Unpacking the Resignation of Suzanne Fisher, Delray Budget Woes & More

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Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

The resignation of Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher raises more questions about the turmoil in Delray Beach.

As I reported last week, Fisher said her departure will take effect Sept. 7 “by agreement” with the city. That language in her terse letter to City Attorney Lynn Gelin—who said Fisher is leaving under a “release and separation agreement” that Gelin said is not finalized—suggests that the decision is not hers.

If so, then why is she leaving? And why now?

Fisher was the central figure in the supposed case against City Manager George Gretsas, whom the commission suspended on June 24. Mayor Shelly Petrolia and commissioners Julie Casale and Shirley Johnson made clear that they believed the conclusions from an investigation that Gelin commissioned and intend to fire Gretsas. He is fighting that attempt.

Gretsas, the investigator said, had tried to fire Fisher in retaliation for her complaints that Gretsas was hostile to female employees. Through his attorney, Carmen Rodriguez, Gretsas has denied the allegation. The attorney also has noted that Gretsas took his case against Fisher to Gelin, who did not warn Gretsas of Fisher’s own complaint. Gelin has not responded to my question about why—in the mind of Rodriguez—she seemingly set up Gretsas for the retaliation charge.

In his June 5 memo for a pre-discipline conference about Fisher, Gretsas cited what he said were attempts by Fisher to help her boyfriend. He works for the company that manages Delray Beach’s golf courses.

Fisher, Gretsas said, didn’t tell him or the parks and recreation director— who reported to Fisher—about her boyfriend’s employment. Gretsas implied that the company had hired the boyfriend more because of his relationship to Fisher than for his qualifications. Gretsas included information about what he considered previous conflict-of-interest issues about Fisher when she ran the parks and recreation department and her “propensity for lying, creating internal acrimony, and making false charges.”

With their vote on June 24, Petrolia, Casale and Johnson rejected Gretsas’ evaluation of Fisher. Does Fisher’s leaving, however, validate Gretsas’ evaluation and undercut the idea that he wanted to retaliate? If so, does that undercut the reason for suspending Gretsas?

These questions join the many others that have arisen since that vote on June 24 at a meeting that was posted without telling the public the reason for the meeting. The next step comes on Aug. 28, when the commission considers formal charges against Gretsas. I will have an update before that meeting.

An update on the Interim City Manager

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Delray Beach Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez

After voting to suspend Gretsas, Petrolia, Casale and Johnson quickly named Purchasing Director Jennifer Alvarez as interim city manager. If Alvarez thought that her promotion would be hassle-free, she thought wrong.

Last week, the commission rejected Alvarez’ proposal to use roughly $9 million from reserves to balance Delray Beach’s general fund budget for next year and keep current on key capital programs. At their budget workshop meeting, commissioners allowed Alvarez to to use about $5.5 million from the reserve fund for one-time work that the commission considers essential. The remaining $3.5 million for the hole in the operating budget will have to come from further cuts than what Alvarez had detailed.

That could mean layoffs. Alvarez conceded the point when she said it “might be hard” to avoid them under the commission’s dictate. She asked whether the commission was certain about its direction. The commission was.

So Delray Beach enters the toughest budget year since the Great Recession with an interim manager who never has been even an assistant city manager. Gretsas was manager in Homestead during the recession, when property values cratered.  Petrolia previously had dismissed the idea that the deficit could be between $8 million and $9 million. Petrolia said the number was more like $2 million. That was for the current budget year, which ends Sept. 30. The commission previously raided reserves to balance this year’s budget.

Taking the full $9 million, commissioners said, would have dropped Delray Beach’s reserves too low. The fund would have been within the acceptable range under national standards, but commissioners agreed that the prospect of a hurricane justified a higher South Florida standard.

Even with the drop in revenue from COVID-19, Alvarez had proposed an $11 million increase in the operating budget that finances most basic services. Petrolia noted that the budget had risen 40 percent since she joined the commission in March 2013. Commissioner Ryan Bolyston said he was unwilling to use revenues to subsidize the budget to such a degree.

Commissioner Adam Frankel pointed out that the COVID-19 effects could last “well into next year.” Alvarez asked whether she should return with a list of proposed cuts that totaled $3.5 million. Petrolia hinted that the list should be longer. The commission might not stop at $3.5 million.

Pay raise for elected officials

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After that dose of austerity for the staff, Petrolia and the commission voted to give themselves a big raise.

Salaries would rise from $12,000 to $30,000 for the mayor and from $9,000 to $24,000 for the four commissioners. Most cities require a public referendum for such raises. Delray Beach does not. Casale, Johnson and Frankel joined Petrolia. Only Ryan Boylston voted against the raise. The commission must hold a second vote for the raises to become final.

Interestingly, Frankel had said during the budget meeting that he has had to make personal finance “cuts.” During one of the city’s online COVID-19 discussions, Petrolia said she and her husband had lost their income because of the pandemic.

It’s true that salaries in Delray Beach trail those in Boynton Beach and Boca Raton. It’s also true that everyone on the dais knew the salaries when deciding to run.

If voters disagree with the raises, they won’t get a chance to punish Johnson. She just started her second and final three-year term. Casale and Frankel aren’t on the ballot until 2023. Petrolia and Boylston are on the ballot next year.

Steady at the top in Boca

In contrast to the constant turnover in Delray Beach of city managers, the Boca Raton City Council just held its annual lovefest for Leif Ahnell.

He has been city manager since 1999. In contrast, Delray Beach has gone through four permanent city managers and four interim stints since 2014.

Council members don’t fill out any evaluation forms for Ahnell or issue any grades. They speak with him individually and recap the sessions in public.

Mayor Scott Singer said Ahnell has “demonstrated many successes.” Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Singer has become “even more impressed.” Council members Monica Mayotte, Andrea O’Rourke and Andy Thomson had similar praise. “You’re doing an excellent job,” Thomson said.

The council also raved about City Attorney Diana Frieser. She and Ahnell have entered the state’s mandatory retirement program.

Debate over reopening schools persists

The intergovernment tension over reopening Palm Beach County’s public schools is starting to show.

Last week, county commissioner Melissa McKinlay and Robert Weinroth criticized the county school board for putting the onus for reopening classrooms on the commission. Classes will resume on Aug. 31 with online learning only. Campuses won’t start to reopen until the county enters Phase 2 of Gov. DeSantis’ Phase 2 COVID-19 guidelines.

The county commission must ask the governor to enter Phase 2. The commission did so just before the mid-summer case surge. When the numbers spiked, the commission withdrew the request.

Based on that chain of command, Weinroth argued to me on Friday that DeSantis now has effective control over schools reopening and the board has lost influence and leverage. He made the same point in the South Florida Sun Sentinel. County Mayor Dave Kerner said decisions still rest with the school board when the county enters Phase 2.

One can understand why few public officials would want to own responsibility for such an important and controversial issue. The real problem, however, is with the Trump and DeSantis administrations. They have offered no standard guidelines.

Last week, DeSantis said responses to cases among students and staff should vary from district to district. He wants a “surgical” approach. Public health experts, however, say that consistent standards can help prevent new outbreaks.

One key metric for reopening is a positivity test rate below 5 percent. The county claimes that the rate has dropped to roughly seven percent. Covid Act Now, however, calculates that the rate is more like 14 percent. Covid Act Now reports that Florida and Georgia remain as the only two states where there is an “active” virus outbreak or there is “imminent risk.” A small Georgia school district had to place roughly 1,200 students in quarantine after reopening fully and aggressively.

On Wednesday, the school board will discuss response protocols for Palm Beach County. I’ll update after the meeting.