De Jesus Emerges as Possible Delray City Manager, Boca “Circulators” a Long Way Off

Neal de Jesus during his tenure as fire chief

Delray Beach’s search for a permanent city manager is focused for the moment on the interim city manager.

Near the end of Friday’s goal-setting session, City Commissioner Ryan Boylston asked his colleagues to discuss whether they should ask Neal de Jesus to remove the “interim” from his title. De Jesus has been running the city for two months, since the firing of Mark Lauzier.

This idea arose two years ago, when de Jesus stepped in after Don Cooper resigned. De Jesus made clear, however, that he wanted to return as fire chief. He made the same point after Lauzier’s firing. The commission hired a California-based headhunter to conduct the search.

Boylston said, however, that during their recent one-on-one discussions de Jesus signaled a change of heart. After Friday’s meeting, de Jesus said, “It would be foolish on my part to slam the door.”

But de Jesus made clear that he would not apply for the job as part of the search. The commission would have to ask and agree strongly. All five, de Jesus said, “would have to be in alignment.”

Boylston had support from Commissioners Bill Bathurst and Adam Frankel. Commissioner Shirley Johnson missed the meeting because she is recovering from knee replacement surgery.

Mayor Shelly Petrolia was hesitant. “I’m worried about stopping the process,” she said, referring to the search. Given de Jesus’ previous lack of interest, hiring him could “put a target on his back.”

Speaking louder and louder as she took over the discussion, Petrolia commissioners thus could be “targets” themselves in the March 2020 elections if they hired de Jesus. Bathurst and Johnson are on the ballot next year. “That’s just how it works.”

Yet Petrolia also said of de Jesus, “We have not had a better leader.” Commissioners praised the quality of the top leadership and the department heads and praised de Jesus for boosting morale after Lauzier’s sudden departure. De Jesus also lives in Delray Beach, having moved to the city two years ago from Broward County. He’s 57, so he wouldn’t be looking to retire in a year or two.

As for Petrolia’s comment about “the process,” Frankel asked, rhetorically, “Isn’t it our process?” True enough. The commission can do what it wants. Boylston noted that the application hasn’t gone out.

One argument against hiring de Jesus is that his background doesn’t include finance—though he has overseen fire department budgets—or planning. One argument for him is that the commission almost sees him as the manager. Boylston said he and his colleagues must “give Neal’s team some focus.”

Boylston said Monday that he intends to put the matter on a commission agenda. He also wondered whether the city again should require a supermajority—four votes—to fire the manager. Voters made it a simple majority in 2014, when Frankel—during his first tour on the commission—and Al Jacquet refused to fire Louie Chapman. Critics accused him of displaying insubordination similar to actions of which Lauzier was accused.

De Jesus said, “I’ll keep pushing forward as long as it goes. My preference is to be fire chief, but I can count. If (the manager’s job) fits, we move forward.”

Lawsuit dismissed

On Friday, a judge dismissed a lawsuit against Delray Beach by one of the city’s best-known residents.

William Himmelrich, owner of Old School Bakery and civic activist, sued in October 2017. Himmelrich and David Hosokawa own the two properties on Atlantic Avenue across from Old School Square. In February 2015, the city commission approved an ordinance that reduced the height limit from 48 feet to 38 feet for buildings on or within 125 feet from Atlantic Avenue between Swinton Avenue and the Intracoastal Waterway. The ordinance allows no waivers.

In the lawsuit, Himmelrich and Hosokawa claimed that the ordinance amounted to a “taking” of their property rights. They filed a claim under the Bert Harris Act, named for the self-proclaimed Central Florida property rights advocate who sponsored the legislation.

Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Jaimie Goodman, however, noted that Himmelrich and Hosokawa had not submitted a development application. They argued that the city had reduced the value of something they might want to develop.

Calling it “undisputed” that the plaintiffs had not filed an application, Goodman said their claim is “not yet ripe.” The city didn’t get a chance to apply the ordinance, so the plaintiffs can’t cite any actual damage, even though they argued that they lost the “absolute right” to build something 48 feet tall.

Himmelrich and Hosokawa nearly got a settlement. The city commission approved one, 3-2. Then Commissioner Ryan Boylston changed his vote and the case went to court.

