Delray Drama Continues: Gretsas Accuses Petrolia of Misconduct

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George Gretsas and Shelly Petrolia

Delray Beach City Manager George Gretsas has accused Mayor Shelly Petrolia of asking him to seek higher assessments—and thus higher taxes—on properties owned by some of her political opponents.

In a letter Wednesday to city commissioners—and not copied to Petrolia—Gretsas laid out a timeline that he said began on Jan. 6, the day he started work. He also sent the letter to the Palm Beach County  Office of Inspector General, the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics and the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office. Gretsas offered to “cooperate as a witness with any agency.”

The inspector general is investigating the city’s water department and related issues. The commission last week asked the commission on ethics to investigate Petrolia. (More about that in a moment.) The inspector general can refer matters to the state attorney’s office, which has a public corruption unit.

Here is Gretsas’ timetable:

Petrolia approached him on Jan. 6 with a “list of issues.” First on the list was her wish that Gretsas meet with Property Appraiser Dorothy Jacks “and make a case to her that certain properties in the city were undervalued and needed to be adjusted upward so that the property owners would pay more in property taxes. She claimed that her motive was to help bring in more revenue for the city.”

On Jan. 30, Gretsas was at a chamber of commerce meeting. So were Petrolia and Jacks. Petrolia gathered them and told Jacks to expect that Gretsas would contact her.

On Feb. 10, in a meeting at Gretsas’ office, Petrolia again said that she would offer a list of properties. Gretsas responded that a better way would be to hire a consultant to see if this was a problem citywide. The city commission should be involved.

On March 9, Petrolia said the list was “coming.” It was one of “numerous occasion,” Gretsas said, when Petrolia talked about the list. Gretsas said he has asked Assistant City Manager Allyson Love to find a consultant.

On May 6, Petrolia finally produced her list, leaving it for Gretsas’ assistant. Out of 32,847 taxable properties in the city, Gretsas said, Petrolia had identified only 29.

“And of those that she identified, the vast majority of them were properties in which either the owner/developer of the property gave her political opponent campaign contributions instead of her own campaign, and/or the land use attorney/lobbyist for the developer of the property raised campaign contributions for her opponent’s campaign instead of her own campaign, and/or the owner of the property was a developer who was building projects that she was vocally opposed to.”

In addition, Gretsas said, Petrolia “included properties associated with individuals who supported Commissioner (Shirley) Johnson and (former Commissioner Bill) Bathurst” in last March’s election. Petrolia worked against both of them. Petrolia also listed properties owned by people of entities that contributed to Jim Chard, whom Petrolia defeated in 2018.

The letter was just the start. Gretsas included a 134-page attachment that listed the ownership and history of each property and cited campaign contributions.

Among the properties was the iPic project, which Petrolia opposed. Another target was Menin Development, one of the city’s most prominent landowners. Former Commissioner Jordana Jarjura works for Menin. Petrolia campaigned for Jarjura in 2014, but then turned against her after Jarjura voted the other way from Petrolia on certain items.

Petrolia included what formerly was the Midtown project, proposed by Hudson Holdings. It has changed ownership and now is called Sundy Village. She also included a small property owned by Ocean Properties, which contributed to the campaigns of Chard and Bathurst.

Under the city charter, the mayor and commissioners can’t order the manager or any other staffer to perform tasks. As I will explain in a moment, this is not the first time Petrolia has seemed to ignore that restriction and gotten in trouble.

Coincidentally or not, about 10 days after Petrolia dropped off the list came the cascade of events that led Petrolia and commissioners Julie Casala and Shirley Johnson to suspend Gretsas with notice that they intend to fire him. Those events began with a meeting between former Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher and Petrolia. A hearing on whether to fire Gretsas is set for Oct. 23.

For now, the city’s legal staff likely will have to review all of Petrolia’s votes regarding these properties. Word of Gretsas’ letter and documents is all over Delray Beach.

The city commission is scheduled to meet next Tuesday. You can presume that this matter will come up. You also can presume that all the investigators looking at Delray Beach will look closely at what Gretsas sent.

More issues for Petrolia

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Now let’s get to Petrolia’s other problem.

The mayor began last Tuesday’s meeting by asking to make a comment. Normally, commissioners get theirs at the end of the meeting. Petrolia considered her issue important.

That issue was claims by State Rep. Mike Caruso, whose district includes Delray Beach, that the city was “defunding” the police department. Caruso, Petrolia said, was “scaring business away” from the city based on “erroneous information.”

