The Next Ex-Mayor
As she ducks into a peach-colored skyscraper in downtown West Palm Beach, Lois Frankel suffers a moment of confusion. "I have no idea what this is. Do you know what this is for?" Frankel, the city's imperious mayor, punches the penthouse button in the elevator, trying to remember the nature of the event she's about to attend.
"The builder's association? Is that right? I have so many of these. I can never remember."
Upstairs, 75 contractors sit at round tables in the Governor's Club of the Palm Beaches. The private dining room is a sea of charcoal and navy suits. Frankel arrives midway through the meeting of the Developers Business Alliance. She grabs a mic and saunters up to the podium. For anybody who has followed Frankel in her West Palm Beach rounds, it's clear that it doesn't matter where she is; she begins nearly every speech the same way.
"No matter where I am, I get the question. And the question is what?" she says in a voice spiked with weariness. "'When will the roads be done?' The rule is, if you exercise and eat right, then maybe in your lifetime."
The joke gets halfhearted chuckles. The builders are hungry; their chicken Françoise lunch is still in the kitchen. Besides, in a city where road construction has nearly choked the life out of its downtown, the torn-up streets of West Palm are far from funny. These builders have a lot to lose if the city continues to struggle; developers are planning 8,000 new condos in downtown, and there are jobs waiting to be started. Sensing the crowd's cranky nature, the mayor promises that most of the work will be done by August.
"What year?" somebody calls out.
Frankel knows where the blame belongs: far from City Hall. "Russell Engineering. Remember that name." It's the Fort Lauderdale-based construction firm running the agonizingly slow Dixie Highway project. "I'm not telling you whether you should hire them or not, but if there's a job you don't want done..."
Then she issues a warning. The work is far from complete. Just this month, the Department of Transportation began work turning major downtown corridor Olive Avenue into a pit of sugar sand for a project that could take a year or more. DOT will then attack Interstate 95 overpasses, working on every single West Palm stop at once. "So you know what?" she says. "Get a helicopter." Nobody laughs.
After her speech and a couple of bites of crème brûlée, Frankel makes her way to an appointment with Richard Amann, a restaurant owner who needs to be delivered the same message she has just brought to the builders. Nowadays, it's a major part of Frankel's job. Plug away -- all day long, if necessary -- trying to convince people that things aren't as bad as they are.
En route to Amann, Frankel strolls past another construction project on Banyan Road. She flashes a cynical smile. The roadwork has been weighing on her, she says. It dogs her. Every time she goes to lunch, goes to a ribbon-cutting -- hell, every time she steps outside -- somebody accosts her. "I can't walk alone. I have to have someone chaperone me." She has tried to make light of it. For Halloween, she dressed up as a Bob's Barricade -- one of those all-too-familiar striped sawhorses with a blinking orange light.
Still, she knows what the consequences of all this construction could be. "The road-construction issue could definitely be the death of a politician," she says in a rare moment of self-doubt. "But I don't believe -- I don't think, at least -- that it will be my demise."
Frankel has reason to fear that fate. Halfway through her first four-year term as mayor, Frankel can claim few visible accomplishments. Downtown currently seems to have more traffic cones than pedestrians, and the big plans promised during the campaign have gone nowhere. The convention center hotel, a remade waterfront, a new library and City Hall -- all of it is still no further along than the drawing board. Exactly where the plans were when she was elected.
Meanwhile, Frankel has earned scorn for what critics say is an often-misguided, hair-trigger temper. Her public feuds with everyone from club owners to the entire Palm Beach County Commission have gone so far as to hold up major projects -- from the convention center hotel to the Scripps Research Institute.
Then there's her fierce, tension-driven treatment of employees and constituents, which Frankel both denies and defends. "As mayor, if I lose my temper three times in hundreds or thousands of meetings, that what's repeated," she says. But then she defends her tough attitude: "As a woman, I will be called a bitch. But in the position I have, it comes with the territory. Any mayor is going to be an intimidating figure if they're doing their job."
