City attorney's power struggle with Pahokee mayor plays out in toxic political theater, DOJ request
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
AT JUST ABOUT all municipal meetings in Florida, the city attorney sits quietly at the end of the dais, speaking only when asked by elected officials to offer advice, read proclamations and explain ordinances.
In Pahokee, City Attorney Gary Brandenburg does all of that and more.
He fires insults and accusations at the mayor. (“You don’t have the faintest idea what you’re doing!”) He trades barbs with a city commissioner. (“The stuff you're muttering is so outrageous!”) He debates unruly residents in the audience, including the mayor’s brother. (“You keep talking, you’re going to be removed!’’)
It’s been going on for the better part of six months now, an extraordinary public display of toxic political theater, playing out live on YouTube, stirred by a power struggle between Brandenburg, a former Palm Beach County attorney, and the mayor, Keith Babb.
Brandenburg and Babb haven’t been the only city officials lobbing insults and the occasional profanity from the dais, but they're often on the front lines of verbal skirmishes that at times have made city commission meetings roil like an episode of the “Jerry Springer Show” .
For the latest salvo, Brandenburg fired a bazooka blast: At the Dec. 14 commission meeting, he accused the mayor of voter fraud and persuaded the city commission to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee the March 8 election when Babb and his lone ally on the commission, Clara Murvin, are up for re-election.
Babb, seeking a third term as mayor, is being challenged by Vice Mayor Regina Bohlen, one of his most vocal opponents and a staunch Brandenburg supporter.
Brushing off the fraud allegations, the mayor has sought to portray Brandenburg as a city attorney gone rogue, a spiteful outsider “running the city into the ground” in his pursuit of payback for being fired from the same job nearly three years ago.
“Brandenburg is actually controlling three commissioners, telling them how to vote, what to say, when to say it,” Babb told WPTV a few months ago. “He’s taken total control, almost like a dictatorship, of the city of Pahokee.’’
Brandenburg, re-hired July 23 in a disputed meeting that sparked a lawsuit accusing three commissioners who support him of Sunshine Law violations, says he’s only trying to root out corruption that has festered under Babb, who was first elected to the commission in 1991.
While his style in Pahokee may lack the decorum exhibited by city attorneys in other towns, he insists he’s acting in the city's best interests.
And if he raises his voice, he said, that’s because he’s either trying to correct false statements made by Babb and Murvin or chastising the mayor for refusing to silence unruly residents who interrupt commission business from the audience.
“I refuse to sit there and keep my mouth shut as the mayor and his cronies lie to the public. That's why I am so vocal,’’ Brandenburg said in an interview.
"I WANT TO CLEAN UP THE CITY"
Brandenburg, 67, has 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.
He could just say the hell with it and walk away from Pahokee and focus on helping his son take over the law firm, now based in Stuart, that he started not long after serving as Palm Beach County attorney from 1985 to 1988.
But he said he considers 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 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 Brandenburg, who said he charges 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.”
Despite his history with Pahokee, many residents consider him an outsider. And some, including Babb, who is Black, believe racism is at the heart of the turmoil, a contention bitterly disputed by his opponents, including Brandenburg, who is white.
On Oct. 26, Murvin accused a man in the audience of flipping his middle finger at her: “Mr. Sam shot the bird at me,’’ she said, referring to Sam McKinstry, a white resident who is on probation after pleading guilty to charges of threatening with violence and harassing Black city leaders in August 2020.
Like Babb, Murvin is Black, as is nearly 60 percent of the 5,500 residents in the city on the east side of Lake Okeechobee north of Belle Glade. Hispanics make up nearly 25 percent of the population, whites about 13 percent.
Brandenburg, Vice Mayor Regina Bohlen and City Manager Greg Thompson are white.
Two other Pahokee commissioners, Sara Perez and Juan Gonzalez, are Hispanic. They support efforts by Bohlen and Brandenburg to, in their words, root out corruption.
