Area leaders mourning death of former Palm Beach County Attorney Gary Brandenburg
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
PUBLIC OFFICIALS AND community leaders across South Florida are mourning the death of long-time municipal government attorney Gary Brandenburg, who passed away Wednesday. He was 67.
Mr. Brandenburg, an influential lawyer who served as Palm Beach County attorney from 1985 to 1988 and worked at several prominent law firms, had been battling health issues, friends said. A cause of death has not been made public.
His death leaves an immediate void in Pahokee and Clewiston, two Lake Okeechobee cities where he served as city attorney.
At Pahokee City Hall, the flag was lowered to half-staff on Friday. City commissioners who’d gathered Friday morning for a mask-distribution event were among a dozen people who held a prayer vigil for Brandenburg.
"Gary was a great man and a great friend,'' said Pahokee Vice Mayor Regina Bohlen, who was always in lockstep with Mr. Brandenburg in trying to root out political corruption in the city. "He was a true warrior for Pahokee. He loved in Pahokee. He loved everybody in Pahokee. He fought very hard for Pahokee.''
Pahokee Mayor Keith Babb, who was often a target of Mr. Brandenburg's corruption allegations, said he was "saddened" when he heard about his death.
“We did have our differences,'' said Babb, who had tangled with Brandenburg over the past 18 months in a power struggle that surfaced in several city commission meetings, "but you put that aside during a loss like this. You never want to see anyone lose their life. I am sad for him.''
Out of respect for Mr. Brandenburg’s passing, the Feb. 8 City Commission meeting has been canceled, Babb said. When the commission does convene, he said, one of its first orders of business will be to find a new city attorney.
Mr. Brandenburg's influence reached beyond the Glades. Aside from serving as the first Indian River County attorney, he represented some powerful clients over his 42-year career, from U.S. Sugar, Motorola and Palm Beach Aggregates to farmers in the county’s Agricultural Reserve and Republican interests during the 2000 presidential ballot recount.
“My prayers go out to Gary Brandenburg’s family and loved ones. As an attorney in the public sector, his fingerprints will always be on a piece of the communities he loved so much,’’ said Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes Pahokee.
“He was revered,’’ said Denise Nieman, who retired in October after 25 years as Palm Beach County’s longest-serving county attorney. When she joined the county attorney’s office in 1986, she was hired by Brandenburg.
“Gary means so much to me. He is a very special person to me. I am just devastated by what I am hearing,’’ said Nieman, who recalled Mr. Brandenburg attending her retirement party a few months ago.
“He was a great mentor and his passing is an incredible loss. I learned a lot from him.’’
While he had a reputation as a hard-nosed lawyer, he was affable and often funny, said former County Commissioner Karen Marcus.
“Gary was a friend. I knew him for the entire time I worked for the county which was a total of 38 years. He was a good guy. He was smart,’’ she said. “He had a quirky side to him, too, but don’t we all?”
Nieman said she remembers Mr. Brandenburg for having “a cool, calm and collected demeanor. He was always very diplomatic. Didn't say anything unless it needed to be said. He was revered.’’
That demeanor changed in recent years, according to people who said they were surprised by his sharp public debates with Babb and other city officials at Pahokee City Commission meetings.
In December, after the city commission accepted his recommendation to do so, he asked the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee Pahokee’s March elections and accused Babb of voter fraud.
Bohlen said she had planned to ask Mr. Brandenburg at next week's city commission meeting if he'd received a response from the DOJ.
"We thought alike. We believed in the same things,'' she said. "So I guess it's carry on. We have good strong commission. We'll just keep moving the city forward in his memory.''
In an interview in January, he said he considered his public service to Pahokee a personal debt. In 2007, the city manager at the time, a former law colleague of his named Mimi McAndrews, offered Mr. Brandenburg the city attorney’s job while he was recovering from a health issue that nearly derailed his career, he said.
“For several years, while I was getting back on my feet, the city of Pahokee supported me,” said Mr. Brandenburg, who said he charged the city a discounted hourly fee of $200.
“I just feel like I owe ‘em something now and I want to clean up the city. That's the only reason I’m doing it.”
Mr. Brandenburg, who was going through a divorce after nearly 28 years of marriage, had lived in North Palm Beach before moving to Palm City in Martin County.
He and his wife have three children.
Bohlen said she spoke Friday to Mr. Brandenburg's son, Dylan, who joined his father's law firm a year ago.
"They're in shock,'' she said of the Brandenburg family. "Dylan said something to me today that really rang true for me. He said, 'My dad was one of the most brilliant men I've ever met.' And I thought that was so very true.''
At City Hall on Friday, a Buddhist organization delivering protective masks for residents re-ordered their drop-off event with city commissioners and offered a prayer for Mr. Brandenburg, Bohlen said.
"They had their head monk and she did a wonderful prayer for Gary,'' Bohlen said. "They did a chant to help his soul go to heaven.''
According to a formal obituary, a memorial service for Mr. Brandenburg will be held Feb. 21 at 11 a.m. at Christ Fellowship South Campus, 5312 Northlake Blvd., Palm Beach Gardens. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the Place of Hope.
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