakes are high. But most likely a very small group of registered voters will decide who gets to serve.

That’s sad, because voting is a right that we should not take for granted and voting in a local election is especially important because local government touches our lives in a big way.

From how our town will look and feel to the amount of local taxes we will pay, city government is important but often ignored. It shouldn’t be.

It seems a big lament in society today is a lack of leadership at all levels of government.

I agree, but I also believe that our best and brightest often shun public service because of the negative climate of politics today. While it is true that” if you can’t stand the heat stay out of the kitchen”; it’s also understandable when smart, capable people don’t want to swim in a cesspool of dysfunction.

Communities should encourage vigorous debate and lots of accountability, but push back against vile behavior, misinformation, corruption and the politics of personal destruction.

If you do, there is a chance that your pool of leadership will expand and that’s always a good thing.

So while we won’t recommend candidates, we do urge you to vote and to study the issues and the candidates so that you can cast an informed ballot.  With a bunch of candidates running and a great many issues to be decided by the newly elected officials,  it’s important to understand what good leadership looks like.

Nobody is opposed to great leadership but few communities take the time to actually discuss what it takes to bring it about.  Often we fail to monitor leaders and hold them accountable for performance and for promises. Too often, we “suffer” poor leaders and decide to just “wait them out”.

One of the best books on leadership I’ve seen discusses this problem in-depth. In “Why We Are So Bad at Picking Good Leaders” the authors outline seven character traits that great leaders possess.

The rub, so to speak, is that if leaders are missing any of the seven traits, they are doomed to either come up short or fail.

The traits are: integrity, vision, passion, emotional intelligence, empathy, courage and judgment.

That’s as good a list of traits as I’ve seen.

While it’s hard to determine whether a candidate possesses these traits from a mail piece or a campaign sign, in a small town we should know those who seek to represent us a lot better than those we send to Tallahassee or Washington.

So we hope you attended a candidate’s forum, went to a meet and greet and had a chance to dissect the candidate’s message.  We hope you were able to determine if they exhibit any of the seven traits or whether they have a glaring weakness. It’s important, because we entrust our community to the brave people who step into the arena. They can either make Delray and Boca better or hurt our town; it’s important that we choose wisely and make our vote count.

Tis The Season

Jon Stewart regularly skewers pandering pols.

Jon Stewart regularly skewers pandering pols.

We are entering the silly season aka the local election cycle.

Within days our medians will be populated with signs and very soon our mailboxes filled with campaign literature.

This is the time of year when every politician is fighting “greedy” developers, taking a stand against crime and “fighting” for lower taxes.

Every single person running will be a “champion” of better schools and every candidate has a plan to fix traffic.


Can you spell, pander? P is for pathetic. A is for awful. N is for nauseating. D is for disrespectful. E is for eeek. And R is for get real.

On the national level, it’s all about raising money. And the best way to raise money is to pander. After all, pandering is a lot easier than coming up with a solution to the myriad challenges facing our nation at any given time.

I recently read that once elected to Congress, representatives are instructed (ordered?) by their leadership to spend six hours a day calling and reaching out to donors. That leaves barely two hours to do the actual job. If that doesn’t disgust you, I don’t know what will.

On the local level, campaigns have gotten more expensive as well.  That’s not good news. But what’s even worse is how inane and devoid of ideas so many local races are.

It must feel good to bash development, pander to people’s fears about crime and pretend that you are running for School Board, but the truth is I have a strong hunch that voters want more; more depth, more analysis, more ideas, more solutions and more information about how you will conduct yourself if you happen to get elected.

Do you work well with others? Will you show up for meetings?

Will you dodge the tough issues with strategic absences or by kicking the can down the road?

Do have a vision for your community? Do you know how to collaborate or are you a lone wolf?

What happens if you lose a tough vote? Will you move on or will you launch a war against all those who disagree with you on one issue?

Will you do your homework? Can you interact with key staff or are you a bully who pretends you are somehow above the fray? Will you reach out beyond the usual suspects before casting a vote or will you cede your vote to a Svengali who will use you like a puppet?

I believe that the best and most impactful level of government is local government. If you have an idea on a Tuesday night and two other teammates agree, things can begin happening on Wednesday morning. That’s the beauty of local government. So is voting around the block from where you live, it keeps you grounded and it keeps you in touch with your constituents; if you’re a listener that is. If you wall yourself off from humanity or opposing points of view, all bets are off.

I have come to believe that elected office is a job to do, not a job to have.

When I served from 2000-07, we were focused on what we called the “big rocks.”

At that time, the big rocks meant creating a downtown master plan, creating and implementing a new vision and zoning rules for the Congress Avenue corridor, drafting a cultural plan, passing a parks bond, partnering with non-profits on efforts to break the cycle of poverty, stepping up with a plan to stop attrition and rebuild staffing levels at our police and fire departments, creating a Community Land Trust, partnering with our high school to create and support career academies, improving communication with residents, launching a race relations initiative, supporting our police department when two members had an idea to create a charter school, adding summer reading programs and working with the neighborhoods on historic preservation and the southwest plan.

Some of the stuff we did was popular and some of it was hugely controversial—relocating Atlantic High School, purchasing land to create Bexley Park, approving downtown townhouse projects and trying to craft a plan to add bike lanes on A1A felt like near death experiences at the time.

But if you want to make an impact you have to take risks, you have to stand for something.

You also  have to have a vision for what you want to accomplish if you are privileged to be entrusted to help set policy for your city.

So yes, it’s easy to bash developers and development, but what about property rights? How will you pay the bills if you don’t grow your tax base? What’s your strategy for economic development? What’s your definition of smart, responsible growth? Are you willing to articulate it?

I was confronted by an angry resident over development a few weeks back. When she told me where she lived, I told her that there was a line out the door of people protesting her townhouse project.

“Why?” she asked. “It’s beautiful.”

“Because people feared the dreaded D word, density and traffic that would be generated if the project was approved,” I answered.

“But I didn’t move downtown to drive,” she said. “We walk everywhere.”

Thanks for making my point.

I guess I’m not a big fan of the “I’m in the boat, pull up the ladder” school of thinking.

Delray and Boca Raton are prime examples of cities that have impacted local education. But voters want to hear what your ideas are and how you expect to get it done.

We all worry about crime and want safe, attractive neighborhoods. What ideas do you have relating to these important topics? Are you a fan of community policing? Or do you prefer a more traditional law and order approach?

Some lucky folks are going to find themselves in office after Election Day? What happens when a controversial development gets filed with  your planning department? Will you roll up your sleeves and meet with the dreaded developer and try and shape the project so it looks good, fits in and works? Or will you wall yourself off and then pander at the public hearing? Will you judge projects based on their merits and the code or will you only support projects from people who supported your campaign financially? Do you have the ability to vote your conscience even if it angers a room full of people, many of whom are your friends and neighbors?

It’s easy to pander, harder to lead. It’s easy to speak in platitudes, harder to articulate a vision. It’s easy to play to your political base and a whole lot harder to engage the whole community, bridge divides and build consensus.

Vote on March 10, but also challenge candidates to go a level deeper on the issues of importance to you. It’s better to see what they are made of now, before you give them the keys to your city’s budget and policies.