Brandenburg and Thompson don’t live in Pahokee. Thompson is vice mayor of Clewiston, about 30 miles from Pahokee, on the southwest corner of the big lake in Hendry County. Clewiston’s city attorney is Brandenburg.
Babb, Murvin and their supporters have raised questions about Thompson’s qualifications, noting that he’d never worked as a city manager until Brandenburg recruited him to take the Pahokee job.
Thompson worked as a power plant operator for U.S. Sugar for 30 years and volunteered for 24 years as an auxiliary deputy with the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office.
He said he has the skills needed to move Pahokee forward after the previous full-time city manager, Chandler Williamson, resigned following a controversial six-year tenure marked by three inspector general audits criticizing his handling of city money and authority.
While city manager, Williamson often clashed with Brandenburg, not much different than the way Brandenburg has been clashing with Babb over the past few months.
Williamson announced his resignation on March 23, long after Benny Everett and Felisia Hill — two Black city commissioners who’d often voted with Babb and Murvin — chose not to seek re-election.
They were replaced at the polls on March 9 by Perez and Gonzalez, who joined Bohlen in creating a new majority on the commission, often in lock step with the recommendations of Thompson and Brandenburg and to the frustration of Babb, Murvin and their supporters.
Just as Babb and his supporters have accused Brandenburg of overstepping his duties as city attorney and telling three commissioners what to do, Brandenburg supporters say Babb often oversteps, or tries to overstep, his authority and makes questionable moves.
Before the new commissioners could be sworn in on March 23, Babb re-ordered the agenda so the outgoing commissioners could allow Williamson to resign and therefore be eligible to receive a $67,000 severance payment.
Had Williamson been fired, as the new city commissioners planned, he would not have been eligible for the payment, which the city commission is trying to recover through a lawsuit filed Oct. 25 on the city’s behalf by Brandenburg.
"NO DIFFERENT THAN WHAT HAPPENED IN WASHINGTON."
Though Brandenburg’s career with Pahokee started in 2007, it came to a brief end at a city commission meeting in April 2019 when Babb re-ordered the agenda so the commission could vote to fire Brandenburg before he could present a critical report about Williamson.
Moments after he was fired, Brandenburg was replaced by attorney Burnadette Norris-Weeks, who happened to be sitting in the audience. Many residents accused Babb of violating the Sunshine Law to conspire with other commissioners. Brandenburg retreated and stewed for the next two years.
But when the new commissioners took office March 23, Norris-Weeks’ days as Pahokee city attorney were numbered.
On July 19, she was fired on a 3-2 vote. But Norris-Weeks wouldn't leave right away. She claimed her contract with the city had a clause requiring she be given 90-days notice before being terminated.
The three commissioners had a different interpretation, saying the clause means she could stay for up to 90 days unless the commission hires a new attorney sooner. They tried to vote July 19 to seek an immediate replacement, but Babb, citing unruliness in the audience, ended the meeting before a vote could be taken.
Four days later, Bohlen, Perez and Gonzalez called an emergency meeting and voted 3-0 to hire Brandenburg. The meeting, which Babb or Murvin did not attend, was held in the parking lot outside the council’s meeting chambers because Babb had ordered the doors locked.
That set the stage for an extraordinary and particularly unruly city commission meeting July 27.
Sitting side by side at the city attorney’s table (which had been moved off the dais as a coronavirus precaution) were Norris-Weeks and Brandenburg, each insisting they were the city attorney – often raising their voices to outshout and countermand one another, creating a chaotic cacophony.
Brandenburg often used an insolent tone with Babb during the 20-minute clash, prompting Babb to try, unsuccessfully, to order seven sheriff’s deputies to remove Brandenburg from the room.
“If the governor doesn’t remove these three (new commissioners) and probably disbar the city attorney, I don’t know what can happen,’’ an exasperated Babb said before invoking last year’s Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol: “To allow them to disrupt this proceeding, it’s no different than what happened in Washington.’’
After people in the audience refused to stop shouting, Babb ordered the meeting adjourned and a sheriff’s deputy started to clear the room.