Once the speaker of the Florida House and a failed Democratic candidate for governor, Frankel's political career now rests on her ability to get her agenda carried out. Frankel kicked off her reelection campaign in April. With less than two years left in her term, there's not much time to fulfill the promises she has made to a struggling city.
Frankel arrives late to her meeting with Richard Amann, a New York City magazine publisher. Last year, Amann opened Canteen restaurant at the corner of Clematis and Flagler in a spot where many restaurants have failed before. It's a prime spot, actually, just across the road from the Intracoastal. But with construction slowly killing Clematis, business has been decent at best.
Frankel sits with Amann along the curve of the wooden bar. To her right is Joan Goldberg, her top adviser. Frankel is wearing her usual outfit of black: a black, pinstriped pantsuit with a black T-shirt and comfortable black flats. The color matches her wild black hair, which adds a couple of inches to her diminutive size. Amann is a nervous man who often repeats his words for emphasis, barking out his words in a style similar to Frankel's.
Amann recalls the conversation like this:
Frankel: We're going to build a new City Hall, a new library, and a new waterfront.
Amann: OK, when? When? I've been hearing this for a year now, and nothing's happened.
Frankel plows ahead, enumerating her plans.
She never offered a time line, Amann says afterward. All she offered was a series of upcoming hearings, regular merchant meetings during which businesses could weigh in on the plans. "I like giving feedback," Amann says a day after the meeting. "But you know what? Just do it already. Just do it. She needs to just pick an idea and get it done."
Amann's frustration is common among business owners. During her election campaign, Frankel promised to turn around a lagging downtown. After her election, she began by attacking West Palm's once-uninhibited club scene, saying that the nighttime-only businesses were hurting the city. She reasoned that downtown would be better off without clubs, whose patrons, she contended, chased off patrons of neighboring restaurants. Last spring, Frankel championed a new city law banning under-21 patrons from bars. She also instituted fees of $15,600 a year per club to offset the cost of putting extra cops on Clematis. In addition, the city forced the closure of long-time bar Spanky's for code violations and "profane" concerts.
Her efforts worked. Or at least, they cooled the atmosphere of balls-out partying and public drunkenness, as nightspots such as Gossip, Vivid, and Rooney's Public House shut down. Unfortunately for Frankel, though, nothing has replaced the shuttered bars. The few surviving restaurants can't rely on walk-in traffic anymore, says Roy Assad, owner of downtown restaurants Le Opera and Leila. "It's a very depressing location right now," Assad says. "The people who work here now feel beat up coming here every day."
A few doors down, sitting over a calculator and reservation book in the back corner of Café Mediterraneo, owner Matteo Scanzano says frustration is common among downtown business owners. The lack of progress on the traffic projects has forced several restaurants to close and others to suffer through slow times. "To be honest, I do not know if it is the mayor's fault or somebody else's fault," Scanzano says through a thick Italian accent. "But I will tell you that, a year ago, we had the same issues. The same roads were torn up, and business was slow. So why has nothing changed?"
Back in November, with little progress shown on the traffic projects, Frankel let out her frustrations on roadside signs. "I Am Mad Too -- Lois," she penned on the electronic signs that usually tell drivers to switch lanes as they approach a traffic blockage. Then, in April, Frankel took it a step further. The mayor ordered the signs to flash the phone numbers for DOT offices in Fort Lauderdale. Within a week, angry drivers bombarded the office with 224 calls and e-mails.
Unfortunately, the barrage did little to speed the projects, which have snarled downtown traffic for three years. DOT spokeswoman Christie Klammer says the tactic won't get the projects done any quicker. "Putting our phone numbers on message boards," Klammer says, "is not something we would encourage for all of our projects."
By most accounts, Frankel has little to do with the pace of construction problems. The projects were planned well before her tenure, and as mayor, she has no control over contractors working for DOT. But critics have questioned why Frankel hasn't taken other measures, like removing downtown parking meters or putting up city money to work as incentives to the contractors to get work done early. Russell Engineering has often left the Dixie construction work unmanned as its staff tackled Broward County projects with bonuses available for finishing early. DOT offered no such bonus for the Dixie project. Russell officials, including company President George Russell Sr., did not return phone calls.
