Monday, November 27, 2023

8th Delray Beach City Manager in 8 Years Bites The Dust

Every time you think that Delray Beach politics can’t get lower, the city sets a new low.

This one happened Tuesday, when the city commission voted its intent to fire City Manager George Gretsas. Let’s review the circumstances:

  • The vote occurred during a special meeting. The agenda failed to say that the meeting concerned the fate of a city manager who had started only in January.
  • Mayor Shelly Petrolia and city commissioners Julie Casale and Shirley Johnson voted to fire Gretsas based on unconfirmed allegations in a report that the mayor and the commissioners had not seen.
  • Gretsas got no chance to respond to the allegations.
  • Gretsas’ attorney accused City Attorney Lynn Gelin of lying.
  • The timing of this kangaroo court seemed designed to align with Mayor Shelly Petrolia’s vacation plans.

A month ago, Delray Beach seemed unusually settled, even for Delray Beach and even during the COVID-19 pandemic. George Floyd protests were passionate but peaceful.

Then Gretsas sought to fire Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher. In a June 5 letter, Gretsas accused Fisher of “misusing her office”—when she was director of Parks and Recreation—to help current boyfriends. Five days later, Fisher accused Gretsas of creating a “hostile work environment.”

george gretsas
George Gretsas

The city hired a law firm to investigate. In a functioning city, elected officials would review the report, hear from the city manager and decide what—if anything—to do.

Delray Beach being a dysfunctional city, that didn’t happen.

The special meeting was scheduled for 3 p.m. It didn’t start until more than an hour later. Judging by the comments once the meeting began, the city had been trying to get Gretsas to resign. He didn’t. So Petrolia, Casale and Johnson voted to fire him.

Because of a clause in his contract, however, the commission first must declare its intent to fire him. That process could take another 120 days.

When Commissioner Ryan Boylston asked why he was being asked to vote without seeing the report, Gelin claimed that Gretsas proposed the resignation option because he worried that the report could hurt his reputation if it became public. That now will happen. If Gretsas had resigned, Gelin said, the report would not have become a public record.

Gretsas’ attorney, however, said the city offered Gretsas the chance to resign. She denied that, as the city claimed, Gretsas had been “begging” to resign. She said the proceeding felt “rushed.”

Gelin, who kept saying that her job is to protect the city, was cryptic throughout. At one key moment, Boylston asked, “What is the cause?” for termination. Petrolia, Casale and Johnson were silent.

Gelin finally said, “I can get into that.” She said the accusations concerned at least one “policy violation.” But does a “policy violation” —even if true—justify firing? 

Gretsas’ attorney said, “I don’t understand the procedure.” Commissioners were basing decisions on “conclusions you haven’t seen. Is due process involved?” Gelin responded, “I take exception to the due process comment.”

In fact, nothing about this process was close to fair. Yet Gelin appeared to sanction it, just as she sanctioned the firing of former Manager Mark Lauzier in March 2019 without Lauzier being given a chance to response to the internal auditor’s charges.

After listening for most of the meeting Wednesday, Gretsas finally spoke. He argued against being “convicted without a fair hearing.” He noted that there are “credibility issues” about Fisher, who previously made similar accusations against other city officials.

“Resignation,” Gretsas said, “makes no sense.” He asked commissioners to read the report and allow him to respond. “Then we can see who’s credible and who’s not.”

Petrolia ignored him and called for the vote.

Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia

Some observations:

It is plausible to believe that Petrolia is at the heart of this self-defeating action for the city. She recruited and supported Casale in her campaign last March against Bill Bathurst, who never would have gone along with the firing. Petrolia indicated that she would be out of town at the end of the week, which may explain the scheduling of the meeting and the rush to an outcome.

Petrolia has shown before that she will seek to remove key officials with whom she disagrees and try to act like a strong mayor, which under the city’s charter she is not. Petrolia ran off former City Attorney Max Lohman. Gelin suceeded him. After Gelin presided over Lauzier’s firing, Petrolia said of Gelin, “She’s amazing.”

The commission quickly named Purchasing Director Jennifer Alvarez to be interim city manager. It stretches credulity to think that the appointment wasn’t scripted. Was she really the best person for the job?

Alvarez becomes the city’s CEO at a time when the budget deficit for next year may be as high as $10 million. She has never run a city. Boylston proposed that Assistant City Manager Alysson Love get the job. Johnson huffed that Gretsas had brought Love to Delray Beach, so she wouldn’t do.

If that report about Gretsas doesn’t confirm the worst about him, it could confirm that the push for his resignation was about getting rid of him before exculpatory facts emerged in the report. Even if the report is critical, the commission still would look bad for how it handled the issue.

Either way, the meeting reinforced the idea that factional politics dominate Delray Beach. “Our city,” Petrolia said in a news release, “needs a manager that (sic) understands and respects the mission, vision and culture of Delray Beach, brings out the best in the city and its staff, and helps Delray Beach reach its full potential.”

In fact, the obstacle to Delray Beach reaching its full potential is Delray Beach.

International Materials comes to Delray

Ironically, the Business Development Board of Palm Beach announced this week that International Materials Inc., a raw materials trading firm, will move its local office and at least 45 employees from Boca Raton to Delray Beach. The company will take roughly 20,000 square feet in Fourth and Fifth Delray, the project that includes the iPic theater. (More in the next item.)

The irony, Boylston said, is that Gretsas helped IMI through the approval process and helped to secure the move. Delray Beach officials for years have prioritized increasing the amount of corporate office space.

Phase 2 for iPic?

ipic delray
iPic Delray rendering

Though Palm Beach County has asked Gov. DeSantis to allow Phase 2 reopenings, the spike in new cases may cause the governor to wait. If it happens, however, movie theaters will be able to reopen.

That prospect made me wonder what’s up with iPic, the luxury chain that Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) bought out of bankruptcy last year. iPic has theaters in Boca Raton and Delray Beach and another in Aventura.

As of last week, no one had heard much about the company’s plans. On Wednesday, I spoke with an RSA representative. She told me that the pension fund has hired a management team for iPic and that the company “looks forward” to reopening. “We think there will be lots of pent-up demand,” the representative said.

FAU Reopening Plan

Photo: Alex Dolce, Florida Atlantic University

The Board of Governors on Tuesday approved Florida Atlantic University’s plan for reopening after the COVID-19 pandemic closed campuses in mid-March.

One key part of that plan concerns on-campus housing and rules to protect students. In that respect, at least, FAU has it easier than traditional campuses such as the University of Florida and Florida State University. Almost all their students live on campus. About 4,100 students live on FAU’s main campus in Boca Raton.

Wildflower is approved

wildflower park
Wildflower park rendering (Courtesy of City of Boca Raton)

The Boca Raton City Council has officially approved Wildflower/Silver Palm Park.

With their action Tuesday night, council members authorized staff to advertise for a contractor to build the roughly six-acre project. It will create a new park where the Wildflower nightclub once stood—along the Intracoastal Waterway north of the Palmetto Park Road bridge— and link it with an upgraded Silver Palm Park on the south side.

Though the city’s consultant said the project could cost more than $11 million, council members told Ahnell to stick with the budgeted $8.25 million. Ahnell said hiring of a contractor could come in September or October, with construction starting in January. The work will include raising seawalls on the Wildflower side to comply with new standards for flood protection. The Silver Palm seawalls are high enough.

The city bought the roughly two-acre Wildflower property in 2009 for $7.5 million.

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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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