Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Delray City Manager Debacle, Dorian Donations, and a Haynie Update

Delray Beach is being Delray Beach.

Not in a good way.

The city commission will hold a special meeting at 1 p.m. today to discuss the search for a city manager that had seemed to end in success. Three weeks ago, the commission had chosen Michael Cernech. He had begun to involve himself in city government, even during preparations for Hurricane Dorian.

But last Friday, during what commissioners had expected to be a routine contract discussion with City Attorney Lynn Gelin, something went wrong. Cernech told commissioners afterward that he had withdrawn from consideration.

Michael Cernech

In addition, Petrolia said, “From the start, it was important that we come to terms that were acceptable to both parties. Unfortunately in this case, we simply could not get there. We were excited at the possibility of having Mr. Cernech lead our team, and regret that it is no longer possible.”    

Over the weekend, the city issued a cryptic statement that quoted Mayor Shelly Petrolia as saying that the two sides had “mutually and amicably agreed to step away from contract negotiations. . .”

The statement offered no details about why “we simply could not get there.” Petrolia did not return a phone call or respond to emailed questions. Gelin did not return a phone call.

But Commissioner Ryan Boylston blamed Petrolia. He spoke with Cernech on Friday. Boylston said, “Cernech knew that his contract had the support of four (of the five) commissioners. But it was clear to him that the mayor not only didn’t want him but was willing to work against him. Cernech told her he couldn’t move forward without her support—and she said no.”

Petrolia had favored Homestead City Manager George Gretsas. After Boylston, Bill Bathurst and Adam Frankel made Cernech their first choice, however, Petrolia joined them in a final vote for Cernech. Only Shirley Johnson voted against him, favoring Miami Deputy City Manager Joseph Napoli.

There was more upheaval last week in City Hall. Caryn Gardner-Young, one of the two assistant city managers, resigned. I haven’t heard why. Gardner-Young had been serving as the interim director of the departments of public works and utilities.

Delray Beach also lacks permanent directors of Development Services, Finance and Neighborhood and Community Services. The other assistant city manager, Suzanne Fisher, had been director of Parks and Recreation until a few months ago.

Finally, Sustainability Director Ana Puszkin-Chevlin also resigned. That position reports to the city manager. Puszkin-Chevlin told me Saturday that she received a very tempting offer and that city officials had said she would have no opportunity for advancement in Delray Beach.

Former Delray Beach City Manager Mark Lauzier

Delray Beach would have a leadership vacuum even if Cernech were coming. Now that he isn’t, where does the city go at today’s meeting?

It took six months since the commission fired Mark Lauzier to choose a successor. Starting a new search likely would mean a similar period of delay.

The commission could vote to negotiate with Gretsas or Napoli. But after last Friday, neither might be interested. Gretsas did not return a phone call on Monday.

Finally, the city’s recruiting firm identified two other finalists, from North Carolina and Kansas. The commission wanted to focus only on candidates from South Florida, but now could interview the out-of-staters.

Again, though, the commission would have to deal with potential damage from the collapsed negotiations with Cernech. Commissioners at least owe the public an explanation of what happened on Friday.

I am told that Gelin regularly was checking with commissioners on details of Cernech’s contract. Things were progressing normally—until they weren’t. And now Delray Beach has made a mess of things.

And de Jesus? We’ll see

Neal de Jesus during his tenure as fire chief

According to the statement, Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus “will continue to serve until a permanent manager is selected.” De Jesus, Delray Beach’s fire chief, has had the interim job since March 1.

Last spring, the commission discussed the idea making de Jesus the permanent manager. As Boylston said recently, however, “That ship has sailed.” Of course, this is Delray Beach. Anything is possible. As we keep seeing.

Lauzier update

Speaking of Lauzier, the hearing on Delray Beach’s motion to dismiss the ex-manager’s wrongful termination lawsuit has been rescheduled for Nov. 18.

The commission fired Lauzier based on an investigation by the internal auditor that Lauzier had violated the city charter on hiring and salaries. Lauzier alleges that he was fired for questioning Petrolia’s attempt to have the city pay for her son to attend a city function in Tallahassee.

Lauzier’s deposition is scheduled for Sept. 20

Dorian donations

Two Boca Raton fire stations are taking donations for Hurricane Dorian’s victims in the Bahamas.

The stations are at 1151 N. Federal Highway and 2333 Glades Road. Firefighters will accept donations through Sunday. Here are the items people can bring between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.:

Canned food, can openers, mosquito repellant, sunscreen, diapers and baby wipes, baby formula and baby food, first aid items, soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, batteries, flashlights and cleaning supplies. Larger items include tents, cots and tarps.

Crocker Partners also is working with the firefighters to offer drop-off sites. Residents can bring the same items to the valet parking stand at Boca Center between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. and at the Boca Raton Innovation Campus between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Haynie status update

Former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie

A status conference is scheduled for today in the public corruption case against former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie.

Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Glenn Kelley could set a trial date. Haynie’s attorney believes that it would happen in October or November.

The state’s recent discovery request shows where prosecutors are focusing. In addition to Haynie’s financial records, the state attorney’s office wants city records from five city council votes.

All concern properties owned by James Batmasian of Investments Limited. Haynie is charged with improperly voting when she and her husband owned a company that had a property management contract with master condo association in Deerfield Beach. Batmasian and his wife own most of the units in the condo.

One vote allowed a sign that the Community Appearance Board had rejected for a Batmasian property. Another allowed Batmasian to lease a pair of city parking spaces for valet use at Trattoria Romano. The restaurant is a Batmasian tenant.

Jim and Marta Batmasian

Others allowed a Batmasian property to have additional uses, allowed a variance to accommodate a sign and approved construction of eight townhomes on a site just west of City Hall. Batmasian flipped the property for a profit after getting the approval.

Based on the public record, we know about the actions prosecutors say Haynie did for the Batmasians. None of the votes was controversial. Most were unanimous.

We know less, however, about the financial relationship between Haynie, her husband and the Batmasians. Prosecutors allege that Haynie failed to disclose the full extent of that relationship. Assuming there’s no plea deal—her attorney says Haynie doesn’t want one—a trial finally may reveal that relationship.

The Boca Raton Firefighter & Paramedic Benevolent Fund Inc., with the support from the City, is partnering with Piper’s Angels to assist in delivering and distributing needed items. We know during disasters such as these, people are very skeptical about what organization to donate or provide items to. This is a great way for residents to give back and get their items to those in need.

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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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