An edited version of the meeting can be seen in the link below:
But not everyone left right away and both sides continued exchanging accusations, which can be seen in this video, edited from footage shot by independent journalist Max Maldonado:
"I HAVE NEVER, EVER, EVER USED DRUGS!"
Babb, citing potential violence from the political tensions, declared two states of emergency in August banning, among other things, city commission meetings. He said the declarations were necessary for public safety; his opponents said they were meant to prevent the three commissioners from taking any action.
The three new commissioners held at least one other meeting outside of City Hall, to protests from Babb supporters.
A citizens group filed a lawsuit, settled last month, accusing Bohlen, Gonzalez and Perez of Sunshine Law violations stemming from the July 23 meeting.
Babb supporters also launched a petition to remove Bohlen in a recall election, which a judge has scheduled for Feb. 1.
The locks at City Hall were changed. There were problems getting the computer codes needed to access city records.
And bad feelings on both sides lingered into the fall, often spilling out at commission meetings with Babb and Murvin exchanging insults and accusations with Brandenburg from the dais over issues both serious and petty.
Among the highlights, or, according to many residents, lowlights:
Babb and Murvin called the other three commissioners “puppets” and “bobbleheads.” They raised questions about why Brandenburg’s name is on a scoreboard at a local football field, unaware his law firm’s $1,000 donation helped pay for the scoreboard.
Brandenburg chastised the mayor for unsightly welcome signs at the entrance to the city, for his failure to respond to years of requests by residents for a children’s park and for failing to adopt a rollback rate that would have held the line on city tax bills.
Some accusations got personal.
“Mr. Brandenburg is experiencing some issues he has to address. We’re not psychologists or psychiatrists,’’ Babb said at one meeting.
At the Sept. 28 commission meeting, Babb started to bring up questions Brandenburg had tried to ask a few days earlier in a deposition in the lawsuit brought by the citizens group.
“Are you sure you want to do that in public?’’ Brandenburg asked tersely. “You need to think about that.’’
The mayor continued. “Mr. Brandenburg alluded or alleged in his questioning that I was somehow a drug dealer or drug user and he questioned my finances.''
Brandenburg interrupted: “Hey, I got an idea,’’ he yelled to Babb, “let’s go right now down to the hospital and get a blood test. ... We can go right now.’’
Babb went on to say he has “never, ever, ever used drugs and never ever have I been a drug dealer.’’
After defending his finances, he made a motion to fire the city attorney, prompting Brandenburg to mutter, “Good luck.’’
When the motion failed on a 2-3 vote, Brandenburg laughed out loud.
An edited video of the meeting can be seen in this clip:
"YOU'RE NOTHING BUT A GNAT IN MY EAR!''
At the same meeting, Murvin implored Brandenburg to stop talking, prompting an insolent reply from the city attorney.
“I wish the attorney would just sit there and be the attorney. Normally in cities they be quiet,’’ she said.
Brandenburg replied, “Why don’t you get a blow-up doll and set it here?’’
There have been plenty of times commissioners have sniped at each other instead of at the city attorney.
“You’re nothing but a gnat in my ear,’’ Babb snapped at Bohlen, seated next to him a few feet away, after she implored him to stop ignoring a motion to call a vote.
Last March, before the new commissioners were sworn in, Babb tried to persuade the commission to appoint Murvin to another term as vice mayor.
The vote might have gone through if Bohlen hadn’t pointed out to Norris-Weeks a line in the city charter that a vice mayor can’t be appointed until after the new commissioners are sworn in.
After the new commission took office, Bohlen was appointed vice mayor.
Bohlen said Babb’s behavior on the dais, in particular his insults directed at her, prompted her to challenge him for mayor on March 8.
Murvin, who told Bohlen to “shut up” during a November meeting, is up for re-election and being challenged by Henry Crawford Jr., a former city commissioner who lost to Bohlen in 2019.
The seat Bohlen will vacate is being sought by Derrick Boldin, a relative of retired NFL star Anquan Boldin, and Nelson Lopez Jr., whom Bohlen has endorsed.