Next year’s budget, which the commission approved, cuts police overtime by about $400,000. The Palm Beach Post quoted Police Chief Javaro Sims as saying that the cut would increase crime. But Sims had written that memo about what he said would happen if the commission cut three percent from the department’s budget. It was one of many ideas proposed to balance the budget. The commission never considered it.

Six days later, the Post ran another story that attemped to explain the mistake and basically blamed Sims. Petrolia said that even though Sims had contacted Caruso to set the record straight, Caruso had continued his “defunding” claim, adding that it would inspire “radical groups like Antifa.”

Caruso, a Republican, is running against James Bonfiglio for the House 89 seat. Caruso beat Bonfiglio by just 32 votes in 2018. Petrolia accused Caruso of using “lies and fears” and of making Delray Beach collateral campaign damage.

Adam Frankel didn’t like Caruso’s emails, either. But then he threw Petrolia’s comment back at her.

“Subsitute me and two colleagues,” Frankel said, and the mayor had done the same thing. He referred to the recent vote on sea grape trimming, which I wrote about. Petrolia responded to her defeat on that issue by raging at Frankel, Johnson and Ryan Boylston, who had prevailed. Petrolia essentially said that she would work against Frankel and Boylston next March, when they are on the ballot with the mayor.

Frankel then referenced an Aug. 2 email from Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez to City Attorney Lynn Gelin. Alvarez said Petrolia had told her to issue a statement about the city’s water quality. As noted, the mayor can’t direct staff. Alvarez told Gelin that Petrolia kept giving her “directives.”

To Frankel, the email suggested an “ongoing pattern of violations” that warranted an outside investigation. Boylston agreed. “This was not a one-time misunderstanding,” he said of Alvarez’s comment. “We need to address it.” Said Frankel, “I hear from employees that this is going on all the time.”

Since Julie Casale reliably stood by Petrolia, Johnson would be the swing vote on whether to investiage Petrolia. After a long pause, she said, “I hate to do that, but I think it’s time to clear the air.”

A week later, however, it’s still not clear how the investigation will start. Gelin said the complaint to the Commission on Ethics or Inspector General’s Office should not come from the staff but from the commission majority that asked for it. Boylston told me Wednesday that he will seek “clarification” during Tuesday’s meeting.

It is clear, though, that Frankel, Boynton and Johnson aren’t going to take it anymore from Petrolia. Boylston called Petrolia’s emails against him and Frankel “political hit pieces,” not standard communications from the mayor. He noted that one angry email ended with “Call Ryan Boylston.” Frankel said he has “remained silent too long.”

Johnston criticized Caruso for “sticking his little toes” into the city’s budget discussion. But she, too, pivoted back to Petrolia. “A lot of this you have done was against me.” Pause. “I won anyway.”

Petrolia, ever the aggrieved victim, wrapped things up by saying, “I understand what this is all about.” Yes. This is about the state of Delray Beach politics under Shelly Petrolia.

Final thoughts

Final note: What Gretsas has documented about Petrolia and her enemies list is another potential charter violation.

Second final note: Caruso deserved the cricitism. When I spoke to him on Friday, he wouldn’t back off a bit, even when I reminded him that Sims had admitted to a mistake.

The overtime cut, I told him, was because city policy changes and COVID-19 restrictions for now have caused Delray Beach to cancel or postpone most of the big events that require so much police overtime. Caruso wouldn’t budge.

Boca Brightline funding

Boca Raton has obtained a federal grant that will reduce the city’s cost to build the parking garage for the Brightline station.

The $16.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation will go toward the 455-space garage and the station, which Brightline is paying for. Brightline is paying a small portion of the garage cost, but most of it is on the city.

Originally, that cost was $11.6 million. With the grant, the city’s share will drop to $9.9 million. The station and garage, on city land near the Downtown Library, could open in mid-2022. Brightline has not resumed service since suspending it in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A tale of two utilities

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As Delray Beach deals with a state investigation of its water system, Boca Raton is in the opposite position.

The city’s utilities services department is one of 65 nationwide being recognized for environmentally sound policies related to drinking water and the use of reclaimed water for irrigation. The award comes from the Water Environmental Federation, which seeks to promote innovation among the country’s public utilities.

According to a news release, the city produces between 11 million and 12 million gallons of partially treated water each year, thus preserving 4.1 billion gallons of fresh water. The latter number seemed high, but a city spokeswoman confirmed it.

Delray Beach’s problems began with the reclaimed water system. The causes of those problems are just one item for the inspector general’s office.