De Jesus Shakes Up Delray, Tallahassee Push-Back and Negron’s Sweet Deal With GEO

Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

After Neal de Jesus became Delray Beach’s interim city manager on March 1, I wrote that he likely would not act like a caretaker.

No kidding.

In less than three weeks, de Jesus has created a new management team in the wake of Mark Lauzier’s firing. Some moves resulted from the internal auditor’s investigation that led to the dismissal.

On March 7, de Jesus emailed city commissioners to say that he had “terminated” India Adams and Vince Roberts. Adams had been Lauzier’s chief of staff. Lauzier had brought Roberts to City Hall on a management fellowship. The auditor had questioned both hires—based on lack of qualifications—and their salaries.

In the email, de Jesus called Adams and Roberts “probationary employees” and said he had fired them “for failure to meet probationary standards.” De Jesus declined to offer details, saying that the auditor’s findings are part of an investigation by the Office of Inspector General.

On March 13, de Jesus emailed that Shona Smith and Nora Emmanuel had resigned. Smith had been Lauzier’s executive secretary. Emmanuel had been City Hall’s public information officer. The police department has its own.

More recently, de Jesus promoted Suzanne Fisher from director of parks and recreation to assistant city manager. Caryn Gardner-Young remains the other.

“We don’t need four assistants,” de Jesus said, referring to the number Lauzier supposedly wanted, “but we do need two.”

Fisher had expressed interest four times, de Jesus said, when assistant manager positions came open. One approached happened during his previous temp role as manager. At the time, however, there were no other assistants and de Jesus said he needed someone with more high-level experience.

De Jesus will oversee the police and fire departments, which makes sense for two reasons. He is the fire chief, and the two departments comprise more than half of the city’s operating budget. The finance and human relations directors and the city clerk also will report to de Jesus.

The clerk’s office, de Jesus said, works closely with the manager’s office on the agendas for commission meetings. Finance deals with the budget and human relations “has the highest liability.”

On the new organizational chart, Gardner-Young will get development services, public works, utilities, purchasing and the office of sustainability. Fisher will get community services, information technology and—big surprise—parks and recreation.

To replace Fisher, de Jesus named Samuel Mettot, who had been her assistant. De Jesus said Mettot had been set to take a director’s job in another city but changed his mind when offered the promotion.

“You go outside if you need to,” de Jesus said, “but promoting from within is great for morale. I think we have the internal talent here.”

Only one department head position remains open: finance director. De Jesus named Laura Thezine, who had been the assistant, to run things for now. Like most South Florida cities, Delray Beach is starting serious work on the budget. De Jesus said the opening has been posted, but he will bring in someone from a headhunting firm as a longer-term interim until the city fills the job.

Despite all the action, De Jesus reiterated Monday that he doesn’t want to be the permanent manager.

“I have no interest,” he said.

Headhunters on board for Delray

With de Jesus uninterested in the manager job—even though the commission likely would approve him unanimously—the city commission last week chose a headhunting firm to find Lauzier’s successor.

The choice is Ralph Andersen and Associates, which is based near Sacramento, Calif. The firm has a 90-day contract. De Jesus said the normal procedure is to seek applications over the first 30 days, screen the applicants over the next 30 days and devote the final 30 days to interviews of the finalists and the commission vote.

De Jesus said representatives of the consultant would be in Delray Beach the first week of April. They will speak with commissioners and community leaders. If Delray Beach adheres to the timetable, the new manager could start work by July.

Need for PIO

Given the new vacancies in Delray Beach government, I made a professional request/suggestion to de Jesus: the city needs a staff-level public information officer.

As we have seen with the excellent department in Boca Raton, public information officers regularly communicate with residents across all platforms, to keep them informed about such things as public events, traffic disruptions and natural disasters. But they also allow reporters—from all media—to get questions answered in a timely manner, which enhances news coverage.

