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Oyer's youthful walkabout netted him a master's degree in economics from Australia National University and a master's in archaeology from Cambridge. He endured a stint with the Marines and picked up a law degree from the University of Florida. He returned home to South Florida in 1999; he was just 31. He joined the prominent West Palm Beach firm Gunster Yoakley, specializing in large land transactions. With his young wife, Amy (the couple later divorced), Oyer purchased a rundown, two-story, historic, Colonial-style house in the Flamingo Park neighborhood — the place had no cooling, heating, or laundry facilities, but Oyer was delighted to find antique coins in the rafters.
At Gunster Yoakley, two of Oyer's biggest clients were brothers Jeffrey and David Lee. The Lee brothers were buying and selling huge tracts of land in Palm Beach and Martin counties. Oyer describes the Lees as salt-of-the-Earth types who'd been farming most of their lives. David was an ordained minister. "These were not guys living on a yacht," Oyer says. "They drove pickup trucks, sold land at a profit, and gave generously to charity. They were the most honest, decent people I've ever represented." Decent or not, the Lees would eventually land Oyer in a pile of grief.
While Oyer was working to help the Lees acquire property, he half stumbled upon what would become the defining project of his career. He began his new mission with a mysterious email blast to friends and colleagues. He told them he was holding an "urgent" meeting at the Rinker Playhouse. The message didn't reveal the reason for the gathering, but the invitation carried the endorsement of Florida congressmen Alcee Hastings and Mark Foley. A crowd filled the auditorium that night. Oyer pitched a passionate case.
Oyer explained to the crowd that the Palm Beach County Courthouse, built in 1916, had been wrapped in a brutally ugly shell in 1969 to provide extra office space. The old neoclassical courthouse, with its marble wainscoting, mosaic tile and wood floors, columns and capitals, was still in there somewhere, buried under layers of concrete. From the air over downtown West Palm Beach, you could see parts of the original courthouse roof. Nobody knew how much of the building was intact or if what was left was worth saving. With a gleaming new courthouse across the street, the old building was slated for demolition.
"The old courthouse is the only place in Palm Beach County that's relevant to every ethnic and racial group," he told his audience. "Young and old, black and white, rich and poor — everybody came through that building at one time or another, to get married, for jury duty, to pay a ticket or their property tax, to file a complaint or make a record search — whatever you had to do, it was the place you went.
"It would be a tragedy to tear it down," he concluded. "What is our identity? Who are we as a people? Buildings like this one can tell us."
The comprehensive plan needed an $18 million buy-in from the County Commission to pay for the restoration, but not all the commissioners were on board. Oyer lobbied hard to sell them on the project: "I had to win them over one by one," he says now. Commissioner Mary McCarty was a particularly hard sell. "I remember her actually screaming at me at one point," Oyer says of McCarty. The commissioner told him flatly: "I don't think the public wants this."
He needed Commissioner Tony Masilotti's vote too, and Masilotti wasn't much interested in the old courthouse. The two had worked together in the past during Oyer's work with the Lee brothers. Masilotti had also taken an interest in buying land in Palm Beach and Martin counties, and he'd purchased land from the Lees. He gave the Lees a $25,000 down payment on a 3,500-acre property called Nine Gems in Martin County, but the deal came with a stipulation: Masilotti wanted his ownership to remain a secret. Doing so meant that Masilotti could avoid reporting the deal to the IRS, violating federal tax laws.
In return for their cooperation, Masilotti helped the Lees by promoting county approvals on a slew of their properties. Masilotti pressured the diocese of Palm Beach to sell the Lees 50 acres, pushing through traffic approvals so the land could be developed.
Oyer denies that his desire to get Masilotti's support on the courthouse project convinced him to help the commissioner shield his ownership in the land. "There was never any overlap between those two projects," Oyer says emphatically.
In any case, Oyer got Masilotti's support. It came as Oyer launched an overwhelmingly popular grassroots project. He gave more than 500 public lectures on the subject of the courthouse and its place in county history. He engineered an educational campaign in Palm Beach County schools. He hired a former Tallahassee lobbyist, Kelly Laymen, to help build support. His efforts generated thousands of letters to the commission and led to a new requirement for fourth- and seventh-graders: a full semester of Florida history.
In April 2002, the Palm Beach County Commission voted 5-2 to fund the $18.5 million courthouse renovation. McCarty, who voted for it, snipped that lobbying for the project had been "over the top." Masilotti also voted yes.