Mayor Lois Frankel delivers a threat the way other people deliver a kiss. She glides in close, into the personal space normally known only to lovers. Her voice assumes those same low, intimate tones, so quiet that you dare not step back, for fear of missing a word.

If you happen to be a reporter, it's best to clutch your tape recorder close to your chest — the only vantage point that can provide reliable witness. And because the mayor is holding her finger a few inches from your chin, or because her eyes flash with such hypnotic fury into your own, she may not even notice that the tape is running.

More likely, she doesn't care. By 9 p.m. on February 26, Frankel has already been castigated for the better part of the past three hours, first by a seemingly endless queue of mad-as-hell West Palm Beach residents, then by Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell, the official most adept at provoking Frankel's famous temper. Whatever patience and restraint the mayor had when this meeting started, she's spent it all.


Mayor Lois Frankel

But then, there may be no good time to ask the mayor a question that promptly makes her come unhinged.

The question? We'll get to that in a minute.

Only a few months ago, Lois Frankel's re-election seemed a forgone conclusion. Sure, she'd made enemies on Clematis Street with merchants and revelers, and the construction quagmire has strangled downtown longer than it should have. But Frankel had big, bold plans for West Palm Beach — a new City Hall and library, plus a waterfront park fit for a post card. A bulging campaign purse would help Frankel remind voters of her grand vision.

Then, just as the mayoral campaign began, Frankel started slipping. Her City Center project would cost taxpayers roughly triple the $50 million figure Frankel first projected. In November, attorney Al Zucaro, a former commissioner, announced he'd challenge Frankel for mayor. And when in February a grand jury issued a scathing assessment of the town, saying that a "pay-to-play" environment existed that encouraged developers to fatten Frankel's election coffers, the news dovetailed perfectly with Zucaro's campaign message of reform.

But Frankel's invincibility has also taken a hit because of serious questions raised about how much of the city's future she's put in the hands of a friend.

During Frankel's four-year reign as mayor of West Palm Beach, no one has risen as rapidly and as mysteriously up the City Hall chain of command as Joan Goldberg.

Frankel met Goldberg during the 2003 mayoral campaign. "The mayor called in Joan to be advised about various policies so she could understand what the issues were," says Michael Singer, a part-time Delray Beach artist who has worked closely with Goldberg. "She was very impressed by what Joan brought forward."

In October 2003, Frankel hired Goldberg as "cultural affairs coordinator," a title that had not existed in the administration of the previous mayor, Joel Daves. The consulting position paid an annual salary of $70,000. Technically, it was only a part-time job, and Goldberg signed a contract, which freed the city from its usual obligation to interview other candidates and pay a salary prescribed by code.

Goldberg's arrival aroused curiosity — and jealousy — in a city staff still dominated by holdovers from the Daves administration. "You had someone who was working part-time and yet was being paid twice the salary that more qualified, more experienced full-time employees were paid," said one former worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Staffers also noticed how Goldberg got her own office, right next to the mayor's. And though Goldberg's credentials as an urban designer didn't go beyond her bachelor's degree in fine arts from Syracuse University, city staff soon realized that no matter her background, Goldberg ought to be treated with special deference.

"We knew that Joan was very important," says Alice Bojanowski, a transportation planner now working for the Town of Jupiter. "Whatever Joan wants, you better give her, even though we don't want to give it to her because she doesn't know that much about planning and design."

But Bojanowski didn't know just how much sway Goldberg possessed until she attended a June 2004 meeting of an advisory committee formed to select a design firm to develop a one-mile stretch of the city's waterfront into a park. At a cost of roughly $20 million, it would be a centerpiece of Frankel's downtown makeover.

Goldberg had a horse in this race: Michael Singer. As director of art in public places for the Palm Beach County Cultural Council, Goldberg had chosen Singer in 2002 for the $350,000 job of designing a plaza for the county courthouse. Goldberg had also chosen Singer for a project that would redesign Howard Park to better complement the neighboring CityPlace and Convention Center.  

