By Kristen M. Clark
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WELLINGTON — Whoever was appointed Wellington’s next council member was bound to face scrutiny, but some residents say there’s something particularly fishy about how John McGovern was chosen.
Two council members, Vice Mayor John Greene and Councilman Matt Willhite, defied the agreed-upon selection process to make McGovern a lock for the appointment two weeks ago — something several residents, including applicants for the vacant council seat, said they found, at best, disappointing and, at worst, suspicious.
Amid those concerns, McGovern quietly accepted the oath of office last Monday in a private ceremony — no family, no council members — in the clerk’s office. He said he wanted to get to work before Tuesday, when a formal ceremony is planned.
That drew more criticism, including from one council observer.
“I definitely feel that’s a wrongful act,” said Bart Novack, an applicant for the council seat. “By trying to speed up the process, it leaves a cloud over everything. Some things shouldn’t be done in secret like that.”
Council given broad discretion
The Wellington council unanimously agreed in mid-January to rank the top five of what would be 21 contenders for the post vacated when Howard Coates accepted a circuit court judgeship.
But Willhite and Greene, who often vote together on controversial equestrian issues, each ranked only one candidate: McGovern, giving him an edge that propelled him in to the job.
Willhite had asked the village attorney in advance if it was OK to submit fewer than five names. Since the council has no codified approach, it has broad discretion, Village Attorney Laurie Cohen told council members.
The other two members, Mayor Bob Margolis and Councilwoman Anne Gerwig, ranked McGovern fourth out of five but did not dispute their colleagues’ decision to rank only one applicant. Gerwig tried to nominate her pick, Michael Drahos, who tied for second, but she got no support for her motion.
All four then voted in favor of McGovern’s appointment.
Following the vote, Willhite and Greene each gave the same explanation for their actions. Each said they didn’t think it was fair to select runners-up when there was a clear option.
In an election, “you go in and vote for your No. 1 and that’s what I did,” Greene said that night, after Margolis said he already started hearing disappointment from applicants about the two council members’ scoring.
“I didn’t want to send anybody else a message that, ‘Boy, you know what? You’re third place,’ ” Greene said.
Willhite told The Palm Beach Post on Friday that he purposely scored McGovern the way he did to ensure his top pick would have a better chance.
“I was hoping that my No. 1 choice was it, and that’s ultimately what happened,” Willhite said.
He also, for the first time, criticized the scoring system, saying he “had concerns” about the process that the council used to select Coates in 2009. In hindsight, Willhite now says, it didn’t seem to be the best approach.
“We know that everyone’s No. 4 choice could have been the council member, and that’s just not, frankly, what I think we would want,” Willhite said.
The scoring system called for each council member to rank their top five candidates, with five points given for first place and one point for fifth. Whoever racked up the most points would be the presumptive nominee.
But Willhite’s fear came true for Margolis and Gerwig, who both ranked McGovern fourth.
McGovern said Friday he “will always cherish the fact that I was on the ballots of each of the four council people.” But Willhite’s and Greene’s approach made it impossible for any other applicant to tout such an achievement.
Matt Kurit, a 2014 council candidate who tied for second with Drahos in the final scores, said he felt he and the other applicants “never had a chance, because Willhite and Greene decided to not go along with the process and how it was intended.”
The inconsistent scoring stuck out even to those who had no complaints about the outcome.
“It was just shocking to most people,” said Carol Coleman, chairwoman of the village planning board and one of the applicants. “I guess they didn’t want to risk that the person they wanted to be on council would possibly not be put on.”
Other residents said Greene’s and Willhite’s approach — in lockstep — seemed too coincidental, given there were 21 contenders.
“It just seems a little suspicious that two people voted the same way for that one person,” said Dr. Randall Laurich, who tied for fourth. “That pretty much tells you: They had it in their mind that that was the person they were going to vote for.”
Florida Sunshine Law requires elected officials to conduct all public business during open meetings. Discussing votes between each other in private beforehand, or even using intermediaries to communicate, is a violation of the law.
“I think I’m very clear ahead of time that I don’t tell or say or predict how I’m going to vote,” Willhite said. “I didn’t know how other people were going to vote — but I had my own predictions about how other council members were going to vote and who they were going to vote for.”
For his part, McGovern reiterated Friday that he was “deeply honored and humbled to have been selected.”
“I think the entire process happened openly and publicly, and if there are any questions, it’s because it happened openly and publicly, which is a good thing,” McGovern said. “I believe in transparency.”
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