Naked Negotiation in Riviera Beach

Nightclub owner Michael Goelz says he received an unusual request from Riviera Beach Commissioner Cedrick Thomas when he requested a meeting about his plan to take over the city marina's popular tiki bar.

It involved nudity, the businessman says.

"He asked me, 'How much do you want to spend on the tiki bar?' " says Goelz, who has been aggressively pursuing the lucrative tiki bar lease with the city. "I told him north of $25,000 a month. When I said that, his eyes opened up like flying saucers, buddy. We exchanged cell phone numbers, and I suggested we meet at the Cracker Barrel."

This conversation allegedly took place in the city parking lot after a City Commission meeting in April.

Goelz's offer was significantly higher than the city's deal with the current leaseholder of the Tiki Waterfront Sea Grill at the Riviera Beach Municipal Marina. "That's when [Thomas] said, 'We need to meet in a place where you're going to be able to get naked, so I can check to make sure you're not wearing a wire and we can talk about the tiki bar,'" Goelz says.

Goelz, who owns Mr. G's Rock Bar & Grill in West Palm Beach, says he assumed the commissioner had illicit aims. And he says that he's heard such things before (in fact, Goelz served probation in a 1991 racketeering and unlawful-compensation case in Broward County).

But Thomas, who's chairman of the city's community redevelopment agency, denies that he ever said anything about stripping down or a wire when he spoke with Goelz that night.

He responds to the allegation with pique. "Why would I risk my life, my career, on somebody who is trying to do something in the city?" the 31-year-old politician and former cop asks. "I have one vote. You need at least three. I'm the one he feels like he can pull straws on right now, and after me it will be someone else. I'm very tired of this. Can you, one time, just one time, give the elected official the benefit of the doubt? Somebody stops me in the parking lot, I say yes I'll meet with him. I'm too accommodating because I'm trying to be fair, and all it does is get my name run through the mud. I know one thing: I am never going to talk to anyone ever again without someone else there to listen."

Back to Goelz. The nightclub owner alleges that Thomas told him at the time that he would deny it if he told anybody about the request. He also says he's willing to take dueling polygraph tests with Thomas to prove he's the one telling the truth.

"I want him to take a polygraph, and let it be the FBI's machine," Goelz says. "I'll be the first one to step up, baby. I'm not playing anymore. The gloves are off. I don't fucking care anymore."

What about Thomas? He said he would take a polygraph, er, "if I have to."

This is only the latest chapter in the strange and terrible saga involving the northern Palm Beach city's $2 billion-plus redevelopment plan for the public marina, a project that has drawn a substantial investment from local billionaire Wayne Huizenga and is expected to be one of the largest and most expensive waterfront projects in South Florida.

The idea is to turn what is now essentially a poor city's blight into rich man's gold — and it has so far involved numerous lawsuits and failed attempts to wrest away homes through eminent domain.

Riviera Beach city government has been wracked with corruption and mismanagement throughout the process, leading to a state audit that, among myriad findings, discovered some dubious dealings at the city-leased tiki bar.

The bar has long served as a sometimes-free watering hole for public officials at the same time the officials were giving the current tiki bar owner, Bob Gregory, a ridiculously sweet deal on the bar. He pays only $2,550 a month to rent 11,000 square feet of waterfront property on a popular part of the Intracoastal next to Peanut Island.

I recently wrote that the city had likely lost $1 million on the deal during the past five years [see "Riviera Beach Sweetheart," May 22]. The city has since responded by altering the lease to make Gregory pay about $100,000 a year more on the lease. A vote is scheduled for July 16.

But Goelz, as he allegedly told Thomas in the parking lot, claims he's willing to pay more than $25,000 a month for the lease — roughly twice what Gregory would pay under the proposed new terms of the contract.

Any prudent city, obviously, would put the lease out to bid to get the best bang for the taxpayers' buck. Gregory has already made his mint, and if he's willing to pay as much as Goelz or anybody else, then he should be able to keep the lease. Otherwise, the city should go with the highest bidder.

Gregory, meanwhile, hasn't proved to be a wholly above-board tenant. The city recently discovered that he violated city ordinances when he installed his deck and the band stage without obtaining any of the necessary permits.

Yet Thomas and a majority of his colleagues on the dais support the new contract with Gregory anyway. Neither Thomas, who has met with Gregory several times, nor any other commissioner has demanded that the tiki lease be put out for bids. "I'm not against that, but city staff hasn't proposed it," the commissioner says.

The tiki bar, of course, is tied to the larger marina district redevelopment plan. Thomas recently voted to put out a request for proposal on that project. Considered the leading contender to win the contract is Viking Group, a politically connected yacht company in town. The company, in fact, was already selected for the project, but the plan was scuttled due to lawsuits involving eminent domain issues.

Two weeks ago, Thomas and the rest of the commission voted to abandon a little-used public street to Viking to assist in its development plans.

A little-noticed catch: Thomas is financially connected to Viking.

The commissioner owns a company called Cedrick's Charter Bus. One of that company's chief clients is the Riviera Beach Maritime Academy, a charter school founded and administered by Viking. Thomas says he runs two buses to and from the school every day for $97,000 a year, and he had worked for the school for two years before he filed to run for office.

His voting on any matter related to Viking — which also donated the maximum $500 to his campaign — would seem to be a glaring conflict of interest, in violation of Florida laws. Yet Virlindia Doss, deputy executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, wrote Thomas an informal opinion late last year stating that it wasn't a conflict since Thomas' company received the checks rather than Thomas personally.

It's an absurd opinion with no legal standing, making one question Doss' own competence (even the usually reserved Palm Beach Post, which reported on the opinion last year, called it "ludicrous.")

Thomas' vote to abandon the public street for Viking stinks — and the idea that he might vote for his client to take over the multibillion-dollar redevelopment of the waterfront is odious.

Thomas insists his financial connection to the company wouldn't affect his vote — and he says he plans to dissolve the charter service in the near future due partly to the high cost of gas.

"People don't understand that I have to put out two buses, two drivers, and fuel," he says. "I have to do many other things in order to keep this contract. You try to do what you can for the city. I was an Explorer [Scout] for the fire department and police growing up. I became a police officer. I try to serve the city. That is it. I do not need anything personal from the city. I have always made my own money."

The fact remains, however, that the source of the money he's making is Viking. And that doesn't help his credibility on matters involving waterfront development, the tiki bar, or even strip searches.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman