The emotional meeting on March 19 is an example of the tug-of-war happening nationwide as politicians at all levels try to figure out the best ways to deal with the threats to health and the economy caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Palm Beach County has the third-highest number of reported cases in the state, with 22, although none are in the city of Lake Worth Beach.
Hardy, 30, elected to the council three years ago, said he had been trying since March 12 to get the city to take some action. It took him a week to get the council to agree to an emergency meeting.
In the video, filmed by the city and posted online by the Palm Beach Post, Hardy implored his fellow council members to stop cutting off electricity to customers who are late on their bills. The city runs the electric and water utilities. The mayor tried to end the discussion and the meeting, but Hardy wasn’t done.
“Are you telling me that you’re going to keep me from talking?” Hardy said. “This gentleman here has turned off people’s lights in the middle of a global pandemic.”
Hardy was referring to city manager Michael Bornstein. Mayor Pam Triolo tried to end the meeting, but Hardy wasn’t finished.
“We could have banned large public gatherings, we could have closed the beach, we could have put a moratorium on utility cutoffs,” Hardy said. “We should have been talking about this last week. We cut off people’s utilities this week and made them pay what could have been their last paycheck to us to turn their lights on.”
The mayor got up and walked away.
“You’re done. You’re done,” Triolo said. “Disrespectful.”
The city did end up taking some action — it closed the city-owned golf course, and agreed to a more generous paid-leave policy for employees. It never closed its popular beach, though, where an average of 3,000 people a day gather. The beach closed only after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) ordered three counties in South Florida to close all beaches.
“It’s not a large beach, but it’s very popular, so people are very concentrated on it,” Hardy said. “The city has done nothing.”
On the city’s Facebook page, Triolo said Hardy was bullying the city commission and that the exchange between them “created a lot of undue stress and emotion.”
She said she did what she needed to do when she tried to cut him off.
“While I took the right action, I apologize for the way it had to be done,” she wrote.
Bornstein said the two-minute video from the hour-long meeting portrays the city unfairly. Officials were waiting to see what other utility companies were doing before taking action on late bill payers, he said.
FPL, one of the largest electricity providers in the state, suspended utility cutoffs March 16. Lake Worth Beach issued a similar order two days later.
Bornstein said the day after the meeting, he decided to send refund checks to the approximately 100 customers whose electricity had been shut off earlier in the week.
“We’re going to take an extraordinary effort that I can tell you no other cities are making,” Bornstein said.
Hardy said the city council needs to declare a state of emergency in Lake Worth Beach so residents will be protected.
“Lake Worth is 10 minutes from Mar-a-Lago, but we’re the second-poorest city in Palm Beach County,” Hardy said, referring to President Trump’s resort. “Our working-class families may have seen their last paycheck for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t seem right to turn off their electricity in the middle of a pandemic.”