Community activist Kim Duffy, who worked for Frankel's predecessor as an executive assistant, says Frankel deserves the problems she's having with the construction. Frankel got elected by blaming the problems on former Mayor Joel Daves, and now Frankel is taking the blame, Duffy says: "The traffic situation is more unbearable than ever, and she deserves any grief she's getting for it."
For her part, Frankel says it's a problem she simply has to ride out. Even though her predecessor lost his job in part because the public perceived the construction problem as his fault, Frankel says that won't be her fate. Frankel joked recently: "My election is two years away, so I've got to tell you, if these roads are not fixed in two years, then I'm not sure I even want the job."
Frankel's problems are compounded by her grandiose City Hall gambit. When she took office, Frankel scrapped Daves' plans to build a new City Hall on the west side of downtown. Now, Frankel is pushing for a massive, four-story building to take up an entire city block at Clematis and Quadrille Boulevard. But with critics raising concerns about parking and the expense of the project, the plan has stalled. City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell says it's indicative of Frankel's "misguided direction" for the city.
"When she ran for office, she criticized Daves for having expensive plans for City Hall," Mitchell says. "Now her plans will probably cost the city $100 million." (Frankel has yet to speculate about the total cost of the project.)
Similarly, Frankel's campaign pledge to work with county leaders to have a hotel built near the new Palm Beach County Convention Center on Okeechobee Boulevard remains little more than a 2-year-old promise. Critics blame Frankel for the holdup, because she's been feuding with the County Commission and Ocean Properties, the developer, about Frankel's preference for another developer. Ocean Properties Vice President Tom McMurrian, when asked if he thought Frankel would continue to hold up the 400-room hotel plans, would say only: "We had hoped it would be further through the process than we are right now."
While the fight over the hotel seems to be calming down, the bad blood between Frankel and county leaders has continued. In April, Frankel refused to allow the county to run a pipe across a city-owned canal to supply utilities to the Scripps Research Institute project. Frankel's decision could delay work on Scripps, a project with a price tag approaching $1 billion. Frankel says she's holding up approval on the water pipe until the county agrees to continue letting the city sell water to county residents, a move the county says amounts to blackmail. County Commissioner Addie Greene, who backed Frankel's mayoral election campaign, says the move fits the mayor's style. "When I want something done, I have to smile and be all nice," Greene says. "When Lois wants something done, she goes for the jugular."
While supporters say her style allows her to get her way, a long list of former employees claim Frankel's bullying ways are too much.
Take Bruce Jagers, who had worked at City Hall only two weeks when he experienced the wrath of Mayor Frankel. After a long career as a TV producer, Jagers took a job in August to run the city's Channel 18, which broadcasts public meetings. It was a tough time to join city government. North-end residents were protesting about crime, top city employees were quitting regularly, and few of the public meetings Jagers was airing showed Frankel in a good light.
During a meeting of department heads, Frankel met Jagers in the hallway outside to chew him out for missing a public hearing, the first one in a while in which residents weren't complaining about Frankel. Because of his absence, the meeting wasn't televised. Jagers tried to explain that the employee who was responsible for giving him the meeting schedule had been fired. He says Frankel ignored the excuse and gave him a stern warning: "You missed a meeting. That will never happen again."
But back inside the conference room, Frankel's mood changed dramatically. "OK, we missed a meeting," Frankel told the group of department heads in a calm voice. "But this is not Bruce's fault. We need to make sure to let him know about things." Jagers was relieved but also baffled by her quick turnaround. Jagers quit after just two months on the job. "Working for her," he recalls, "you never knew if she was going to light into you or compliment you."
Former employees and those close to Frankel say the tirades are common. But just as frequent are her cordial moments. She rarely misses an opportunity to speak at community meetings, and her appearances often include Frankel dancing. One of the mayor's favorite icebreakers is to leap into a spontaneous party dance, either encouraging others to join or doing it happily by herself. Her management style of mixing a little sugar with a whole lot of fire can be effective, her critics concede, by scaring off potential rivals. But even most of her supporters admit Frankel lacks diplomatic skills usually a prerequisite in politics, where a good smile typically goes further than brains.
