A teary Keith James sworn in as first African American ‘strong mayor,’ calls for caring community

By Tony Doris

WEST PALM BEACH — Keith A. James, sworn-in Thursday as West Palm Beach’s first executive mayor of African American heritage, called for unity and compassion in moving the fast-growing city forward. He pledged to get to work on the issues he campaigned on — public safety, neighborhood improvement, workforce housing, homelessness, the environment and economic development.

Dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief — the Harvard-educated lawyer joked to the overflow city hall crowd about “an allergy problem” — a joyful James thanked outgoing mayor Jeri Muoio, his political mentor and former mayor Congresswoman Lois Frankel, and “the greatest unsung hero of my life,” his “Mama,” who bore him when she was 17 and dropped out of college “to put food on our table.”

“Mama inspired me to believe in myself, motivated me and gave me a priceless education in the important things in life,” he said.

He was humbled to lead “one of the greatest cities on Earth,” he said.

“It’s an honor that challenges me like never before and it’s one that reminds me that I am only here because of all of you. Because you believe as I do, that our city is world class and it needs to stay that way, grow that way and come together that way. Because you believe as I do that everyone who lives in this city should have a say in the city. Because you believe as I do that our quality of life is grounded in caring for one another. Opportunity is our mantra and diversity is our strength. I will serve that way. I will lead our city that way.”

James, 61, a business lawyer, took office after eight years as the commissioner from the city’s western District 4, a politically active, relatively affluent part of town. He twice served rotations as president of the commission and is the immediate past president of the Palm Beach County League of Cities.

He has two children: Keith Jr., 31, a New York lawyer; and Amber, 28, who is finishing a joint business and law degree from Harvard and plans to practice in Los Angeles. His mother, Patricia Jones, 79, lives in Dallas.

On Friday, his first day in office, James was on his way to Orlando, to support Virgin Trains USA’s (formerly Brightline) efforts to extend service there from West Palm Beach.

In an interview from the road, he said he had assembled a transition team, led by Florida Power & Light Company executive Don Kiselewski, that will focus on gathering information and developing strategies for James’ administration to address in its first 100 days and beyond. The team will include 50 to 60 people who will divide into eight subcommittees, looking at homelessness, public safety, the environment and sustainability, government efficiency, transit and transportation, economic development, neighborhoods, arts and culture and education.

“We’re getting community leaders, business people, nonprofits. We’re really trying to put together a diverse — not only in gender and ethnicity but in skill sense — group of people who will do an extensive drill-down,” he said. A member of the city staff will be assigned to each subcommittee.

James said he’ll meet with city department heads over the next few days, to better understand their missions and the resources they feel they need and to articulate to them what his mission is.

He plans to address immediately the friction that arose in recent years between the city and Palm Beach County governments. City and county officials have butted heads over county desires to extend State Road 7 next to West Palm’s Grassy Waters Preserve, and over downtown growth that threatens to clog Okeechobee Boulevard and other key thoroughfares with traffic. The city, in trying to redesign its closed municipal golf course, has pressed for cooperation because the county controls several parcels of land at the golf site.

James and City Administrator Jeff Green plan to meet with County Mayor Mack Bernard and County Administrator Verdenia Baker in the next couple of weeks, “and compare our lists of priorities and issues and see if can have some early successes and agreements,” he said. James is scheduled to address the county commission May 7 and officially present himself. He plans to say he’s excited about working together and that he would like to establish “a new era of collaboration.”

James said he plans to hire a public safety liaison to report directly to him, to look at the city’s police and fire and give him “specific ideas, suggestions and insights on policies for both of those departments, to make sure I’m armed with the best information.” Public safety was promised as a priority in his campaign.

The overall crime rate is not the concern, as property crimes are going down, he said, “but I really want to get a hold on the violent crimes we continue to be plagued by. There’s been a recent uptick.” For both departments, “I just want to make sure I have the benefit of the best thinking in that area,” he said.

“As I said on campaign trail, I don’t care where you live in our city, you deserve a safe, secure environment and as CEO of the city I want to make sure I’m doing everything possible to position the city to provide that for every neighborhood.”

The transition team is meant to help him hit the ground running, he said. “We’re laying the groundwork to get the information that’s needed.”

James said his comments about encouraging caring were meant to set a tone for his administration.

“One of the hallmarks of our country, at least historically, has been extending a helping hand. It always comes out when we have a catastrophe such as a hurricane. That’s when we truly see a sense of community. I would like to have that sense of reaching out, helping others, permeating our city even when we’re not in a crisis. That’s a message I want to get out there … We are stronger as a community if we continue to look for opportunities to lend a helping hand to our neighbors.”

James won the March 12 election with 50 percent of the vote, to Commissioner Paula Ryan’s 29 percent and former County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor’s 21 percent.

James is not the city’s first African American mayor — he is the fourth. But in the others’ time, the position was mainly a ceremonial rotation for a city commissioner. In 1991 the city adopted a “strong mayor” form of government, in which the mayor serves as chief executive officer of the administration. James is the first black strong mayor.

He took the oath of office Thursday, as did re-elected commissioner Cory Neering in District 2, new commissioner Richard Ryles in District 3 and new commissioner Joseph Peduzzi in District 4. The five-member commission is now made up of two white women, one of them Hispanic, and three black men. And, as Peduzzi pointed out, saying he wasn’t sure if it was a good thing, three lawyers.

Commissioner Christina Lambert, the Hispanic female, on Thursday was voted to a one-year rotation as president of the commission. Lambert noted that with Muoio and Ryan gone, the board has gone from four females to two. Females are well represented in the highest ranks of the administration, however. Among them, the deputy city manager, city attorney, parks and recreation director, police and fire chiefs, city clerk, internal auditor, public utilities and traffic engineering directors.

James closed his speech Thursday by noting the significance of the date — the 51st anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who shared a dream “that one day we would live in a nation that judges each of us not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character,” James said.

“I want to end with this quote by Dr. King, James continued: ‘Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable … Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions of passionate concern of dedicated individuals.’

“That is how I see us — all of us — as citizens who are passionate and dedicated towards improving our future as one city. As mayor I believe our dreams can become a reality.”