For the purposes of the waterfront project, Singer joined the team of Boston-based designer Jane Thompson and the engineering firm CH2M HILL. This team had Goldberg's unqualified endorsement.

In spring 2004, a dozen international firms with experience in waterfront design submitted bids and made presentations to a selection committee whose 11 members were appointed by the city for their artistic eye and stake in the project's success. In June 2004, Goldberg presided over the committee meeting that would rank the finalists. The two frontrunners were the Singer-Thompson group and Sasaki Associates, a Watertown, Massachusetts, firm that has designed waterfront showcases in Indianapolis and Detroit, among other cities.

Before the committee could vote, Goldberg made an impassioned plea for the Singer-Thompson group. "This, to me, is a team that brought everything to the table," she said. "Jane Thompson for decades has reinvented, reinvigorized one city after another."

Of Singer, Goldberg said: "This is a person who can get his arms around designers and attorneys and the public and really begin to pull together a cohesive unit and thought."

She had little praise for the other frontrunner, Sasaki: "Well-executed designs but, for me, sterile," she said. "Somehow, I don't know if this is a team that can reach into our very soul and bring out the best of who we are."

The scene made a vivid impression on Bojanowski, who says it was "my first experience of seeing how really, really powerful [Goldberg] was."

The committee, however, made its own call: Sasaki earned its top ranking. The Singer-Thompson group ranked second.

But the City Commission had the final say. A month later, it ignored its own citizens' committee and awarded the contract to the Singer-Thompson team.

Commissioner Mitchell, who favored the Sasaki proposal, remembers a conversation she had with Goldberg on the subject. "Joan personally said to me that Michael Singer was on that team, which is why she wanted that team," Mitchell says. "I said, 'Will he work with the Sasaki team?' She said, 'No, he won't work with them. '"

Mitchell also recalls a conversation with the mayor. "Lois said to me, 'Whoever Joan picks, that's who I'm going with. '"

It was Thompson's plan that commissioners praised, but in the years since they gave her firm their endorsement, Thompson has drifted — or has been pushed — further and further from the project. A November headline in the Palm Beach Post declared Thompson "out of the loop" on a waterfront project dominated by Goldberg and Singer.

Reached at her Boston office, Thompson refused to discuss her role, or lack thereof, in the waterfront project, saying only, "I suggest you read what's already been written... and you can draw your own conclusions."

Bojanowski believes cutting Thompson out was always part of the plan. "I suspect that the whole thing was a sham," she says. "It was going to be Michael Singer and Joan Goldberg." Bojanowski is convinced that Goldberg and Singer threw their support behind Thompson purely to "use the cachet of her name."

By that rationale, Thompson, who is being paid through public coffers, is just a figurehead. "Exactly," Bojanowski responds. "And that's why I'm guessing Jane Thompson was absolutely disgusted and didn't want anything to do with it."

Singer denies that Thompson has been pushed out. "It's just that her part of the project — urban planning — is already finished. She and her company defined [the waterfront project], and that was excellent work."

Goldberg initially agreed to speak with New Times but then did not respond to numerous phone calls and e-mail messages.

Perception is the buzzword of the West Palm Beach mayoral campaign, which will come to a conclusion with Tuesday's election.

The Frankel administration has labored to convince West Palm Beach residents that they only perceive an increase in crime, that in fact citywide crime is down, if only slightly. Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics show that burglaries decreased by a percentage point between 2005 and 2006 while during the same period, the total number of murders, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults fell by 4 percent.

So too has the mayor struggled to control the perception that her economic development plans have stalled. Frankel points to a Clematis Street that's safer than when she took office and to a bevy of new downtown condos ready to provide shoppers there and to CityPlace, which has also suffered. But that forecast is all based on the assumption that the condos sell, despite a still-sluggish South Florida housing market, and that today's struggling Clematis merchants and CityPlace stores can weather the current doldrums.  