With so much at stake, Brandenburg said he felt it necessary to advise the city commission to ask the DOJ to oversee the election.
“What can that hurt?’’ Brandenburg said to Babb on Dec, 14. “That would be President Joe Biden’s Department of Justice, (which) certainly you can trust, mayor, would come down and oversee your election. Why would you oppose that?”
Before Babb cast the lone no vote, Brandenburg challenged him again: “Why would you oppose that mayor, to have someone make sure your elections are fair and safe?’’
After the vote, a frustrated Babb yelled out, “You want to put an amendment in there that ex-president Donald Trump was cheated out of the election?’’
At that meeting, and in his letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Brandenburg made vague accusations about “voter harvesting that's being done in the city of Pahokee, in particular through the churches.’’
Babb got nearly half his vote from absentee ballots, also called vote-by-mail ballots, in winning two-thirds of the vote in 2019 against two opponents, records show. By contrast, the two winners in 2021 got about a third of their votes from absentee ballots.
Brandenburg earlier this week said he has not heard back from the DOJ.
"PLEASE, SOMEBODY STEP IN HERE AND HELP US"
Though some see the commission's request to the DOJ as overreach, others consider it reasonable.
“We've tried to move through the ranks to say please help us,’’ Bohlen said in an interview.
“We are overwhelmed with the corruption here. Please, somebody step in here and help us. At this point it has to be somebody coming from outside who doesn't know anyone here. Just some extra eyes.’’
Bohlen said her comments are not meant as criticism of Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Wendy Sartory Link, whose staff was hired to help run the most recent city election last March, which “ran smoothly.’’
Link said she sent additional staff to help at the polls after “some people in Pahokee raised concerns and asked us to do that.’’
In the letter to Garland, Brandenburg lobbed an accusation at Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg.
“We are requesting your help, as our local State Attorney consistently ignored voter fraud allegations. Despite numerous complaints, including those by the Supervisor of Elections of Palm Beach County, his office has failed to bring a single voter fraud case during his tenure,’’ Brandenburg wrote.
A spokesperson for Aronberg issued this statement in response to a request for comment: “Mr. Brandenburg has never once complained to this office about voter fraud in Pahokee. His self-serving letter is inaccurate and offensive.”
In all elections, Link said, her office carefully reviews mail-in ballots to make sure they’re valid.
“Obviously, Mr. Brandenburg is concerned about the elections out there and believes there is something untoward going on,’’ she said, adding she “may not be privy” to information Brandenburg may have to support his allegations.
Brandenburg’s DOJ letter also drew a sharp rebuke from Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district includes Pahokee.
“You’re insinuating every single vote taken for every single office ever on a ballot in Pahokee over the last 30 years is fraudulent yet, you’re only targeting one elected official,’’ McKinlay wrote in an email to Brandenburg last month.
“I don’t want anything to do with your personal vendetta. If our state attorney sees no reason to move forward and our supervisor of elections (appointed by the Governor, mind you) is not moving forward with an investigation, I trust them.’’
Both sides agree on one thing: The turmoil, at a time when the city is trying to prepare for its centennial celebration in March, has been embarrassing.
“It should be a joyful time, but we are in a sad state. We are very, very, very divided,’’ Babb, who often wears an "I Love Pahokee" button on his jacket, said at an August meeting.
“We claim we all love Pahokee but we’re on TV and it doesn't paint a very good picture. We have been set back 10 years, folks.’’
Brandenburg said he looks forward to a day when he can sit at the Pahokee dais without saying a word, which he said is often the case when he sits in with the Clewiston City Commission.
“That’s my preference, to go to those meetings and not say a word,” he said.
But that doesn’t seem possible in Pahokee as long as Babb and Murvin are on the commission, he said.
“They just constantly lie and make stuff up and I refuse to sit there with my mouth shut and let them lie like that,” he said. “When they repeat these lies two or three times, everyone believes they are true.’’
The City Commission meets again on Jan. 10, 2022.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years in the newspaper business, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.
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