Did Coconut Creek Mayor Violate New State Law?

A Coconut Creek man has filed a complaint with the Florida Attorney General's Office alleging that Coconut Creek Mayor Marilyn Gerber has violated a new Florida law that prohibits taxpayer money from being spent to advocate for the passage or defeat of any issue going to a public vote.

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Gerber
And I think activist James Freeman has a great case. He writes that in a recent edition of Coconut Creek Life, which is a sister magazine of Parkland Life, Gerber rails against Amendment 4, which would require voter approval on all amendments to local comprehensive plans. The amendment is aimed, of course, at controlling development in Florida and is vehemently opposed by developers and their lobbyists.

Freeman points out that Gerber, who is also a member of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization, may have more than philosophical reasons for wanting to keep voters out of development business. Her top campaign contributor, he says, is the legal and lobbying firm Ruden McCloskey, which represents developments in the city. Ruden's go-to lobbyist in the city is Dennis Mele, who also happens to be a former Coconut Creek city manager. Gotta love that revolving door.  

The problem: Coconut Creek Life -- a puffy booster magazine published by a founding member of the city's Chamber of Commerce -- receives $60,000 a year from the city to operate. It is delivered to every household in the city. Here's a passage from the magazine's website:  

The philosophy behind Parkland Life magazine so endeared it to the community that a funny thing happened in 2004, the City of Coconut Creek, so impressed with the magazine Parkland Life had become, called [Publisher] Mindi [Rudan] asking for her company to do for their city, what they felt she had so obviously done for the cities of Parkland and Coral Springs: create a magazine with the same editorial integrity, the same concern for the community that would make their city proud. And hence with a $60,000 annual grant from the City of Coconut Creek, Coconut Creek Life was born to rave reviews and another thriving, economically growing city full of now devout LIFE readers.

I think you know how I feel about taxpayers' money being spent on government mouthpieces (i.e., propaganda outlets). The whole setup stinks, and the attorney general better take a good hard look at it. Following is Freeman's news release, which jumps:

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COCONUT CREEK, FL - Once a month residents and businesses in Coconut Creek receive Coconut Creek Life, a glossy full-color magazine featuring local stories and ads, whether they want it or not.

Published by Ryplin Industries, Inc. of Coconut Creek, Coconut Creek Life is the little sister of Parkland Life, a version tailored for Parkland residents. It seems that after seeing Parkland Life, Coconut Creek City Hall liked the idea of having its own magazine. According to Ryplin's website, publisher Mindi F. Rudan was approached by the City to publish a Creek magazine and now receives a $60,000.00 annual grant from the City of Coconut Creek to do so. That works out to $5,000.00 per issue. The magazine also lists the City of Coconut Creek under "contributing photographers." Coincidentally, Rudan is one of the original incorporators of the Coconut Creek Chamber of Commerce, along with Mary Blasi who is the current Coconut Creek Deputy City Manager.

Each month, in a section entitled "A View from the Top," The current mayor gets some space to deliver a message to the community. In the September 2009 issue of Coconut Creek Life, Mayor Gerber took on the highly controversial

Amendment 4 slated for Florida's November 2010 ballot. In her view from the top, Gerber expressed some standard arguments against A4 and suggested that if voters couldn't see that it was a wolf dressed up in Hometown Democracy and apple pie clothes, then perhaps they should not vote at all.

It's no surprise that Gerber is against Amendment 4. Her major campaign contributors are her former City Manager Dennis Mele's current employer, law/lobby firm Ruden-McClosky, alleged to be a conduit for developer and construction industry political donations. [Pulp note: You can drop the "alleged," Mr. Freeman]. Gerber has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. In September of 2008, Gerber and all four other commissioners voted to grant a zoning change to a big box development represented by Mele, in spite of strong protests from area residents. An appeal filed by residents blocked the development and the developer, Jacksonville-based Regency Centers, pulled out of the deal. The appeal is still pending and the outcome will determine the fate of the parcel in question for future development.

What is kind of a surprise is that the Mayor would engage in what appears to be a clear violation of Florida State law, specifically SB 216 that prohibits elected officials from utilizing public funds for campaigning or electioneering purposes. Gerber's platform, in this instance, is subsidized by the City of Coconut Creek.

Creek resident James Freeman feels something needs to be done. Freeman is a member of the Concerned Citizens of Coconut Creek, a nonprofit community group that fought and appealed the Sept. 2008 rezoning. He has filed the following complaint with the State Attorney General's office:

"As a resident of Coconut Creek, Florida, I wish to file a formal complaint against Coconut Creek Commissioner and Mayor Marilyn Gerber and Ryplin Industries, Inc. of Coconut Creek, Florida. In the September 2009 issue of Coconut Creek Life magazine, published by Ryplin Industries, in a monthly column entitled "A View From the Top", Mayor Gerber engages in what I consider to be electioneering against the proposed Amendment 4 on the 2010 Florida ballot. According to the "About Us" section on Coconut Creek Life's website, the magazine receives an annual taxpayer-based grant of $60,000.

This would appear to be a direct violation of Florida SB 216, which specifically prohibits the use of taxpayer money for electioneering purposes. It is my contention that both Mayor Gerber and Ryplin Industries have violated state law in this instance.

I also feel that with all of the media exposure for Amendment 4, this has the potential to be a highly publicized issue, and wonder if similar violations have incurred in any of Ryplin's other publications.

I urge your office to investigate this matter and take appropriate action. I find this misuse of public funds both highly disturbing and threatening to our democratic process."

To the press, Freeman adds: "Why is the City cutting budgets but pays $60,000 to help support this magazine? There are lots of ads, can't the magazine make it on its own? And I strongly disagree when my tax dollars are helping to promote an election-issue agenda my neighbors and I feel is not in our best interest."

Freeman's complaint was filed on 9/14/09. As he awaits the attorney general's response, he is encouraging his fellow residents to voice their concerns as well.


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