How did the West Palm Beach mayor's reelection attempt turn into such a fright?

The same, that is, except for one notable omission: the entire section on "fraternization" in Tampa's code is absent from the copy Frankel circulated. In Tampa's code, that section forbids public officials from hiring a person with whom they have a "close personal relationship," defined by the code as "dating, cohabitation, and/or having an intimate sexual relationship," and it "applies regardless of the sexual orientation of the employees involved."

The ethics code advanced by Frankel would still require public officials to disclose the names of those with whom they have close personal relationships.

Why would Frankel, who is divorced and has a son studying at Columbia University in New York, not want West Palm Beach's new ethics code to include a fraternization clause?

In his bid for mayor, Al Zucaro's greatest asset has been Lois Frankel.
In his bid for mayor, Al Zucaro's greatest asset has been Lois Frankel.

Of the South Florida municipalities that televise their commission meetings on a government channel, West Palm Beach may be the only one that could sell advertising. The meetings are that compulsively watchable.

Or at least two portions of the meeting are: the period reserved for public comment and for commissioner remarks.

At the February 12 meeting, Paul McCullough, a salty, old, former Florida Highway patrolman, takes a familiar tone with the mayor, calling her "Lois" until she interrupts him to demand he observe the meeting's decorum for addressing officials by titles or surnames. "When someone comes up here and calls us by our first names," the mayor says, "there is a perception that we are buddies."

McCullough answers "OK, Frankel" and gets a round of laughs from the meeting's large anti-Frankel contingent.

Michael Cleveland is the Carrot Top of West Palm Beach, bringing to the podium a rucksack full of props he can put to comedic effect. At the February 12 meeting, he ends his remarks by placing a roll of toilet paper on the dais, for Frankel's use, apparently. "Thanks, we can always use extra toilet paper at City Hall," she cracks. To the February 26 meeting, Cleveland brings a toilet seat, which he opens on the podium before he begins a slideshow presentation that illustrates the disparity between houses built in the city's white neighborhoods and those in the black neighborhoods.

Alex Saylor is boldest of all. She totes the Tampa ethics code to the February 12 meeting and points out that the section on "fraternization" is missing. It gets a reaction from Frankel.

"I don't usually respond to comments," Frankel responds. "Tell me who it is that I have a close, intimate personal relationship with — and put it in writing."

So at the next meeting, Saylor begins her comment period by distributing copies of articles from the Palm Beach Post, including a July 2005 society column that, midway through, casually drops a bombshell: that "WPB Mayor Lois Frankel is vacationing in the Berkshires with trusted city hall advisor Joan Goldberg."

Like the rumors swirling around recently elected Gov. Charlie Crist, it's the whispering campaign that seems to grip West Palm Beach, even if no one dares ask Frankel directly: Is there something more to Joan Goldberg's meteoric rise to power in Frankel's administration and Frankel's leaving out a fraternization clause from her proposed ethics rules than simply a case of mutual admiration between the two women?

Frankel's two most formidable public foils, Commissioner Mitchell and mayoral candidate Zucaro, won't go near the question.

"I am totally not talking about this," Mitchell says when asked by New Times whether she knows of a relationship between the mayor and Goldberg.

Mitchell, who regularly gets into screaming matches with Frankel on the dais, is not known for pulling punches. Asked to explain why she and other Frankel critics consider this one subject off-limits, Mitchell says: "People don't want to be politically incorrect... If it were a man and woman, it would have been written about four years ago. And not in such a subtle way as, 'They're vacationing in the Berkshires. '"

The Palm Beach Post has handled the issue with extreme delicacy. Editorials almost wink at readers, such as a reference in a November 2004 column: "The inappropriate roles of Joan Goldberg — the mayor's friend and confidante — also should concern the public."

Zucaro also won't go there. "I don't want to bring up a question that will bring up a sexuality issue," he says. "But what is fair game is, 'Why would [Goldberg] get that position?'"

Zucaro acknowledged, however, that "the rumor persists that this is a girlfriend-girlfriend relationship and one of the perks is employment with the city and involvement with the waterfront project. This is clearly the 500-ton gorilla in the room that no one wants to talk about."

He later added: "They obviously vacation together. They socialize together. They spend a lot of time together. And now [Goldberg] has been given a job... Is that related to their relationship? That's a legitimate question."

The grand jury probing corruption in city hall evidently deemed the question relevant enough to ask those who testified about the rumored relationship, according to sources involved in that investigation. The final report, however, made no mention of Goldberg.

Few have worked as closely with Goldberg as Michael Singer, the designer of the waterfront project. As to whether Goldberg and Frankel have a personal relationship, Singer insists, "There's no there, there."

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