Riviera ballot questions put on hold after appeal filed by city council

WEST PALM BEACH Riviera Beach appealed a judge's ruling Thursday, putting on hold a court decision that allowed voters to decide the fate of a $280 million deal between the city and builder Dan Catalfumo to redevelop the Ocean Mall on Singer Island.

The appeal puts a stay on Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley's ruling that granted the Public Beach Coalition's request to place two questions on the March 13 ballot. The coalition wants voters to decide whether to keep building height on the city's 11-acre beach to five stories and limit leases on the public land to 50 years.

 

The city's appeal to the 4th District Court of Appeal ended a day filled with legal and political maneuvering on both sides, which sued each other Dec. 21. The city council met Thursday morning behind closed doors and voted to file the appeal.

Meanwhile, the coalition was at the courthouse filing a motion to compel the city to send the ballot language to the supervisor of elections office.

Kelley granted the coalition's motion, which required the city to send the ballot language to election officials by 4 p.m. Thursday, and the city filed its appeal.

"Until we get the stay lifted, everything is on hold," said John Jorgensen, the coalition's attorney. The coalition, which consists mostly of Singer Island residents, was formed to gather enough signatures to have the questions placed on the March ballot.

Jorgensen has already filed a motion requesting Kelley to lift the stay. He hopes Kelley will hold a hearing on the motion today.

"We anticipated they were going to file an appeal," he said. "We have some pretty good arguments for lifting the stay. I'm confident in our position."

Councilwoman Liz Wade said the council voted to appeal the case in order to protect its city charter. Kelley's ruling said state law trumps Riviera Beach's charter when it comes to placing charter amendments on the ballot.

Under state law, the coalition only needed to gather signatures from 10 percent of the city's registered voters to put the questions on the ballot. But the charter calls for 15 percent and requires the coalition to follow a series of steps before putting the issues before voters.

Wade said the council was advised by its attorneys that Kelley's decision could have a far-reaching impact, making municipal charters moot across Florida.

"This is an important test case. We can't let this go unchallenged," Wade said. "We can't let this decision vacate our charter."

Wade also said the city won't fight the coalition if Kelley lifts the stay. The intent is not to keep residents from putting the questions on the ballot but to protect the integrity of the charter, she said.

The legal battle between the city and the coalition began Dec. 21, three days after the council struck a deal with Catalfumo to lease the city's beach for 50 years. After three years of negotiations, Catalfumo won the right to raze the aging mall and replace it with a 28-story Marriott condo-hotel and 60,000 square feet of shops and restaurants.

If voters approve the ballot questions, the Ocean Mall project would likely die. Catalfumo couldn't afford to build a five-story condo-hotel, and he would lose the right to sell condos on the public beach.

Catalfumo filed a motion to intervene in the case to protect his interests as a developer. But Kelley denied the motion.