It was frustrating to deal with Boca Raton officials when all questions had to go through the city manager. Lauzier asked for the same. When he responded, usually by email, the answers tended to be complete. But he didn’t always answer, which wasn’t surprising. The manager has a million things to do.

Media accessibility, however, ultimately benefits the residents. Delray Beach and Boca Raton are home to less than credible “news” sources, especially on social media. Credible media can serve as needed checks on government—and on unfounded rumors and conspiracy theories.

Pushing back against Tallahassee  

Officials in Boca Raton and Delray Beach recently have emphasized the need to lobby state legislators against Tallahassee’s attempt to encroach on local control. True enough. Anti-government Republicans in Tallahassee are stepping up those attempts.

I have written about the bill that would prevent cities and counties from banning single-use plastic straws and taking other actions to protect the environment. Another bill would make it harder to pass sales-tax surcharges like the one that is doing so much to relieved crowding in Boca Raton’s public schools.

House Bill 5 would require two-thirds of voters, not a simple majority, to approve local sales increases such as the one-cent surcharge Palm Beach County passed in 2016. Over 10 years, the surcharge will raise $2.7 billion for infrastructure projects for the school district, the county and cities. If collections reach $2.7 billion before 10 years, the tax will end early.

Estimates are that Boca Raton will receive between $52 million and $62 million. Delray Beach will get between $38 million and $45 million. Cities get money based on population, not sales tax generation.

Fifty-nine percent of voters approved the surcharge. That’s nearly a landslide in political terms, but it would fall far short of HB 5’s threshold. The four-year, one-cent increase for school district operating expenses did pass last November with 72 percent.

The 2016 surcharge is benefitting Boca Raton and Delray Beach in many ways. The money is financing major upgrades to the county jail, which serves all police departments. Delray Beach will use almost half the money for long-deferred work on streets, sidewalks and alleys.

And in Boca Raton, the surcharge will pay for new Addison Mizner and Verde elementary schools. The rebuilt campuses will add middle school grades, thus easing crowding throughout the city.

Neither the text of HB 5 nor the analysis specifies why the standard should be a two-thirds vote. So the explanation is knee-jerk opposition to local taxes. Ironically, most counties must resort to sales tax surcharges that help schools because Tallahassee shortchanges the schools, forcing local taxpayers to make up the difference.

HB 5 has passed two committees. The Senate’s similar, but much less restrictive bill, has passed one committee. SB 336 only would require that counties schedule sales tax votes on general elections. Last year, several counties held them on the day of the primary.

Boca becoming receptive to medical marijuana

Turnover on the Boca Raton City Council has shifted sentiment more in favor of allowing medical marijuana dispensaries. Council members recently asked staff to draft an ordinance.

Reporting by The Palm Beach Post last month may have debunked one argument against the dispensaries. The paper found that crime did not rise in areas around the six dispensaries that operate in the county. The reporting happened before the legislature approved smokable medical marijuana, action that came after a lawsuit challenging the ban.

In 2016, voters approved medical marijuana in Florida. The Legislature, however, gave cities and counties little flexibility. Local governments must allow them where they allow pharmacies, even though pharmacies can’t dispense medical marijuana because of federal law.

The Joe Negron deal

Politico just reported the sweet deal that Boca Raton-based GEO Group gave former Florida Senate President Joe Negron.

GEO, which runs private prison and detention facilities, hired Negron as general counsel after he left the Senate last year. GEO is paying Negron $400,000 a year. According to Politico, that’s nearly double what Negron made at the law firm where he previously worked.

During Negron’s last year as president, the Legislature increased by $4 million the amount appropriated for companies that operate private prisons. Politico also reported that Negron secured almost $3 million for GEO’s offender rehabilitation program. GEO had donated $400,000 to Negron-controlled committees and to the unsuccessful congressional campaign of Negron’s wife.

Tallahassee remains a place of business/political transactions. Based on Politico’s reporting, GEO gave Negron his new job for services rendered.

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