Delray Commission Disregards Public Outcry Over Old School Square

old school square
Old School Square

Last week, the Delray Beach City Commission took no public comment before voting to end the lease with Old School Square for the Arts.

On Tuesday, Mayor Shelly Petrolia made clear that public comment didn’t matter.

Facing a chamber filled with residents ready to defend the group that created Old School Square in 1989 and has managed it ever since, Petrolia said she and commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson would not reconsider their vote. That petition with 6,000-plus signatures asking the commission to rescind its decision? Too bad.

“We all love Old School Square,” Petrolia claimed to a crowd whose grumbles showed that they weren’t buying it. “I’m with you. We must save it.” More grumbles.

To her critics, Petrolia’s cure was to kill the patient. “Saving (Old School Square) means making tough decisions.” Old School Square for the Arts had become “unfit stewards of this important treasure.” The commission would save Old School Square by “righting the ship.”

Petrolia’s comments, though, raised more questions about the commission’s credibility.

Petrolia said the vote to terminate, with 180 days notice, was “not a rush to judgment.” Then why did she, Casale and Johnson act when Old School Square hadn’t been on last week’s agenda? Why did they vote before public comment, when Old School Square for the Arts representatives had been prepared to address questions about compliance with financial reporting requirements?

“Unfit stewards?” Old School Square representatives remain adamant that, after delays and scrambling during the pandemic, they are in compliance. Addressing Ryan Boylston, who had opposed termination with Adam Frankel, Casale asserted that the group is “not in compliance. You know it, and I know it.” Boylston did not concede the point, and City Attorney Lynn Gelin has not made such a determination.

Also, Petrolia, Casale and Johnson have not offered evidence of problems with Old School Square’s programming. Petrolia last week declared that minority residents “don’t feel welcome,” but she offered no details. All this comes three months after Old School Square staged four Jimmy Buffett shows that brought Delray Beach nationwide publicity.

In addition, Petrolia criticized “a revolving door of fired CEOs.” Delray Beach is on its ninth city manager since Petrolia joined the commission eight-plus years ago.

The speakers were harsh. Former Old School Square board member and civic activist Elise Johnson asked why the commission last month allowed privately financed improvements at Crest Theater to continue if the commission was going to end the lease.

Scott Porten, another ex-board member, said to Petrolia, Casale and Johnson, “You have no idea what you did. What was the crime? I have my theories, and they are very ugly. You need to fix your own house before you start burning down others.”

One speaker called the termination “an economic gut punch to the city.” Another complained that the commission allowed Old School Square supporters just one hour of comment. Several speakers spoke of how the art classes at Old School Square had enriched their lives and wondered if the classes would continue.

The intriguing question remains why Petrolia, Casale and Johnson chose, as Porten put it, “the nuclear option.” Chuck Halberg, one of the city’s most prominent volunteers and nonprofit donors, noted that when issues arose with Arts Garage and the Spady Museum, the commission worked them out. Why not now?

David Schmidt, a former mayor and current member of the chamber of commerce’s executive board, said the termination had been “a decision by emotion. Management at Old School Square can be fixed. Let’s fix it together.”

Apparently, that won’t happen. The group that midwifed Old School Square—which has contributed so much to Delray Beach’s resurgence—is out. A lawsuit will follow. An attorney for Old School Square has served notice of the group’s “forthcoming litigation.”

The meeting ended with Johnson accusing Boylston of “haranguing” City Manager Terrence Moore by asking about the manager’s Old School Square email last week. Boylston responded that he simply had asked questions. Moore confirmed that he did not feel harangued.

Petrolia also rewrote history when she claimed that “we fixed” Arts Garage. In fact, the commission made clear that change had to come or risk losing the lease of city property. Arts Garage then made the changes.

Why Petrolia, Casale and Johnson didn’t choose that option for Old School Square remains unknown. All said they had heard from residents who supported them but were afraid to speak publicly because of what Johnson said “might rain down on then, like it has rained down on us.”

What happens now also is uncertain. Casale still seemed to believe that the commission simply had placed Old School Square on a 180-day probation. Boylston reminded Casale that she could have made a motion to that effect–rescinding the termination—“and I would have been with you.” Casale didn’t.

Moore made clear that he had not begun to recruit management companies. But the city owns Old School Square, so presumably that job is coming. With it would have to come a guess of how much it would cost the city to replace all the hardware, software and goodwill that belong to Old School Square for the Arts.

Lauzier lawsuit update

Speaking of lawsuits against Delray Beach, Gelin has scheduled an executive session on the wrongful termination litigation filed by former City Manager Mark Lauzier, whom the commission fired in March 2019. It is scheduled for trial between Sept. 13 and Oct. 8. Gelin said Lauzier’s attorney has made a settlement offer.

Baptist Health to mandate vaccines

The parent company of Boca Raton Regional Hospital has told all employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine by Oct. 31. Baptist Health South Florida will allow exemptions for medical or religious reasons.

Baptist Health made the announcement Monday. A day later, the Palm Beach County Commission declared a state of emergency because of the COVID-19 surge. Among other things, hospitals now must report how many virus patients they have and how many are on ventilators.

The county’s daily case rate is at its highest level since the pandemic began. The positive test rate is more than four times higher than the level to control community spread. Despite those numbers, Gov. DeSantis still is preventing local governments—including school boards—from setting and enforcing mask mandates.

Tenet Healthcare, which owns West Boca and Delray medical centers, has not yet required vaccines. Baptist Health owns 10 other hospitals, including Bethesda in Boynton Beach.

Fighting climate change in Boca & Delray

Amid the pandemic, the need to address climate change continues. Boca Raton and Delray Beach recently got updates from the Coastal Resilience Partnership, of which both cities belong.

Not surprisingly, the risk from sea level rise has increased. The presentation listed the risk to municipal resources from sea level rise and flooding, whether tidal—a particular problem in Delray Beach—or from tropical storms and hurricanes.

A separate study just for the city showed that Delray Beach would need to invest nearly $400 million to fortify itself against rising seas. This recent presentation did not get into costs.

Boca Raton City Councilwoman Monica Mayotte has made sustainability her priority. She hopes that the partnership’s work will inform Boca Raton about the local sources of greenhouse gases that cause global warming and how the city might respond, such as moving to electric vehicles or other eco-friendly technology.

Boca council meeting

The Boca Raton City Council’s regular meeting on Tuesday is the only one this month. It will be busy.

On the agenda is the site plan for the Brightline station, the ordinance to require inspections of older buildings and the city’s appeal of the planning and zoning board’s approval of a Chick-fil-A on East Palmetto Park Road. I’ll have details in my Tuesday post.

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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.