An Ethical Variance

How do you get a zoning problem fixed in the city of Hollywood? You just have to hire the people who make the decisions.

Even by the raucous standards of the Hollywood City Commission, real-estate attorney David Mankuta's bellicosity at the May 19 meeting was astonishing. Mankuta later apologized, but he may end up even sorrier yet.

His behavior revived charges that, as a member of a powerful city real-estate board, he had a conflict of interest when he voted in 1996 to extend the use of a temporary parking lot for a client he and his firm were privately representing. Critics say his belligerent advocacy for another client at last month's meeting was part of the same pattern of ethically clueless conduct.

Mankuta had heard that a group of beachfront residents were pressing the city to deny his client, Antonio Patullo, the right to lease a 2000-square-foot space at 301 S. Surf Rd. to Frenchie's Cafe, the rowdy Quebecois dance hall. Frenchie's has been looking for a new home since the city recently demolished its former quarters at Johnson Street and the beach. But the neighbors were horrified at the prospect of Frenchie's blaring music and intoxicated dancers in the middle of their quiet residential stretch on the south end of the Broadwalk. Three dozen zealous opponents were raring to testify at the meeting last month.

Before they could speak, Mankuta hustled to the microphone and argued that any official consideration of the issue was improper because it wasn't on the agenda. When Commissioner John Coleman started to respond, the middle-aged lawyer rushed to the microphone again, slammed his leather portfolio down with a loud crack, glared at Coleman, and barked, "Let's go, pal," as if challenging Coleman to a fistfight. Mayor Mara Giulianti threatened to have the police give Mankuta the heave-ho before he finally sat down.

Mankuta's behavior was particularly surprising because he's a current member and former chairman of the Board of Appeals and Adjustment, the body that grants valuable exemptions, known as variances, from zoning rules. He was appointed by the city commission and is in his second three-year term. Coleman and several neighbors who opposed the relocation of Frenchie's to Patullo's building say it is highly inappropriate for a member of the board which rules on variances to represent a client who may soon be applying for one.

But this wouldn't be the first time. During Mankuta's tenure on the appeals board, his partner, Wilson Atkinson, twice persuaded the board members to grant Patullo parking variances to open a restaurant at 301 S. Surf Rd. Mankuta declared a conflict of interest and recused himself from voting both times, as required by state law. Yet Mankuta has voted on at least two variance requests involving another client of his law firm.

The Board of Appeals and Adjustment is one of many unpaid citizen boards that are little-known to the public but make important decisions about real-estate development. Business interests know how important it is to get the "right" people appointed to the board. Thus seats are carefully controlled by the city commissioners, who rely on campaign contributions from development interests. Not surprisingly, many appointees are attorneys, realtors, and architects who have overlapping business relationships with the developers who come before them seeking favorable decisions.

That's why the State of Florida's code of ethics requires public officers, including citizen board members like Mankuta, to refrain from voting on any measure in which they have a conflict of interest. But it's largely an honor system. They are supposed to declare a conflict and step aside on any vote that would affect their private economic interests or those of the entity by which they are employed or retained. Likewise they cannot hold any job or contract that creates a continuing conflict between their private interests and public duties. But only 14 officials in the state last year were found to have violated conflict rules -- which shows how narrowly drawn and seldom-enforced the code is.

John Coleman has a strict view of conflict of interest. "If you're in the business of making deals with developers, you don't have an arm's-length relationship, and you shouldn't be on the [appeals] board," he says.

Not everyone agrees. Having knowledgeable people from the real-estate industry on such boards is extremely important because they don't waste time searching for information, says Louis Orosz, a Davie zoning consultant who has served on two Broward County real-estate boards. Still, he acknowledges that many people seek to get on the boards because it "unquestionably" helps their private practices. "You get to be known as someone who has the contacts and knows what's going on," he says.

Mankuta's record demonstrates the potential for problems. In two variance cases involving his law firm's client George Zinkler, owner of Martha's Restaurant on North Ocean Drive, and Zinkler's associate Gus Boulis, Mankuta did not recuse himself during appeals board votes. Both variance requests, one in 1996 and one last year, were strongly opposed by community residents at the north end of the Hollywood beach. Mankuta voted in favor of Zinkler and Boulis both times.

As a result of the 1996 vote, which took place when he was chairman of the appeals board, Mankuta is now facing a formal complaint to the Florida Commission on Ethics alleging that he violated rules. Steve Welsch, president of the Beach Defense Fund, a resident group, charged this month that Mankuta was Zinkler's attorney of record on another matter when he voted to grant Zinkler a variance extending his use of a temporary parking lot. Welsch's proof is a September 16, 1996, letter to the city code-enforcement board, signed by Mankuta, asking that a hearing involving Zinkler be rescheduled.

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