Greene, the County Commissioner and long-time Frankel supporter, says she's often surprised by the mayor's guns-blazing approach. Says Greene: "She's just not a people person."
Delray Beach chiropractor and political consultant Andre Fladell says Frankel has few of the subtle skills of most politicians. "The best way to describe Lois is that it's like dealing with a steamroller," Fladell says. "Whatever gets in her way, she just rolls over it and keeps going." But Fladell predicts that Frankel's reelection prospects will have more to do with her progress -- or if things don't change, the lack of it -- than her personality.
City Commissioner Mitchell, a Republican, is Frankel's toughest critic. She says the mayor's style worked well when Frankel was a lawyer and then again when she served as speaker of the Florida House. But in the executive branch, her approach doesn't fit, Mitchell says: "In the Legislature, she was the grenade thrower. She was shooting hard from both sides. That doesn't work when you're the mayor. Sometimes you need to play nice."
Frankel's bludgeoning style was at least partially to blame for several high-ranking employees' quitting during the past year. Among the 14 employees who left: two assistant city administrators, the city's public information officer, Frankel's secretary, and her personal aide. Many of those who quit or were fired declined to speak about Frankel. "Look," said one former employee, "I have to live and work in this town, and that would not be easy if I said anything bad about Lois."
One former employee said Frankel simply asked too much of her subordinates. "She demanded perfection, and humans are not perfect. If something went wrong, she wouldn't excuse that."
Terry Atherton, assistant city administrator for utilities, was the most recent of the resignations. He left in May, citing in part Frankel's treatment of employees. "She was difficult to deal with, you could say that."
Robin Singer, the city's former planning and zoning administrator, took a similar job in Naples. Singer said she witnessed Frankel's berating her employees for mistakes, and she quit, she says, before she became the target of an attack. "Lois was a very forceful person," Singer says. "Luckily, I was never an object of that."
Perhaps the most significant departure was the resignation, in June 2004, of Nancy Graham, who spent just a year and a half as director of the Downtown Development Authority. Graham, who herself served as mayor from 1995-99, during the city's headiest times, won't discuss what led to her departure from the Development Authority. She would say only, "Lois decided to do things her way." Before hanging up, Graham added: "You've probably figured out my feelings toward her by me not commenting."
In her defense, Frankel says the resignations and firings were no more than is typical for a mayoral term. She says turnover is actually lower under her tenure than in previous administrations, although she cannot provide data to prove it. She blames the public perception that her employees are leaving on the coverage of the Palm Beach Post. "Ask me some original questions," she says, when asked about the resignations. "You want to know about the Palm Beach Post story? I'll take the time and show you. It's an embarrassment to journalism, and they're lucky they didn't get sued."
Frankel blames the Post's coverage for what she says are untrue rumors that she swears loudly around her office and treats her employees poorly. "I don't cuss," Frankel fumes in her office one afternoon. "You can go out there and ask these people. I have cussed out reporters from the Palm Beach Post once or twice, because they don't know how to print the facts. We don't curse around here. We have good times. We have fun, we dance, we play music."
The Post's city beat reporter, Thomas R. Collins, declined to discuss Frankel's comments except to say: "Criticism is common for journalists. I'll let my coverage speak for itself." Meanwhile, Frankel's feud with the Post hit a crescendo recently when she insisted on picking up an editorial board reporter for an appointment they had and then left him stranded at City Hall after lunch. Relations were further strained when the Post quoted Frankel as telling a 9-year-old who asked her for a dollar on the street to get a "J-O-B." Frankel says her comments were taken out of context. "We were walking down the street and we were kidding around," Frankel says. "We were walking on the street, and the little kid was with his parents going to the library, and he came up to me, and he asked me for money. That's all that was. It wasn't anything. It was friendly banter."
