A Review of Delray City Manager Candidates, Car Sales in Boca & More

Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

Delray Beach should have a permanent city manager on Tuesday. Each commissioner will interview the three finalists privately on Monday for an hour. On Tuesday, each candidate gets another 30 minutes before the commission in public, after which the commission is expected to decide.

All the candidates are from South Florida. Michael Cernech is city manager in Tamarac, near Coral Springs. George Gretsas is city manager in Homestead, south of Miami. Joseph Napoli is deputy city manager in Miami.

Here’s a breakdown of the candidates, based on the available information. I spoke only with Cernech. Gretsas preferred to talk first to the commission. I was told that Napoli has been on vacation. But there’s a long public record on Gretsas, especially from his six years as city manager in Fort Lauderdale.

Tamarac and Homestead are roughly equal in size to Delray Beach, with populations of about 70,000. Like Delray Beach, both are diverse, although more Hispanic. Homestead is almost two-thirds Hispanic and 20 percent African-American. Tamarac is 27 percent Hispanic and 28 percent African-American. In Delray Beach, about 30 percent of the residents are African-American. Hispanics make up only 11 percent.

Miami, of course, is much larger, with about half a million residents who are overwhelmingly Hispanic. The workings of the city also are much more complex. Miami has two major-league sports teams and one of the world’s busiest seaports, which a separate agency runs.

Michael Cernech

Michael Cernech

He’s been with Tamarac for 18 years, the last eight as manager. Cernech has drawn no controversy that I could find, which is remarkable for someone who has had such a position in South Florida for so long. So why leave what seems to be a secure job?

“Delray is unique,” Cernech told me. “It’s an awesome opportunity. The brand is very strong. Any city manager would want that job.”

Cernech said he has “managed the evolution” of Tamarac from a retiree-dominated community to one that draws young families because of affordable housing and safe neighborhoods. The median age, Cernech said, has dropped from 70 to 47.

“We’re worked very hard to improve schools in the city,” Cernech said. “It creates a lot more value in those neighborhoods.” Delray Beach also wants to boost the reputation of its public schools.

Tamarac contracts for law enforcement with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. Otherwise, it offers all the services Delray Beach does.

Cernech said Tamarac did not have an opioid crisis similar to what Delray Beach has dealt with. He notes, however, that the city denied applications from “pill mills” that wanted to open, and the denials held up in court.

Cernech stressed his “strong financial background.” He added that Tamarac, like Delray Beach, is nearly built out and thus focuses on redevelopment. “I see the city as offering opportunity after opportunity.”

George Gretsas

George Gretsas

This is what the Sun Sentinel wrote after the Fort Lauderdale City Commission declined in 2010 to extend Gretsas’ contract after six years:

“Gretsas was a polarizing figure in City Hall—a hands-on reformer to some, a micromanaging egotist to others. He obsessed on details like chewing gum on sidewalks, patrolled the beach in a dune buggy, personally critiqued the architecture of private development projects and led code enforcement sweeps.”

To which Gretsas replied, “This was a very volatile environment. My bosses had an aggressive agenda that required change and change doesn’t come easily.”

In his application, Gretsas claims credit for working with elected officials to improve Fort Lauderdale’s finances. When he came, residents faced tax increases of about 30 percent and reserves were nearly drained. When Gretsas left, the tax rate had been stable—even into the recession—and reserves were high enough that Gretsas proposed using some to balance the budget.

Gretsas famously tangled with the police department. He said pension costs could bankrupt the city and pushed for cuts to reduce the city’s liability. In 2008, the union called for a no-confidence vote, which officers approved 398-6. The chief whom Gretsas replaced won a seat on the commission and became a critic.

Yet the Homestead City Commission quickly and unanimously hired Gretsas after he left Fort Lauderdale. Of his current job, Gretsas cites the city’s recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. In 2017, a long Miami Herald article cited significant progress on Homestead’s long-delayed redevelopment.

Jospeh Napoli

Joseph Napoli

He’s the outlier in terms of background.

Cernech and Gretsas have spent two decades-plus in municipal management. Napoli spent most of his career in the Army after graduating from West Point. Before going to Miami City Hall in 2018, Napoli spent three years with the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting company—which does a lot of military contracting—and four years as chief of staff for Miami International Airport.