The plaintiffs could appeal. Or the city might reach out and try to work them on development options. There’s general agreement that a good project would enhance Delray Beach’s civic hub of Old School Square.

More on the ice rink

Boca Ice Rink (Rendering by RLC Architects)

At a meeting last week, Boca Raton City Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke hinted at plans for an ice rink on private land. Here are the details.

The developer is Hal Jakovitz. He built the Glacier Ice and Show rink Arena in Pompano Beach. Jakovitz said he sold it three years ago. Two decades ago, Jakovitz proposed a rink for Delray Beach. The post-9/11 recession, Jakovitz told me, ended that idea.

For Boca Raton, Jakovitz proposed something spiffier. The facility would have two rinks and an arts center. Where the Pompano Beach rink once served as the training center for the Florida Panthers, Jakovitz said he would seek to attract world-class figure skaters to train in Boca Raton.

The facility would be on roughly four acres near Peninsula Corporate Center and the Congress Avenue interchange of Interstate 95. The city would need to rezone the site, which is under contract, from manufacturing/industrial to recreation. There have been informal discussions with the city. Attorney Bonnie Miskel, who represents Jakovitz, told me Friday that formal application could go to the city this week.

Malcolm Butters is CEO of Butters Construction, which would build the rink/arts center. Among the company’s notable projects is the new iPic in Delray Beach. Butters said city representatives “wanted a public arts component.” So the facility, Butters said, would include something like the Wynwood Walls in Miami that display urban street art and murals.

The city, Butters said, “seems very supportive.” The Peninsula Corporate Center board voted in support. If Jakovitz could obtain all city approvals by the end of the year, the project would by Christmas of 2021.

Boca adds parking meters

Boca Raton will add meters to about 250 downtown parking spaces.

The city council, acting as the community redevelopment agency, made the decision last week. Some merchants had asked for the change to encourage turnover. Some employees of downtown businesses get the spots early in the day. Customers show up later and find themselves forced to circle.

The spaces will be south of Palmetto Park Road and near Royal Palm Place. According to a spokeswoman, the city will install about 40 meters by fall. Each meter serves several spaces, with drivers paying electronically.

The council/CRA had discussed such a change for months. After the vote, CRA Chairman Andrea O’Rourke said, “We got that done.” She seemed pleasantly surprised.

Getting shuttles—at a snail’s pace

With downtown Boca Raton, however, it’s always one step forward and one step sideways.

As O’Rourke noted last week, the city has spent seven years trying to establish a sustainable, fixed-route shuttle system. Two operators stayed for a while, but they couldn’t make money just through advertising on vehicles. They asked for city money, and the council refused.

The new hope is that downtown property owners would be willing to finance a system through assessments. The city will survey those owners to gauge interest. If there’s enough interest, the city would have to craft a system for those assessments and the owners would have to approve it through a vote.

Any vote, one city official said, is probably a year away. So if the vote fails, Boca Raton will be eight years into this effort with nothing to show for it. There remains the issue of whether to include the beach, even though that stop would outside the downtown boundaries.

You wonder if Delray Beach had the better idea by just financing its downtown shuttle with public money and calling it an investment, not an expense.

DBPD arrest

According to a news release from the department, Delray Beach Police Office Marques Brown was arrested Sunday night for driving under the influence.

Brown, the department said, was off-duty and driving his own car. The 11-year road patrol officer has been suspended without pay while the Florida Highway Patrol investigates. After that, the department will conduct its internal affairs investigation.

Mayotte keeps trying

(Photo by Meghan Rodgers)

Boca Raton City Councilwoman Monica Mayotte failed last week to persuade enough of her colleagues to take a stronger position on single-use plastic straws.

Unlike Delray Beach, which is phasing in a ban on the straws, Boca Raton wants to bring change through encouragement. Mayotte, however, wanted the city at least to require restaurants to offer the straws only on request.

Councilman Andy Thomson agreed. But Mayor Scott Singer, Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke and Councilman Jeremy Rodgers didn’t. The good-cop approach will stay for now.

At the recent goal-setting sessions, however, you could see that the mindset is changing. All participants had metal, refillable water bottles. No plastic.

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