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.

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.

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Thomas Francis