In the one instance where perception had helped Frankel, it's now turned decidedly against her. During most of the mayor's term, downtown developers perceived it necessary to make generous campaign contributions so that their projects would be fast-tracked by Frankel's administration. This perception helped her raise $400,000 for her campaign, an unheard-of sum in West Palm Beach politics.

But the grand jury's report took a dim view of that state of affairs: "Developers and businesses perceive that the City of West Palm Beach is in fact a 'pay-to-play' city," the report said. "Developers take actions consistent with this conclusion, including the contribution of substantial sums of money to the campaign account of Mayor Lois Frankel."

The mayor's efforts to emphasize the report's positives — that no cause was found to make a criminal indictment — have been roundly jeered. Her response is hardly reassuring in a city that last year witnessed the indictment of two sitting commissioners: Jim Exline on charges he failed to report $60,000 in income and Ray Liberti for accepting more than $70,000 in bribes.

Even Frankel could see this was a major problem so near an election. And she acted fast. Frankel last month circulated a 36-page draft of an ethics code whose principles she asked commissioners to endorse. The draft was almost a carbon copy of Tampa's far-reaching ethics code, using the same section numbers and titles and the same language.

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?

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."

Goldberg, says Singer, is aware of the rumors. "There's a lot of implications — we laugh about it, actually," he says, adding, "I know for a fact that there is no personal relationship between them."

Asked how he knows, Singer admits he's basing that conclusion entirely on his hunches. He says, "If people would just ask the people involved, it would all be over with." Singer predicts that Goldberg would find the question laughable.

Frankel, of course, did not. Asked during a break in the February 26 commission meeting to describe the nature of her relationship with Goldberg, Frankel put her finger inches from the face of a reporter and said: "Let me tell you this clearly, so that you get it right: I have no personal relationship with Joan Goldberg. She works for the city. I've never been to her house. I don't socialize with her. We have had dinner a couple of times after work — and that's it."

We'd heard she'd taken a trip to London with Goldberg. Was it true? "We went on a trip. She's doing the waterfront. We've gone on three trips to look for... you know... different types of amenities along waterfronts. We have a business relationship. If you want to suggest othewise, you better be prepared for a lawsuit. Anybody who knows anything knows that I have a group of social friends — she's not in that circle. They don't even know who the hell she is."

Asked to provide the names of those friends, Frankel went to the City Hall security desk and began dialing a college friend, Judy Ciedel. When Ciedel answers, Frankel explains her predicament: a misguided reporter. "He's insinuating that I have some type of personal relationship with Joan Goldberg. I tried to explain to him that I have a completely separate set of friends... Would you put this guy straight?"

Ciedel, who said she'd met Frankel at Boston University in 1966, said that she'd celebrated children's birthday parties with Frankel's family and has kept in touch with her ever since but that "I have never met Joan Goldberg. I've only read about her in the newspaper."

After Ciedel hung up, the mayor said of Goldberg, "She happens to be a brilliant, capable person that we hired to do a job — and she does it."

The implication that they are romantically involved, Frankel said, is "anti-Semitic and demeaning."

Later, her office sent another denial: "The Mayor does not currently, nor has she ever had a personal private relationship with any employee."

A city spokesman also sent this statement: "Joan Goldberg does not currently nor has she ever had a personal relationship with the Mayor. All contact is strictly on a professional level and revolves around her assigned duties as a consultant to the city."  

Well, we had to ask.

Others tell us they don't dare because Frankel herself is such an intimidating force. Her reputation for digging up dirt on her opposition, for example, makes her out to be West Palm's answer to Karl Rove.

Commissioner Mitchell prefers the analogy of Richard Nixon. Last fall, Mitchell caught wind of a Mississippi-based firm making public records requests to learn more about her work as an investment banker, particularly in reference to her firm dealing with companies that have also done business with West Palm Beach.

Mitchell had her brother research the company. It turned out to be a Democratic Party operative specializing in opposition research. Mitchell, who is a Republican, blamed Frankel for the plumbing operation.

Frankel, a Democrat, didn't deny Mitchell's charge. "I read in the newspaper that you were going to run for mayor — and part of my process is to do research," Frankel said. "It's something that's typical."

