I would never run for office but there are some good people who get sucked into it. This is a story about a friend of mine who tried to help his local citizenry. His name is Jeff Perlman and he was twice elected Mayor of Delray Beach, Florida — where an election takes place this month that he will be far away from — and he taught me one thing about politics that we should remember as we sit judging the elected officials we chose.
You know this already: Politics is not a good place for a good human being to hang out.
We are going to have a lot of trouble getting young people to want to be our leaders. Notably after any of them read this story.
I spent time with Jeff Perlman (my firm, RLM PR, helped him through one of 25 crises while he was Mayor; he was the only client who ever handled a crisis with good cheer and constant reassessment and skill…but got the bad end of every stick) while people gave this hard-working man of the people a tough time for everything but wearing jeans. He was a part-time Mayor and skilled in PR; he got paid about $20,000 a year for his work as Mayor (Delray is a very small city) and was stopped by the people for taking any part-time jobs “on the side.”
He and his family just about got by on his wife’s salary. Yet when he tried to do some consulting at a local media relations firm, the towns folks went into a tizzy, calling it a conflict of interest. This little firm had no government clients — not even close — and yet he had to leave it because the voters, who had no hobbies, refused to allow it.
The former Mayor explains how Delray citizens demanded to know his clients at all times: “I got sued for accepting a contract to publish a monthly newsletter for the school district, a job which netted less than $20k for a year’s work. The suit, filed by a political rival’s millionaire wife, cost me in excess of $20,000 to have thrown out, only to have it re-filed within hours of a deadline costing me another $10,000.” Perlman settled the second suit because defending himself again would have cost him between $25,000 and $30,000.
In its coverage of a town where the news people also have too much free time, the Palm Beach Post placed the first suit on the front page above the fold and above an item announcing that Al Qaeda had developed a nerve weapon.
When Perlman bid on a PR contract with the South Florida Water Management District (keeping in mind that other part-time elected officials do work for other governmental agencies), the Post wrote several stories costing him the contract even though he was actually he lowest bidder, was amply qualified, and executives were pleased with his work.
Says Perlman: “After a lawsuit and dozens of negative stories in the media, I no longer pursued any public work.” He feared an ulcer.
Here’s what Perlman’s public life was like:
February 2005: A young black man, Jerrod Miller, is shot and killed by an off-duty Delray Beach police officer. Story after story runs about how Delray is “split along racial lines…” But this is news to people who live there. The local press blames the Mayor, who has won all his elections by landslides, works tirelessly, and helps everyone get along and get what they need in Delray Beach.
May 2005: Jerrod Miller’s family files suit against the City of Delray Beach.
August 2005: The police officer who killed Miller is cleared of criminal wrongdoing in by a Grand Jury. The Mayor is taken to task for not holding enough meetings with the local NAACP. But the national NAACP doesn’t think this is an issue. Mayor Jeff has been doing whatever he can to heal the City; no one credits him with anything!
October 2005: Hurricane Wilma knocks out power to the whole city. Florida Power and Light (FPL) takes more than a month to turn it back on. Somehow, the Mayor is caught up in this, and he is powerless to do anything to stop the bad press — or FPL. “I simply didn’t sleep much. I spent hours driving neighborhoods, delivering ice and working with FPL to and state authorities to get real help.”
November 2005: Hurricane Wilma had ripped roofs off at Carver Estates (public housing), and the City decides to tear it down and rebuild, for which the Mayor is vilified. Prior to Wilma, the buildings were declared dangerous due to 40 years of federal and local neglect that the Mayor inherited. “We made it a priority and worked feverishly to relocate every single family to safer homes. Moving expenses were paid, and hefty stipends were secured, which enabled everyone displaced by the storm to find better homes.” The media went wild.
March 2006: Police chase…and eventually catch…a burglar in Perlman’s backyard. “This was an 18 hour manhunt for a criminal who was skilled at home invasions. Helicopters, K-9s and heat seeking radar were used before they fished him out of bushes in my canal.” You cannot make this up.
March 2006: Delray — under Perlman’s leadership — places a moratorium on building McMansions, which upsets those who don’t give a rat’s tush about historic preservation or conservation. One of several historic preservation-related scandals over the years and of course Mayor Perlman is caught up in it.
August 2006: Commissioner and former Vice Mayor Jon Levinson speaks (too) frankly and Perlman is forced to make a statement saying he doesn’t endorse Levinson’s actions. “Levinson went off in a goal setting session, pointing out the City Manager David Harden was mismanaging bond issue projects and failing to follow commission directions. While Jon’s remarks were far from diplomatic…he was 100% right.
