Wednesday, May 25, 2022

City of Delray Beach Breaks Up with Old School Square

The Delray Beach City Commission wants someone else to run Old School Square.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the commission terminated the lease for the city-owned complex with Old School Square for the Arts. That group has managed the facility since it became Old School Square three decades ago and spurred downtown redevelopment.

It happened in typical Delray Beach fashion. No Old School Square item was on the agenda. Internal Auditor Julia Davidyan was making a presentation to update the commission on Old School Square for the Arts’ compliance with the city’s request for financial information.

Davidyan explained what she believed the group had and had not supplied. Commissioner Shirley Johnson then asked to speak.

Johnson pronounced herself  “thoroughly disappointed” with the “downward spiral of responsibility” by Old School Square for the Arts. She made the motion to terminate, which City Attorney Lynn Gelin said would require 180 days notice.

“We have ample cause,” Johnson said. She complained that Old School Square had sent numerous documents just two minutes before the meeting. “We are being taken advantage of.”

Mayor Shelly Petrolia chimed in. Old School Square “should be our Central Park.” Instead, “It’s been year after year of faltering.” Minority residents west of Swinton Avenue, she said, “don’t feel welcome” at Old School Square. “I’ve got real problems.”

Commissioner Julie Casale said of the group, “I don’t see how they succeed. I don’t want to see it fail miserably and then have to come in and have to clean up.”

Ryan Boylston said termination would be premature. “There are a lot of concerns,” he said. But as for ending the lease, “We’re not there yet.”

Adam Frankel was blunter. “We’re going to cut off a multi-year relationship because of personality conflicts?” Frankel noted that the city already is “overtaxed” because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea of the city taking over and running Old School Square is “nuts.”

But Casale, Johnson and Petrolia voted to end the lease. Boylston and Frankel dissented. Casale seemed to wonder whether the action could amount to probation, but Gelin made clear that the decision was irrevocable.

So what happens now?

No one knows.

old school square

As I reported earlier, Old School Square for the Arts got sideways with the commission most recently for not consulting the city on the renovation of the Crest Theater. The group had a donor for the work and hired a contractor without putting the project out for bid. Frances Bourque, the group’s founder, appeared before the commission last month to apologize and ask forgiveness.

So much for that.

But will the city now have to finish that project? Petrolia seemed unconcerned about potential cost. The money, she said, could come from the community redevelopment agency, which has withheld contributions while waiting to review those documents.

Does Old School Square for the Arts have any contractual obligations that the city might have to assume? “I don’t know what they are,” Gelin said.

“Who’s going to run it?” Boylston asked. The commission asked City Manager Terrence Moore—who has been on the job for 10 days–to seek alternatives.

There also was the question of whether a vote to terminate would be legal. The commission did not provide public notice of any decision on the contract.

“We’ve done this before,” Gelin said. Well, yes. In 2018, the commission abolished the CRA without putting that item on the agenda. Later that year, with no public notice, the commission fired then-City Attorney Max Lohman, after which Gelin was promoted to the top job.

Petrolia led both of those unadvertised discussions. This time, it was Johnson, though Petrolia used her position to keep the momentum toward termination going.

A representative for Old School Square for the Arts said the documents used to justify end the lease were were “inaccurate and outdated.” The group had “provided the updated audit prior to that meeting, which demonstrated complete compliance.”

In addition, the representative said, Davidyan “admitted that she had not had the time to review the very documents she had requested and that (Old School Square for the Arts) provided, all of which demonstrate their compliance for the past six years of audits.” Davidyan had told the group that “she would state at the meeting that the paperwork had been received but not processed at this time.” It didn’t happen.

Finally, Old School Square representatives had prepared Tuesday to present documents the city had requested and discuss them. But Johnson raised the issue before the public comment portion of the meeting.

In 2010, Boca Raton took over the Mizner Park Amphitheater. But that happened with advance notice, and Old School Square is a much more complex operation.

I’ll have more on this story, which is far from over. The city has to decide its next steps. One can imagine a scenario in which Old School Square for the Arts challenges the vote in court. If termination was justified, Boylston said, “It should have been done the right way.”

First donation for Mizner arts center

In contrast to the controversy in Delray Beach, there was happier news this week for the group seeking to build a performing arts center in Mizner Park.

The Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Corporation (BRADEC) announced its first seven-figure donation–$5 million from the Edith and Martin Stein Family Foundation. Edith Stein and her late husband have long histories of philanthropy in this area and New Jersey.

In May, the Boca Raton City Council authorized staff to negotiate a lease with BRADEC for the vacant, 1.8-acre site at the northeast corner of Mizner Park. The arts center would include the adjoining amphitheater, which would get a makeover. BRADEC wants to raise $130 million over the next two years for construction and an endowment.

And another big BRRH donation

Speaking of seven-figure gifts, Boca Raton Regional Hospital has received another $1 million donation toward its capital campaign.

This one comes from Anita and Howard Waltuch, who are longtime donors to the hospital. According to a news release, Boca Regional has raised $210 million toward its goal of $250 million.

Delray vaccine mandate


Moore’s comments on Tuesday underscored the importance of his new policy that all non-union city employees must show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or submit to regular testing.

There was a recent outbreak in City Hall, Moore said. “Services have been compromised.” Petrolia said the outbreak happened two weeks ago. “A large number” of employees, she said, “had to be quarantined.”

Human Resources Director Duane D’Andrea said his phone “has been ringing off the hook” with calls from “other agencies” asking about the policy. Delray Beach may be leading, he said, but “I anticipate many more” will adopt similar mandates. Though Delray Beach did not include union members, D’Andrea said the firefighters union is “conceptually on board.”

On a related note, Delray Beach will give $500 to “ancillary” employees who had no option to work from home during the pandemic. Most of the roughly 180 employees work in the building department, parks and recreation and code enforcement.

The idea came from Boylston. The money will come from the city’s share of the American Rescue Plan that will close the budget gap for next year.

Though it might sound like a bonus, the city can’t call it a bonus. The money must be for pandemic-related expenses. So it will be “hazard pay.”

Pride intersection update

I wrote Tuesday about the decision not to charge Alexander Jerich with a hate crime for defacing Delray Beach’s LGBTQ Pride streetscape. I had wanted reaction from Nicholas Coppola, the Delray Beach resident who helped raise money for the streetscape, but I didn’t hear back from him by my deadline.

Coppola and I finally made contact. He disagrees with the decision, but he wanted to stress that Jerich is an outsider who lives in Lake Worth Beach. “What happened,” Coppola said, “was in no way reflective of Delray Beach. The city has been great and we appreciate the support.”

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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