Home is where the heart is.
That’s the message from Rodney Mayo’s lawyer, fighting to keep the West Palm Beach restaurateur on the ballot for a March 14 faceoff with West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James.
But to James, home is where your drivers’ license says it is. Or your voter registration card. And for Mayo, that’s a Lantana-area address on Pine Drive, not a “crash pad” above a bar on Clematis Street, James’ attorneys argued Tuesday in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.
The city charter says you must reside “continuously” within the city for six months before election day, in this case as of Sept. 14, 2022, to be eligible to run for office. When Mayo filed to run in November, he sought to change the address on his drivers’ license and on his voter registration card, steps that the mayor’s attorney, Gerald Richman, said showed he recognized the problem too late.
“The law is very clear: You must maintain a continuous residence prior to Sept. 14, 2022. Not a crash pad or somewhere you might be for the convenience of your business,” Richman told Circuit Court Judge G. Joseph Curley.
But there’s nothing wrong with having two residences, Mayo’s Tallahassee-based attorney, William Spicola, told the judge. Residency is more about intent than where one sends his mail.
And Mayo, owner of the Subculture Group string of restaurants, nightclubs and coffee shops, testified that he has been living in an apartment above his Respectable Street nightclub at 518 Clematis St. since he converted the condemned upstairs soup kitchen into four apartments in the 1980s.
“The remedy in this case, your honor, is not for you to take Mr. Mayo off the ballot,” Spicola said. “The remedy is for Mr. James to call him a carpetbagger for the next three months to the people … and let them make the choice.”
After a 2½-hour trial, Curley gave both sides until Sunday to submit proposed orders and said he would rule before Jan. 18, when ballots go to the printer. If the judge grants James’ request to disqualify Mayo, the election would not be held and the mayor would be ushered into a second four-year term without a single vote cast.
Where the dogs are
Mayo took the stand for more than an hour. He said he has lived in the city since 1974. Even as he lived on Clematis Street, which he loved because its brick walls reminded him of a New York City loft, he said he bought the home at 6171 Pine Drive west of Lantana (paying $150,000 in 1999) as “an escape.”
That’s where his seven dogs live, with plenty of room to roam on the 1-acre site. He’s an avid water skier and the home has a dock on a lake.
“Is that your house or the dog’s house?” Spicola asked Mayo.
“I’m a visitor,” Mayo testified. “At least they treat me that way. I’m supposed to be the pack leader but …”
“Could you keep large dogs in that apartment?” Spicola asked.
“It would be tough,” Mayo said, adding “especially since we don’t have a dog park downtown,” one of his pet peeves with James.
Later, the judge, confessing to be a dog-lover, got in on the questioning. “Do you ever bring the dogs over to Clematis?” he asked.
“Occasionally, one or two,” Mayo said. “I can never bring all seven over. It would be a nightmare.”
“Who watches the dogs when you’re on Clematis?” the judge wanted to know.
Mayo said the dogs are on their own. He designed the house with a dog door that goes out to a fenced yard. He feeds them twice a day and is their primary caretaker.
Last-minute address changes
Until he filed to challenge James on Nov. 14, Mayo listed the Lantana address on several key documents.
He explained after the hearing that he wants important mail to go to his Lantana address because Respectable Street gets too much mail. He testified that he couldn’t homestead the Clematis address because it’s listed as commercial and he dropped the homestead exemption on the Lantana address years ago.
So why try to change the address on his drivers’ license and voter registration card after deciding to run? Richman asked.
“To have all my t’s crossed and i’s dotted,” Mayo said. “I would have run anyway but people were advising me that you need to get all your ducks in a row.”
Richman pointed to that as evidence of a belated effort to cover up the fact that he lived in Lantana.
“We know he has bars and keeps crazy hours and maybe two or three o’clock in the morning when the bar is closed and he’ll go ahead to go to sleep there. But there’s nothing to indicate that that was, as required by the statute, his permanent residence,” Richman said.
“To me, it’s basically just a self-fulfilling prophecy to go ahead and say ‘Well, now I’ve made my mind up. Now I want to run. So I’m going to change the facts.’”
‘That’s where he has his breakfast’
Spicola countered: “The best proof of one’s domicile is where they say it is.”
He expanded the point in closing arguments.
“You can have more than one residence,” Spicola said. “But you can only have one permanent, fixed residence. The evidence is that place for Mr. Mayo has been the address on Clematis Street. He’s had several other places, all with the express purpose of allowing him to have a place to recreate. But the reality is that he lives on Clematis Street. That’s where he spends all his time. That’s where he has his breakfast. That’s where all of his businesses are.”
Curley asked: “What if I decide his intentions are good but he still is not qualified?”
Spicola offered Mayo’s tax returns, which listed the Clematis address and the fact that he didn’t homestead the Lantana property. “It’s not his homestead because it’s not his residence,” he said.
Finally, the judge pressed the lawyer about Mayo’s late effort to change his address on key documents, saying “that speaks to me as a late change in the game to try to qualify.”
“I think it speaks exactly to what you saw on the stand today,” Spicola said. “You saw an individual that doesn’t care much for politics, apparently has a variety of different places where he’s received different mail, has a variety of different businesses, has cars registered at a variety of different interests. This is an individual who never gave any thought to those things, and the only reason that he even made those changes is precisely why he testified: Somebody else told them that those i’s needed to be dotted and those t’s needed to be crossed.”
His final appeal, Spicola said, rested on the people’s right to vote.
“It goes down to this. If your honor decides that he’s not qualified there’s not going to be an election. The case law is very clear: It’s the people who are supposed to decide who their elected representatives are. And, if your honor decides that Mr. Mayo is disqualified, they will be robbed of that opportunity to select their representative.”
Said James, who did not testify, on his way out of the courtroom: “At the end of the day, the voters of West Palm Beach deserve transparency and integrity. The voters are making the decision between two qualified candidates. What we’re saying today is Mr. Mayo is not qualified under our charter. I think we presented evidence to that effect.”
Rodney Mayo’s Subculture Group previously sponsored an internet radio show, The Reporters, featuring this story’s reporter, Joel Engelhardt. The sponsorship has been ended.
© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.
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