Frankel threatened at one point to end an interview with New Times because of questions about the firings and her problems with the Post. Minutes later, though, she calmed down and insisted that she has fun in her office. She cranked up Michael McDonald's rendition of "Heard It Through the Grapevine" from her computer and danced her way out into the lobby, where two secretaries were typing in their cubicles. Frankel dances like somebody having a lot of fun doing it. She twists her hips and shuffles her arms in front of her chest a bit like jabs from a boxer. It's Elaine dancing on the Seinfeld set.
"OK, girls," she said to several women outside her office as she danced in her doorway. "Why don't you show him what happens when people get angry? Show him." One of the secretaries, mildly embarrassed, joined Frankel in the open space between desks. They bumped hips for a minute before the secretary abruptly returned to her work.
"Yeah, that's what we do," the mayor said. "We dance."
For the first 39 minutes of a meeting back in December with north-end residents, Mayor Frankel stayed relatively calm. She ran through the agenda, called on those with their hands up in the City Commission Chambers. She didn't mention that the homeowners in the room had been complaining for months that Frankel was doing nothing to curb crime in the north end. She ignored the fact that most of these people backed her predecessor in the election. Then, just when it seemed as if the meeting might wrap up without a tirade, the steamroller got moving again.
"I want to say this very respectfully," Frankel growled into the microphone. Sitting at a small table in front of the commission dais in a licorice-black suit, Frankel brought up the e-mails that north-end residents had been sending her staff, complaining about a supposed crime wave -- a crime wave that, Frankel insisted, doesn't exist. "We are human beings," Frankel said, the temperature of her tirade slowly rising. "When do we say to ourselves there is nothing we can do to please anybody?"
Bravely, Debra Neger, president of the Northwood Coalition of Neighbors, clutched a cordless microphone beneath her chin. She sat in the audience in a peach pantsuit. "The point is," Neger said carefully, "that we don't feel safe up there."
Frankel was going to hear nothing of it. "I am mayor for the entire city," Frankel cracked into the microphone, "and not just for one neighborhood."
North-end neighbors left the meeting with the impression, some said, that the rumors about the despotic mayor were true.
But again, Frankel challenged expectations. In the following months, she made inroads to repair her image in the partly gentrified neighborhoods north of downtown. After the meeting, Frankel visited north-end parks where drug dealers work from benches and saw prostitutes patrolling Broadway. Since then, there has been a more visible police presence, and there is even talk of opening a substation.
Realtor and long-time north-end resident Bob Beaulieu says Frankel still has a ways to go. But, Beaulieu adds, Frankel is responsive now to crime north of downtown. "I think she finally sees that there's a problem," Beaulieu says. "At times, she can be a little rough around the edges. Diplomacy might not be her strong point."
Frankel's progress with the north-end residents seems to be indicative of changes she has made in the past few months to her style. Mitchell even concedes that Frankel has controlled her temper. "I don't think I've seen her get angry during a meeting in a while," Mitchell says. "In private, I think she's still the same old Lois, but at least she's not doing it at meetings anymore."
The mayor's ability to control that temper could be key in her reelection campaign, which she officially kicked off without fanfare in April by filing paperwork with the city clerk. Meanwhile, Mitchell says, she herself has been repeatedly asked to run by Republican Party leaders and West Palm residents. So far, she hasn't decided.
Likewise, former mayor Graham seems to be considering a run. "Two years out, I think it's crazy for the city to be thrown into a discussion of elections," Graham said. "There are a lot of people who ask me to do it. I have not made any decisions."
For her part, Frankel says she's unconcerned about who challenges her. The election will be a referendum on her ability to get things done in the next two years, she says. "I have to do the best job that I can do, and I don't really worry about who's going to run against me."
A couple of days after Frankel's meeting with the builders and restaurant owner Amann, Frankel helped kick off a community charity walk-a-thon in the north end. Former state Rep. Sharon Merchant, a Republican foe of Frankel's in the House, introduced her this way: "If you have Lois on your side, good luck for you. But if you don't, watch out!"
From the back of the stage, Frankel smiled openly.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.