Alexandria Ayala started a tenure as the first Hispanic woman to serve on the Palm Beach County School Board on Tuesday, but the historic day was shrouded by questions about whether she lives in the district she was elected to serve.
As she was sworn in by Judge Ashley Zuckerman, Ayala pledged she was was “duly qualified to hold office." She recognized her family, partner Rob Long, voters and supporters, the Hispanic community.
“We’ve made history together,” Ayala, who was born in Puerto Rico, said of her Aug. 18 election. “”This victory is shared by every single member of our community.”
Missing was any mention of a controversy over a Delray Beach home purchase that raised questions about whether she is allowed to represent District 2, an area in central county that includes Palm Springs and portions of Lake Worth and West Palm Beach.
If Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were to take action in response to complaints, he would have the ability to suspend her and appoint a replacement. The Senate would have to uphold any suspension to make it permanent. DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The issue surrounds a $515,000 house Ayala bought in July with Long, chairman of the Palm Beach Soil and Water Conservation District. The purchase came a few weeks after Ayala qualified to run for the District 2 seat, using the address of the Palm Springs home owned by her mother, Kelly Montalvo.
The federally backed mortgage says the house in Delray Beach must be her primary residence for at least a year. But state law says to be a School Board member, her primary residence must be in the district where she was elected.
Ayala said her partner needed a co-signer for the 3,000-square-foot house, but he lives there alone, while she lives with her mother in the 1,000-square-foot house in Palm Springs. She said she’s taking steps to remove herself from the home purchase.
“The legal paperwork has been filed with my title company and will be filed with the Property Appraiser as required. I am no longer an owner of the property," she said Monday night.
She said this had already been her plan, “as I intend to continue living in my home in Palm Springs where my residence in the district that elected me to serve has been firmly established.”
However, experts say the problem isn’t whether her name is on the house, but whether she lives there, and she can’t meet the terms of the mortgage as long as she lives with her mother.
She said she is working with the lender, PennyMac Loan Services, to get the name taken off the mortgage. While she said Long needed her to co-sign initially, “we’re past that now. There’s enough invested in the house. I was just helping him get to that point.”
She said she also is looking to buy her own home in District 2.
Her residency status has raised doubts from Richard Giorgio, a political consultant who represented one of her opponents, Virginia Savietto, in the August election.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to buy the argument that she is going to spend the next four years living in her mother’s house, while her partner spends four years by himself in Delray Beach in a half-million dollar home,” Giorgio said. “That’s an absurd argument.”
The issue could be investigated by the state Ethics Commission if someone files a formal complaint, said Bob Jarvis, a constitutional law professor with Nova Southeastern University in Davie.
“The fact that her mother has a house in the district and that she sometimes sleeps there is not enough,” he said Friday. “We really need to know where she lives on a day-to-day basis.”
He said unless her lender provides a letter saying that she doesn’t have to live there, she’s violating the terms of her mortgage if she continues to live with her mother.
“I think she’s in a really tough spot,” Jarvis said. “I don’t see her being able to give a satisfactory answer to all of these questions.”
Ayala is one of the youngest members to serve on the School Board in recent years. She’s also the first Hispanic elected to the post. Former Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Ed Garcia, who is Hispanic, in 2002 to briefly fill a vacancy, but he quit before he could be elected.
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