The Next Ex-Mayor

After two years in office, West Palm Beach Mayor Frankel has little to show except blocked streets

City Commissioner Mitchell, a Republican, is Frankel's toughest critic. She says the mayor's style worked well when Frankel was a lawyer and then again when she served as speaker of the Florida House. But in the executive branch, her approach doesn't fit, Mitchell says: "In the Legislature, she was the grenade thrower. She was shooting hard from both sides. That doesn't work when you're the mayor. Sometimes you need to play nice."

Frankel's bludgeoning style was at least partially to blame for several high-ranking employees' quitting during the past year. Among the 14 employees who left: two assistant city administrators, the city's public information officer, Frankel's secretary, and her personal aide. Many of those who quit or were fired declined to speak about Frankel. "Look," said one former employee, "I have to live and work in this town, and that would not be easy if I said anything bad about Lois."

One former employee said Frankel simply asked too much of her subordinates. "She demanded perfection, and humans are not perfect. If something went wrong, she wouldn't excuse that."

Terry Atherton, assistant city administrator for utilities, was the most recent of the resignations. He left in May, citing in part Frankel's treatment of employees. "She was difficult to deal with, you could say that."

Robin Singer, the city's former planning and zoning administrator, took a similar job in Naples. Singer said she witnessed Frankel's berating her employees for mistakes, and she quit, she says, before she became the target of an attack. "Lois was a very forceful person," Singer says. "Luckily, I was never an object of that."

Perhaps the most significant departure was the resignation, in June 2004, of Nancy Graham, who spent just a year and a half as director of the Downtown Development Authority. Graham, who herself served as mayor from 1995-99, during the city's headiest times, won't discuss what led to her departure from the Development Authority. She would say only, "Lois decided to do things her way." Before hanging up, Graham added: "You've probably figured out my feelings toward her by me not commenting."

In her defense, Frankel says the resignations and firings were no more than is typical for a mayoral term. She says turnover is actually lower under her tenure than in previous administrations, although she cannot provide data to prove it. She blames the public perception that her employees are leaving on the coverage of the Palm Beach Post. "Ask me some original questions," she says, when asked about the resignations. "You want to know about the Palm Beach Post story? I'll take the time and show you. It's an embarrassment to journalism, and they're lucky they didn't get sued."

Frankel blames the Post's coverage for what she says are untrue rumors that she swears loudly around her office and treats her employees poorly. "I don't cuss," Frankel fumes in her office one afternoon. "You can go out there and ask these people. I have cussed out reporters from the Palm Beach Post once or twice, because they don't know how to print the facts. We don't curse around here. We have good times. We have fun, we dance, we play music."

The Post's city beat reporter, Thomas R. Collins, declined to discuss Frankel's comments except to say: "Criticism is common for journalists. I'll let my coverage speak for itself." Meanwhile, Frankel's feud with the Post hit a crescendo recently when she insisted on picking up an editorial board reporter for an appointment they had and then left him stranded at City Hall after lunch. Relations were further strained when the Postquoted Frankel as telling a 9-year-old who asked her for a dollar on the street to get a "J-O-B." Frankel says her comments were taken out of context. "We were walking down the street and we were kidding around," Frankel says. "We were walking on the street, and the little kid was with his parents going to the library, and he came up to me, and he asked me for money. That's all that was. It wasn't anything. It was friendly banter."

Frankel threatened at one point to end an interview with New Times because of questions about the firings and her problems with the Post. Minutes later, though, she calmed down and insisted that she has fun in her office. She cranked up Michael McDonald's rendition of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" from her computer and danced her way out into the lobby, where two secretaries were typing in their cubicles. Frankel dances like somebody having a lot of fun doing it. She twists her hips and shuffles her arms in front of her chest a bit like jabs from a boxer. It's Elaine dancing on the Seinfeld set.

"OK, girls," she said to several women outside her office as she danced in her doorway. "Why don't you show him what happens when people get angry? Show him." One of the secretaries, mildly embarrassed, joined Frankel in the open space between desks. They bumped hips for a minute before the secretary abruptly returned to her work.

"Yeah, that's what we do," the mayor said. "We dance."

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