By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Two Hollywood Planning and Development Review Board members have resigned after being warned by the city attorney of potential conflicts if they continued to serve while doing work for projects needing board approval.
Joseph B. Kaller an architect, and Gary Bloom, an engineer, stepped down after being informed by City Attorney Jeffrey Sheffel in a Jan. 23 email that they “have legal conflicts” because of their membership on the board.
Sheffel told Kaller and Bloom that it was not enough for the two to recuse themselves – as they have done in the past – from voting on matters in which their firms did work on behalf of projects.
“You must either resign you (sic) membership on the Board or cease to represent clients that come before the Board for approvals,” Sheffel said.
The two men quit a few days later.
Neither Kaller, who operates Joseph B. Kaller & Associates of Hollywood, nor Bloom, owner of Fort Lauderdale’s GBB Engineering, responded to phone calls seeking comment. Kaller’s term was to have expired at the end of June. Bloom’s term didn’t expire until June 30, 2016.
In an interview, Sheffel could not provide specific cases in which Kaller or Bloom had done work for clients who appeared before the board. He said, however, that there were several times when both refrained from voting on matters before board that makes final rulings on development projects and zoning issues.
“They have recused themselves,” Sheffel said, “both more than a couple of times, Kaller more so.”
Sheffel began researching conflict issues after being informed that Hollywood’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) had selected Kaller’s firm, in partnership with another group, for work on a proposed 300-vehicle public parking garage at 327 Nebraska St.
In February, the city agreed to sell the half-acre site, which previously housed a fire station, to the CRA for $1.7 million. The project is likely to come before the planning board for review and approval if the project goes forward, Sheffel said.
The city attorney’s opinion was based on prior rulings by the state Commission on Ethics, which were provided to Kaller and Bloom. A key ruling involved a 2011 case out of Vero Beach that held a conflict was created when a planning and zoning board member’s business did work for a client after the client’s matter had come before the board, regardless whether the board member worked on the issue for the client.
In the same case, the commission ruled that a board member should not serve if he has substantial private interests regarding a matter coming before the board and should also refrain from serving if he has employment or contractual agreements that would create a continuing or frequently reoccurring “conflict” with his public duties.
After stepping down, Kaller appeared before the planning and development board on February 13 seeking the board’s approval of a modification on plans for a previously approved townhouse project.
Kaller’s January 27 resignation letter “due to conflicts with the city’s ethics policy,” said it had been an “honor” to serve on the board.
Bloom, on the other hand, initially resisted Sheffel and suggested he ask the city commission to remove Kaller and he from their appointed positions.
“I think you should do some more research on the extent of this far reaching conclusion that you recently reached, since Joe and I have been serving on city board for the past 15 years without this issue being presented,” Bloom said in a Jan. 27 reply email. “You can then explain to the commission why for the past 15 years…we were allowed to serve and recuse ourselves when an item was presented that created a potential conflict arose.”
Sheffel fired back: “Just saying ‘it has always been done that way’ is no argument at all.” He added that if Bloom did not voluntarily resign he would ask the commission to remove him.
“I cannot allow the city to engage in a continuous ethical violation once it has been brought to my attention.”
A short time later, Bloom resigned.
The nine-member planning Board and the city administration have come under criticism recently for supporting a zoning exception for the controversial Ben Gamla Charter School to build a 300-student middle and senior high school in a traffic congested neighborhood across from city hall.
Neighborhood and civic groups objected to the approval. City Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the area where the school will be built, said the board and the city administration are pro development. “There are people on the board who endorse whatever staff recommends,” Hernandez has said.
“Pressure over the recent Ben Gamla approval, and the longstanding practice of these board members recusing themselves due to conflicts of interest finally came to a head,” said Nancy Fowler, secretary for the North Central Hollywood Civic Association.