So commissioners will want to know why Napoli is interested in downsizing, even if to run his own show. In his application, Napoli refers to the “recent turmoil” in Delray Beach—the firing in March of City Manager Mark Lauzier—and says he would “bring experienced leadership and together with the staff assess strengths and weaknesses in policies and procedures and make those adjustments necessary to rapidly stabilize the organization.

“It will also be necessary to quickly establish a close and cohesive working relationship with the mayor and commission with a thorough understanding of expectations, priorities and issues of importance. Once done, we can continue along a common path to greatness for Delray Beach.” Napoli also cites his “dynamic talents.”

Only Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioner Shirley Johnson were in office when the commission chose Lauzier in October 2017. His profile seemed perfect and he appeared to be a good fit. Whoever the commission chooses will be Delray Beach’s fourth permanent manager since January 2013.

Bringing car sales to Boca?

Boca Raton’s largest landowner wants the city to let a tenant sell cars in the city.

An entity of Investments Limited, James Batmasian’s company, is asking the city to rezone the roughly four-acre site on the north side of Yamato Road just west of Federal Highway. The “car agency,” as the staff report calls it, would replace the Sound Advice showroom.

The daycare center and Dunkin’ restaurant on the site would remain, but the change would bring two restaurants serving hamburgers and gelato. The proposal goes before the planning and zoning board tonight.

Atlantis Motor Group would not be a traditional car seller. There would be no more than 39 vehicles on the property. Due to what the staff report calls “the rare and expensive nature” of the vehicles, potential buyers likely would make appointments and not drop by.

Because a “car agency”—such as a rental outlet—is a conditional use for that site, the rezoning would need city council approval. The staff recommends approval, but Boca Raton doesn’t allow the sort of dealerships that line Federal Highway in Delray Beach and Deerfield Beach. So it will be interesting to see the council’s reaction. Batmasian bought the property in 2013 for $5 million.

There’s also a footnote. The council voted in 2017 to allow a sign on the property that the community appearance board had rejected. That vote is related to the corruption charges against former Mayor Susan Haynie and her relationship with Batmasian.

Connect Delray launches

Delray Beach’s latest downtown transportation service is about to start.

The community redevelopment agency announced that the renamed Connect Delray will begin Sept. 3, offering a fixed-point route similar to the city’s former trolley and Uber-like on-demand service. Because the CRA will finance both operations, rides will be free.

According to the news release, First Transit will continue to operate the fixed-route service and will add vehicles and stops between Swinton Avenue and East Fourth Avenue. Freebee will operate the on-demand vehicles. They will offer rides from A1A to I-95 and between Gulfstream Boulevard and Southwest 10th Street. Riders can download the company’s app.

CRA Executive Director Renee Jadusingh noted that the change would expand downtown service along West Atlantic Avenue. Elected officials hope that the service will relieve traffic and reduce carbon emissions.

Fedele announces new position

BRRH incoming CEO Lincoln Mendez and CEO Jerry Fedele

Jerry Fedele is letting people know that even though he’s retired as CEO of Boca Raton Regional Hospital, he’s not retiring.

In an email, Fedele said he accepted “accepted a part-time position with Blue Sea Capital, a West Palm Beach private equity fund that invests in health care, aerospace, and manufacturing start-ups that require additional capital or expertise to take them to the next level.” Fedele’s title will be executive advisor and he will serve on the board of some of the fund’s investments.

According to the firm’s website, Blue Sea focuses on “middle market” companies that “deserve large firm capabilities.” Among Blue Sea’s companies is West Palm Beach-based MD Now Urgent Care. Fedele led Boca Regional from 2008 until this month, when Lincoln Mendez took over as the hospital become part of Baptist Health South Florida.

Coco goes wild!

Cori “Coco” Gauff in 2017 (Photo by Aaron Bristol)

To no one’s surprise, Cori “Coco” Gauff this week received a wild-card invitation to the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 26. It’s the last of tennis’ four major championships.

Since the 15-year-old from Delray Beach got back from her big show at Wimbledon, things have been fairly quiet. Gauff qualified for the Women’s Tennis Association event in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago and won her first match. Then she lost in straight sets to Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan, the world’s 80th-ranked player. Gauff’s ranking is 140th.

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