It was "a politically motivated attempt to start digging up dirt on me," Mitchell said during an hour-plus diatribe at the February 26 commission meeting. "Investigating another city commissioner is the lowest form of impropriety."

Zucaro's taken his own shots from Frankel, and he's not shy about it: "She can kiss my ass, and that's a quote," he says.

But for the most part, the campaign has been less than rough-and-tumble and mostly one-sided: It's generally been a contest of Lois Frankel versus herself.

The headquarters of the Zucaro for Mayor campaign is tucked into a ground-floor office suite in the 801 S. Olive building, near Dixie Highway. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early February, the candidate's wife, Maria, is here, squinting at the computer mockup of a flier that will show her husband next to a chainlink fence, a grave expression on his Italian face. His suit jacket is slung over his back, and his ample stomach strains his white shirt into a crescent shape.

"Can't they do some beautification?" Maria asks about the photo.

"No!" the candidate answers. "We're not handing out stale cookies here. I'm mean — but not too lean." He thinks the shot makes him look like an extra from The Sopranos, and that's apparently a good thing.

Zucaro's campaign for mayor has been quiet but cunning. He seems to realize that the pressure is squarely on Frankel and that his chief selling point is his not being his opponent. So whatever she does — or would be expected to do — Zucaro usually does the opposite.

On this day, Zucaro and Bob Beaulieu, a candidate for commissioner, plan to walk a south-end neighborhood they say has been long forgotten by the Frankel administration, perhaps because it's dominated by Cuban and Guatemalan immigrants unlikely to vote.

As he steers his royal-blue sedan south on Dixie through Antique Row, Zucaro explains how Frankel is known to West Palm Beach neighborhood activists as the "Queen of Mean" and is too preoccupied with the downtown development community to tend to their concerns.

"I want to convey that I'm a different personality," Zucaro says. "I want to refocus on the neighborhoods." Zucaro's other talking points are just as bland: a ten-year bond to make infrastructure improvements and a rollback of taxes combined with more fiscal restraint. If West Palm Beach is tired of having a flamboyant mayor, Zucaro's the antidote.

Zucaro served on the commission from 1995 to 2002 and in the years since has devoted himself full-time to running his nonprofit, the World Trade Center Palm Beach, which promotes international trade for the region.

Bob Hobbs and Andrea Parmenter, members of the South End Neighborhood Association, meet Zucaro in front of Hobbs' bungalow, which sits at the top of a T-shaped intersection, a few blocks west of Dixie. Hobbs has a problem with cars driving through the intersection and crashing through his front yard. He says that Frankel's administration won't let him post orange traffic cones for aesthetic reasons. So now it's an ideal location for a Zucaro yard sign.

Parmenter has problems with possums and prostitutes, and she has the sneaking suspicion that there are cockfights happening down the block. The possums invaded her home after a neighbor's tree fell over in a hurricane, and the city hasn't enforced its removal. Parmenter calls police three times a day about prostitutes on Dixie, to little effect. But what most upset her was her toddler falling over a broken piece of sidewalk not fixed by Frankel's Public Works Department. So Zucaro's infrastructure soundbite is a hit with her.

After about an hour walking a stretch of several blocks, Zucaro's back is wet with perspiration, and he's hardly met any qualified voters. It's time to go home. Hobbs and Parmenter can tell their neighbors that the mayoral challenger was here.  

Besides, the person doing most of the work for this campaign is Frankel herself.

The grand jury report has made Frankel's $400,000 election look like dirty money, and Zucaro's own lack of campaign funds has looked like a point in his favor.

On February 25, the Palm Beach Post endorsed Zucaro, based almost entirely on Frankel's faults. The following day, Zucaro attends the commission meeting, content to stand in the back of the room — away from the TV 18 camera lens — as the gadflies swarm the mayor. As Frankel and Mitchell screech at each other, Zucaro says under his breath, "This is just fucking absurd."

A few minutes later, he mumbles "What a circus!" and walks out.

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