The headline in the Post said we questioned the ‘work ethic’ of city workers. Not true. In fact, we praised City workers for their hurricane response but we had the temerity to challenge the manager who was indeed failing to complete projects or follow clear policy directions because of general incompetence. We criticized him. I did tactfully. Jon, not so tactfully.”
The Post writes an editorial that “Harden is Not the Problem” and credits the Manager for healing the city during the recent racial unrest. But the Mayor tells me: “Not quite. He was AWOL the whole time.”
August/September 2006: Because the city has a minimized budget, it is not able to pay firemen and paramedics well, so there are now 16 vacancies at one point, and the townspeople are in an uproar. Also, smoking is banned on City beaches. For once the press loves something — but smokers hate the Mayor and protest vehemently (and publicly).
December 2006: Two streets get converted from one-way to two-way, which required some closures and merchants were livid. Just guess who was blamed?
December 2006: Delray allows a developer to build town homes on the site of a monastery. Later (in February), Palm Beach Diocese backs out of deal to sell a house to eight elderly nuns, and blames the city of Delray Beach.
December 2006: Delray (and Boynton Beach) had been dumping their sewage into the ocean for four decades. But, when the permit comes up for renewal, some say it was Perlman’s fault that it was being dumped into the ocean to begin with! Perlman actually headed the group that decided to end the practice and had begun a major water re-use program. Press ignore this basic fact, even though when the story broke the City had cut emissions by 40 percent and were well on the way to 100 percent as soon as construction was complete on new pipes.
January 2007: Office Depot, among the biggest corporate businesses in town, leaves Delray and Perlman is blamed, but well used to this, he sets about resuscitating the Office Depot site and is successful.
March/April 2007: A spanking budget disaster now overshadows all Perlman’s good work: “An email to a lame duck City Commission notified them that the city had to borrow about $40.5 million if certain improvement projects were ever to get off the ground. Mayor Jeff Perlman never saw the email before the meeting.” (Palm Beach Post).
Perlman tells me: “The City Manager [Harden] never told us about the problem and in fact insisted we were fine, stating that there was no need for new borrowing. It turns out we did not need $41 million, a task force knocked the number down to $27 million and that included millions of new goodies sought by the manager including a new city environmental services building, a new fire station, a new IT building and an expansion of City Hall. Not funded: What the voters asked and paid for: a new senior center. The FBI launches an investigation into the bond issue.”
He did not run for reelection that year even though he was granted a 72 percent approval rating when he left office. You can pretty much see why.
July 2007, from the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel: “Over the weekend, former Mayor Jeff Perlman denied trying to pressure the City Commission to fire City Manager David Harden. But on Monday, an email was leaked that he had sent to most of the commissioners chastising Harden and [new] Mayor Rita Ellis. The July 17 e-mail was sent in reaction to a Sun-Sentinel article that disclosed public comments were being edited out of City Commission meetings that are posted on the city’s Web site. The removal was ordered by Harden.” Perlman responded, and the Sun-Sentinel followed up with an editorial saying he should not in fact exercise his first amendment right to express an opinion.
September 2007: City settles with Jerrod Miller’s family for $1 million; the suit, says the local press “blamed then-Mayor Perlman, city commissioners and other city officials for embracing policies that it says led to Miller’s death.”
And now it turns out that there was illegal managing of city funds (so typical now) going on behind the scenes. Indictments are handed down. Perlman is not even a footnote in any of it. Political power broker and long time County Commissioner Mary McCarty and her husband Kevin are heading to jail. 18-year veteran Harden is implicated in a corruption scheme that is like a Hollywood tale with a severely bad rewrite.
Mary McCarty, who seemed so business-like and austere when I met her, certainly played her part well. She was charged with conspiracy and mail fraud, stemming from her alleged failure to give her constituents honest services after voting on several bond issues that directly benefited her husband Kevin’s employers, including, yep, Bear Stearns. The McCartys allegedly received about $300,000 as a result of the votes. McCarthy also allegedly failed to disclose hotel stays provided by one of the county’s vendors.
A committee examination of how Harden’s decisions as Manager led to McCarty Mania should have been completed by now. Naturally, it’s going to come down after Tuesday’s big election, where the mayorality and other public offices are up for grabs.
Who was the scapegoat in Delray Beach? Jeff Perlman proves my thesis: Why on earth would anyone run for office and spend low-paid days and nights handling the “mishegos” of people who make you feel less than adequate no matter how hard you work? This is one man’s story, but it is certainly not as big an anomaly as you think.
It’s just the best one I know.