A Long Political Squabble Over a Short Pier

Steve Gonot tries to cure Deerfield Beach of a political sickness.

There have been lots of stories in the newspapers about the political feud in Deerfield Beach, so you probably know the basics. City Commissioner Steve Gonot wants to get rid of City Manager Larry Deetjen. Deetjen's forces are trying to kick Gonot out of office. Armed guards have been hired to protect City Hall from potentially violent political operatives.

You know, pretty standard stuff.

But it's much more complicated — and interesting — than that. The real story, the one you haven't heard, involves the future of a popular beach, where a dark political shadow is gathering near the glistening sun and lulling surf. It includes allegations of bribery and an ongoing State Attorney's Office investigation. And it's full of powerful people applying pressure to parcel out a piece of publicly owned paradise.

Steve Gonot says he spurned a bribe, and that's made him a target.
Steve Gonot says he spurned a bribe, and that's made him a target.

To understand why Deerfield has become a cauldron of conflict, you must go back to the start, to early January 2004. That was when Commissioner Gonot first learned about a proposal to build a restaurant on the publicly owned Deerfield pier.

He says it was a setup from the beginning.

An ex-friend and campaign supporter named Ben Troxell asked him to meet for dinner at the upscale and popular Pete's Restaurant in Boca Raton. The pretense: that the restaurant had spectacular holiday decorations and Gonot should see them before they were taken down.

While they ate in the opulent eatery, the owner of the place, Pete Boinis, joined them. Boinis and Troxell were buddies. Boinis began talking about his plan to sublease the city-owned Deerfield Beach Pier and build a first-class two-story restaurant there.

Gonot says he thought it sounded like a decent idea. Boinis, after all, was no schlub. He'd owned Pete and Lenny's nightclub, which for many years had been one of the most popular party spots in Broward County. Gonot says Boinis told him he still carried a bullet inside his body from the club. The shooting had something to do with a dispute between partners.

Boinis was also a multimillionaire who was known to be good friends with important people like the late founder of Wendy's, Dave Thomas, and South Florida residents Lee Majors and Pete Rose.

So Gonot was impressed, but he looks back now and thinks how perfect it all was, how the whole evening at Pete's was obviously planned to help Boinis get his hooks into him. "Never believe in coincidences," the commissioner says.

During the next several months, Deetjen and Mayor Al Capellini promoted Boinis' plan vigorously. Gonot also supported it, with the stipulation that his vote would ultimately depend on the details of the plan.

Over time, those details trickled in, and they weren't encouraging. Gonot learned that the restaurant was planned to be 18,000 square feet of space with 500 seats. To the commissioner, that sounded too large for the beach area, which is already often paralyzed by traffic. But Boinis, during his periodic visits to City Hall, assured Gonot that he'd take care of the traffic and parking problems.

Even as beach activists lined up against the project, Gonot continued to give his tacit support to it. It was the plan's financials that changed his mind. The commissioner learned that Boinis was to get a 54-year lease and would pay $150,000 a year in rent — exactly what the current tenant was paying. Gonot saw no advantage for the city, especially since by the time taxpayers took over the building — in the 2050s — it would probably be next to worthless.

But what about those renovations to the pier? Well, Gonot found out that the renovations Boinis was promising, which the developer said would cost as much as $2 million, were to be reimbursed by the city through reductions on his rent.

"It became clear to me that this was a sweetheart deal," Gonot says. "This was a bad deal for the city."

As he struggled with his decision, a lawyer named Kirnan Moylan asked him to lunch. Moylan represented billionaire Toyota distributor James Moran, who was listed as the 562nd richest man in the world this year by Forbes magazine. Moran, whose JM Family Enterprises is based in Deerfield Beach, is one of the most powerful men in South Florida.

Gonot says he walked into JB's restaurant on the beach expecting to find Moylan alone. But there with the lawyer was Deetjen, the city manager.

"Kirnan let it be known that JM Family Enterprises is watching the pier restaurant situation very closely and they think it could be a good thing for Deerfield Beach," Gonot recalls. "He said if I was to be opposed to it, that wouldn't be a good thing because, if the tax base doesn't grow, Moran will look to move elsewhere."

Deetjen, meanwhile, backed up Moylan's point of view.

"I'm thinking, 'What the hell is Larry doing there?'" Gonot recalls. "He's supposed to be working for me, and he's helping twist my arm on what I should do."

After the lunch, Gonot told Deetjen and City Attorney Andy Maurodis that he felt that the city manager's presence at the lunch was inappropriate. Deetjen, who maintains that the Boinis deal was a bargain for the city, says he attended the lunch at Moylan's request and wasn't there to influence Gonot. "At that lunch, we focused on what the project could bring Deerfield Beach," the manager says. "I just wanted to make [Gonot] aware of the facts. My job is to make sure that all commissioners have the right factual information."

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