Lake Worth City Commissioner Cara Jennings logged on to the Palm Beach Post's website last week and found a death threat against her.
A story posted on Wednesday, April 21, by Willie Howard detailed a two-part ethics complaint filed against Jennings in 2008 by Lake Worth planning and zoning board member Lisa Maxwell.
And in the comments section beneath the article were dozens of vituperative and abusive posts against Jennings, pictured left, ranging from the charge that she had destroyed the City of Lake Worth during her tenure as commissioner to the opinion that she should be "executed."
A few hours later, comments on the story had been suspended.
So what had Post commentators so hot and bothered?
It's a complicated backstory, but basically it boils down to this: When Jennings bought her house on C Street in 2004 for $70,000, she applied for a loan through the nonprofit Community Development Corporation of Lake Worth for a second mortgage on her house -- to make the down payment. The CDC helps first-time home buyers like Jennings put together the cash to get into a home.
A couple of years later, Jennings was elected to the city commission. As an elected official, she had to submit financial disclosure forms. On those forms, she failed to list that second mortgage under the disclosure of her debts.
In 2008, former planning and zoning boardmember Lisa Maxwell says she was fielding calls from citizens claiming that city officials were not being tormented with quite the same rigor as regular folks when it came to property code violations. "There was a sense that there was a good old boy system at work," Maxwell says. For instance, commissioner Jennings's house was a mess. And so was then-mayor Mark Drautz's house.
At Jennings' house, Maxwell remembers, "There were dead plants in the front yard. Structures were falling in or falling down. The carport was loaded with trash and junk overflowing into the yard."
Maxwell says that as the P&Z board began looking into the question of whether or not they could put a lien on Jennings' and Drautz's houses, she discovered in looking at Jennings' paperwork that Jennings' had failed to disclose her mortgage with the CDC. And what was worse, Jennings had voted on matters pertaining to the CDC which Maxwell thought were a conflict of interest. Maxwell believed that Jennings ought to have recused herself from those votes.
Maxwell too has to handle her own conflicts delicately. She was a prominent lobbyist for the Builders Association of South Florida for several decades. She was director of South Florida Redevelopment for Lennar Corporation, the publicly traded, and controversial, Miami-based developer which builds new housing in 16 states. She paid $600,000 for her Lakeside Drive house in 2002. She's well connected and pro-development. You could say she's as unlike Cara Jennings as any two animals are likely to be -- except that she'll also be running for a city commission seat this November, against incumbent Suzanne Mulvehill.
Maxwell says she raised the issue of Jennings' financial disclosure forms at the time with the city attorney, and a year later, when Jennings filed her forms again, the correction had still not been made. That's when she decided to take her complaint to the state ethics commission.
Last week, the commission found probable cause to discipline Jennings for failing to disclose her mortgage. Jennings, who drove to Tallahassee this month to meet with the commissioners, says her mistake was not made wilfully. She had already gone back and made the corrections to the three years in question. Two of the ethics commissioners did clearly state that the forms were confusing and that they needed to be clarified. If Jennings decides to accept the ruling, she'll have to pay what the commissioners agreed should be a nominal fine -- something in the range of $100-$300.
Maxwell disagrees with the verdict. "The form's instructions are clear enough," she says. "Jennings was proposing an ethics ordinance for Lake Worth at the time I filed this complaint, and it struck me that the public needs to understand that there should be full transparency when it comes to real estate dealings. There was not an unbiased, objective relationship between Jennings and the CDC. Look what happened with [former Palm Beach County Commissioner] Masilotti. He was hiding property under his wife's name."
Unlike Masilotti, Jennings is in no danger of ending up in jail. The commissioner, who lives a decidedly low impact lifestyle, says she's putting the brouhaha behind her and focussing on "doing positive things for the city."
"I did not financially benefit in any way from the CDC," Jennings says. "As for the forms, they clearly say to list all your property except your home. "It's not like there was a lot to disclose. Here's what I own: my house on C Street, a 1982 Mercedes, and my bicycle."