Post endorsements: Keith James is best bet to lead West Palm

Post endorsements: Keith James is best bet to lead West Palm

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A decade that began in the depths of the recession has proven prosperous for West Palm Beach. Downtown is dotted by construction cranes, boasts the futuristic Brightline station and is a growing address for residences, not just shops, restaurants and entertainment venues.

But while downtown is growing impressively, many other parts of the city have felt starved of attention. That’s the position of the three strong candidates who are vying to succeed Mayor Jeri Muoio in the March 12 election. All three say they’ll emphasize neighborhoods beyond the city core.

Priscilla Taylor, 69, is a former county commissioner seeking her way back into public office after a surprise defeat in 2016 to Mack Bernard. Unfortunately, she is running against two sitting city commissioners with closer knowledge of city issues.

Paula Ryan, 59, currently represents District 3, where she previously headed the El Cid Neighborhood Association and shepherded the plan to narrow South Dixie Highway, making it nicer for bicycling, walking and the proliferation of shops, restaurants and apartments occurring there. Her goal, she told the Post Editorial Board, is to take the same kind of small-business-centered growth to other parts of the city.

A professional developer of affordable housing, Ryan has notched significant achievements in the usually low-profile role of city commissioner. She attracted an Atlanta nonprofit, Purpose-Built Communities, to help tackle entrenched poverty, and encouraged the city’s adoption of the “Vision Zero” traffic-safety program.

Impressive. Still, the Post Editorial Board endorses Keith James, who shares much the same goals for boosting city neighborhoods as his opponents, but who emphasizes that he’ll take a collaborative approach to running the city — certainly more than we have seen from Muoio. More than the other candidates, James understands that for West Palm to thrive, it must abandon the haughtiness it has too often displayed toward neighboring cities and the county government.

Currently the commissioner for District 4, a sprawling territory west of I-95, James, 61, has already met with County Administrator Verdenia Baker and School District Superintendent Donald Fennoy to explore areas of cooperation. He is also immediate past president of the Palm Beach County League of Cities.

On the campaign trail, he has reached out to residents for their ideas; he says he has collected some 500 names of people interested in participating in neighborhood advisory roles. He says city commissioners ought to be granted a more participatory role in decision-making, and that he intends to make the mayor’s office more open and transparent to the media and the public than it has been.

A Harvard-educated corporate lawyer, James helps clients set up or buy and sell companies — but has a history of trouble in his own finances. Records show he owes the IRS more than $100,000 and was hit with two foreclosures and an eviction judgment. As James explains it, he fell into a financial hole a decade ago when he was going through a divorce, putting two children through college and starting a new business.

“I wish I could come before you as a man without flaws,” he told the Editorial Board.

But those flaws were in his personal life. In almost eight years on the dais, he pointed out, he has been perfectly diligent in overseeing public money. “We have balanced the budget successively for seven straight years; the millage rate has not gone up,” he said.

The same troubling questions about James’ ugly finances arose when he first ran for the city commission in 2011. The Post endorsed him then despite those negatives, citing 20 years of public involvement including service on the county’s budget oversight board, the Quantum Foundation and the Palm Beach State College Foundation board.

We acknowledge the matter will give some voters pause in the present election. But we are also aware that layers of checks and balances exist — a finance director, city manager and independent commission — for just this reason.

Moreover, the Post’s judgment in 2011 has been amply validated by James’ solid performance on the commission. Like most of his fellow panelists, he has mainly followed Muoio’s lead — a Pip, as he puts it, to her Gladys Knight — from promoting livable downtown development and the Okeechobee Business District to fighting the extension of State Road 7.

Notably, he clashed with the mayor over the 2016 elevation of assistant police chief Sarah Mooney to the top spot, saying he preferred to hold a nationwide search for a police chief. In the current campaign, James has not hesitated to criticize the city’s handling of crime, especially in its poorer precincts, noting that of 52 homicides in the last two years, only two have been solved.

We believe James can be relied upon to build upon West Palm Beach’s momentum in the downtown while attacking persistent problems in other parts of the city, such as pothole-rutted streets, neglected buildings, the all-too-public miseries of the homeless and a 17-percent poverty rate.

James is a strong communicator with the ability to draw listeners to his side. His instinct is to persuade, not dictate. He has the humility to own up to mistakes, and the confidence to propose actionable steps forward for the public good.

The Post endorses Keith James for mayor.

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