That didn't take long.
Within days of being handed a political hot potato -- the task of investigating antigay, anti-Muslim Facebook posts made by Roxanna Trinka, a director of the Research Park at FAU -- Palm Beach County Mayor Steven Abrams bungled it, solidifying the county's reputation for official ineptitude.
Trinka, a Boca Raton businesswoman and civic and political activist, had posted the comments on her Facebook page, with security such that they were visible to the general public. Their extreme and inflammatory nature drew immediate reactions from the Research Park's oversight board -- the Florida Atlantic Research and Development Authority (FARDA), where Trinka is a director -- as well as from Research Park partner FAU, on whose College of Engineering and Computer Science advisory board Trinka sat.
Both the Research Park and the College have significant Muslim constituencies. The park's primary developer and operator is owned by a Dubai-based private equity fund that prides itself on adherence to Islamic law. The college's faculty and student body includes a significant number of faculty and students from Muslim backgrounds.
Critics including the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) swiftly called for Trinka's dismissal from her positions. In part, that request is moot, as the college advisory board was disbanded on April 18. At to the Research Park, its board referred the matter to the Palm Beach County Board of Commissioners, which jointly chartered the park with the Broward County Commission.
This left us poised for a civic exercise with great educational potential, addressing important questions: Are Muslims uniformly determined to conquer the world and impose a benighted interpretation of Shari'ah law everywhere? Is the gay rights movement the product of a communist conspiracy? Should someone who espouses beliefs of that sort be allowed to hold an unelected public position? Would dismissing her violate her First Amendment rights?
Trinka has served on the board since 2003, reappointed for a third four-year term in May 2011, with unanimous support by the County Commission, including current commissioners Abrams, Priscilla Taylor, and Paulette Burdick. That puts particular onus on Abrams, who made the motion to reappoint her, and who now sits as the commission's first chair, as county mayor.
Unfortunately, Abrams has led with his chin. If the inquiry were in a court of law and he were the judge, we'd have a mistrial, for ex parte communications by the judge -- in other words, private conversations, outside the court, with parties in the case.
In an email response last week to New Times' questions about the status of the inquiry, Abrams admitted as much. And then went on to defend his transgressions.
Since county code describes grounds for removal from the Research Park board as "misfeasance, malfeasance, or willful neglect of duty," we asked Abrams if that could include offensive speech.
Misfeasance typically refers to conduct on the job, but I'll ask the county attorney to advise. I have not had contact with Ms. Trinka's attorney, but I did speak with her briefly yesterday -- as well as [Research Park CEO Andrew] Duffell and county staff (all separate conversations) -- to bring myself up to date.
We wrote back:
This is a quasi-judicial matter, which would seem to make those conversations -- esp. that with Ms. Trinka -- ex parte communications. Were those conversations a matter of public record?
BCC board appointments (or removals) are not quasi-judicial, they are acted on in our legislative capacity, but I am glad to continue to respond to your questions because I too believe in the First Amendment (including the part about freedom of the press). All my conversations were verbal, so there is no written record, and as stated, they were just for me to update myself on the status of an issue I was being confronted with for the first time. (My conversation with Ms. Trinka was brief enough for me to have it between a couple of stops on the Tri-Rail train I take to work.)
We then asked Abrams, "In what sense is consideration of removal 'legislative'?" and referred him to this:
A quasi-judicial body is an entity such as an arbitrator or tribunal board, generally of a public administrative agency, which has powers and procedures resembling those of a court of law or judge, and which is obligated to objectively determine facts and draw conclusions from them so as to provide the basis of an official action. Such actions are able to remedy a situation or impose legal penalties, and may affect the legal rights, duties or privileges of specific parties.
- West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2
Abrams has not replied further. We think he owes it to the public to recuse himself from consideration of the Trinka matter.
To be clear: Trinka's comments are highly objectionable, to say the least, grounded in ignorance and fear. But absent any indication that her beliefs have corrupted her work at the Research Park, to be forced from the board as a consequence of speaking her mind would be a clear violation of her constitutional rights.
Free speech includes the right to voice ignorant, fearful opinions -- and the right of others to challenge those opinions. If Trinka remains in office, those opinions will stand out in the sunlight. And as they say, sunlight disinfects.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
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