Saturday, April 13, 2024

Battle Lines Drawn in Delray Election

Four weeks from Delray Beach’s election, the political alliances and strategies have become clear.

As usual, the March 19 vote pits the faction aligned with Mayor Shelly Petrolia against almost everyone else. Three elements are important to understanding the campaigns.

Based on last year’s election, the mayor represents a minority faction. Her two candidates lost, despite the best efforts by Petrolia and her allies to help them.

Those, however, were one-on-one elections. Which brings us to the first element.

This year, all three races feature three candidates. Delray Beach has runoff elections only if there’s a tie. That makes it easier for an organized, minority faction to win.

Petrolia, who must leave office because of term limits, has posted on social media her support for Tom Carney in the mayor’s race against Ryan Boylston and Shirley Johnson. Petrolia backs Juli Casale in the Seat 3 City Commission race against Anneze Barthelemy and Nicholas Coppola. She supports Thomas Markert in the Seat 1 race against Jim Chard and Tennile DeCoste.

Casale, who lost one of those two-way races a year ago, and Carney filed their campaign papers on Oct. 27—three to four months after most other candidates had done so. Markert filed on Oct. 26. The dates suggest coordination, and their late entry changed the dynamic of each race.

Boylston, who is term-limited after six years in Seat 3, went from a seemingly easy run against former Commissioner Shirley Johnson to a three-way campaign. It also brought in Petrolia, who campaigned hard against Boylston in 2021. He wound up with more votes than anyone else on the ballot.

Similarly, Coppola appeared to be in a dominant position for Seat 3. He chairs the code enforcement board and has a long record of other civic involvement in Delray Beach and elsewhere. Like Boylston, he is well-funded. Barthelemy finished last in a four-way race when she ran for the commission in 2017.

At one point, four candidates had been running for Seat 3. After Casale got in, Christina Morrison—who serves on the planning and zoning board—withdrew. Morrison also is not a Petrolia supporter. She withdrew to improve Coppola’s chance against Casale, whom she called “a destroyer” for voting with Petrolia and Johnson to end the Old School Square lease.

Seat 1 had featured Chard—a former commissioner who lost to Petrolia in the 2018 mayor’s race—and DeCoste—a former director of human relations for the city. Both are in the non-Petrolia faction, as demonstrated by their attendance at the chamber of commerce forum that the Petrolia candidates skipped. Markert, who serves on the police advisory board, completed the Petrolia slate with Carney and Casale and hopes to win as Chard and DeCoste split the anti-Petrolia vote.

The second element to understand is misdirection.

As the Petrolia team campaigns openly for Carney, Casale and Markert, it’s also campaigning less openly.

Chris Davey, a Petrolia ally, is the registered agent for a political action committee called Progressives For A Better South Florida. Davey just formed the committee this month. Because campaign finance reports aren’t due until April, we won’t know until after the election where the committee’s money comes from.

The committee has sent mailers that criticize Boylston and praise Johnson. Why? Johnson is African-American and thus comes with a potential bloc of voters. More votes for Johnson could mean fewer votes for Boylston since both are Democrats. Carney is a Republican.

But aren’t municipal elections non-partisan?

Yes, which brings us to the third element.

This year’s election coincides with the statewide presidential primary. Conventional wisdom holds that the primary will mean higher turnout.

Because the Florida Democratic Party did not allow anyone but President Biden’s name on the ballot, only Republicans can vote in the primary. The GOP has been letting voters know the political affiliation of local candidates.

A right-wing website called Florida Jolt has been boosting Carney. He is getting help from Mary McCarty, a Republican who served on the city commission and county commission before going to prison on public corruption charges.

Carney clearly hopes that the primary will draw lots of Republican voters who rarely, if ever, cast ballots in local elections and may decide based only on party labels. But that assumption could be wrong.

Several months ago, the GOP primary loomed as an intrastate showdown between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. Though the governor’s name will be on the ballot with the other candidates who have dropped out, the race is effectively over. Even Nikki Haley might be out by March 19.

In addition, the mayor’s race always means a bigger turnout among regular, more-informed city voters. In 2021, when Petrolia won a second term, turnout was about 10 percent higher than it had been the year before, when there was a contested Democratic presidential primary.

A year ago, the Petrolia faction tried to portray Rob Long and Angela Burns as supporting overdevelopment. This year, the mayor and allies again are using that false narrative.

In a mailer, Boylston notes that in the six years before he was elected, the commission approved 12 development projects. During his six years in office, the commission has approved seven projects, six of which have affordable housing components, several of which were approved for less than the developer could have requested. None were controversial. None were downtown, where the height limit remains three stories.

Because of the presidential primary, mail-in ballots already have gone out. Early voting, normally not a feature of municipal elections, starts March 9. This unusual schedule is one more factor in a multi-faceted Delray Beach election.

Photo by Alex Dolce

On Wednesday, Florida Atlantic University may a get a little closer to starting its new search for a president.

The Board of Governors (BOG) is scheduled to discuss changes to the rules for such searches. Most notably, trustee chairs could not name themselves to chair search committees, as happened at FAU with Brad Levine. Another change would clarify how committees conduct member straw polls.

Approval of those changes, though, would not be final. They would require 30 days to be publicly noticed and another 14 days for public comment. Under that timetable, final approval would not come until the BOG’s May 8 meeting.

Presumably, new trustee Chair Piero Bussani then could start forming a search committee. In the best case, FAU might have finalists by the end of the year.

Fortunately, at Wednesday’s meeting the BOG also likely will approve a contract extension for Interim President Stacy Vonick. She’s been on the job since Jan. 1, 2023. The extension could last until the end of the year.

In a letter to the trustees after becoming chair on Feb. 8, Bussani said, “Our board must turn the page and focus our efforts on moving past the negative press we have received over the last few months as well as the tension that it caused.” I’ll have more after the BOG meeting.

Delray to discuss historic designations for Atlantic Ave and Frog Alley

atlantic avenue
Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach

One issue in Delray Beach’s election is whether the city should designate Atlantic Avenue as a historic district. That issue comes before the commission at today’s workshop meeting.

On the agenda also is discussion of a similar designation for Frog Alley, an area of several blocks in the southwest neighborhood. It was settled in the early 1900s by Bahamians known as “Nassaws.” Discussion of Frog Alley began more than a decade ago.

City officials have said that consideration of a historic designation for Atlantic Avenue must happen in tandem with consideration for Frog Alley. Today’s topic will be possible “incentives” for landowners whose properties the designations would affect. I’ll have more after the meeting.

Extension of one-cent county sales tax surcharge

On the agenda for today’s regular city commission meeting is a resolution in support of extending the one-cent county sales tax surcharge that voters approved in 2016.

The tax is scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 2026, or earlier if revenue reaches $2.7 billion. Half of the money goes to the school district, 30 percent to the county and 20 percent to the cities, strictly for infrastructure projects.

According to the staff memo, Delray Beach has received about $34 million. Original projections showed that the city would receive between $37.7 million and $44.5 million. Even money that doesn’t come directly can benefit a city. In Boca Raton, the surcharge financed the rebuilding and expansion of two elementary schools.

Critics predicted that the surcharge would harm the county’s economy. That criticism was unwarranted. For the tax to continue, the county commission first would have to place the issue on the November 2026 ballot.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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