Delray’s Former City Manager Gretsas Strikes Back

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George Gretsas and Shelly Petrolia

Delray Beach City Manager George Gretsas alleges that Mayor Shelly Petrolia and City Attorney Lynn Gelin want to fire him because he exposed “gross incompetence, improper conduct, and corruption.” He further alleges that Petrolia asked him to lie for her regarding the city’s troubled water system.

Gretsas outlined his allegations Friday in a 12-page letter to Petrolia and the city commission. In addition to Petrolia and Gelin, Gretsas names Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher as part of the plot to fire him.

Commissioner Shirley Johnson cast the deciding vote on June 24 to give Gretsas notice of the commission’s intent to fire him. Johnson did so, Gretsas says in yet another allegation, because Gretsas resisted her attempts to give $1 billion in city money to “an individual on felony probation.”

Shelly Petrolia, Juli Casale, and Shirley Johnson

To review, Petrolia, Casale and Johnson based their votes on an investigation into allegations that Gretsas sought to fire Fisher in retaliation for her complaint that he created a hostile workplace for women. Gelin commissioned and oversaw the investigation. Using the findings, Gelin essentially acted as prosecutor during the June 24 meeting.

Because of his allegations, Gretsas is claiming whistleblower status under Florida law. “The recent attempts by some of you,” Gretsas wrote, “to terminate my employment and smear my good reputation with phony allegations make it obvious that you would prefer to maintain the existing toxic culture of turnover and corruption and that you are retaliating against me for exposing corrupt activities.”

The letter covers three main issues:

Dirty water

In 2006, Delray Beach began a program to use semi-treated water for irrigation. The water isn’t safe to drink, but it’s fine for watering grass and shrubs. Such programs reduce demand as sea level rise threatens public drinking water wells.

Most so-called reclaimed water goes for large areas, such as golf courses. But homeowners also can participate. In Delray Beach, about 1,600 are in the program. Obviously, it’s vital that the reclaimed water pipes and the drinking water pipes don’t connect.

At the May 5 commission meeting, Gretsas cited multiple examples of mismanagement and called the program “a disgrace.” During a presentation, he outlined the many problems he discovered after complaints by the Florida Department of Health. In his letter, Gretsas said the safety of the city drinking water “has been compromised.”

As Gretsas noted, residents on the city’s barrier island had gotten sick in December 2018 because reclaimed water got into their drinking water. Yet the city had not reported those incidents to the Health Department.

To prevent such contamination, the city is supposed to install backflow preventers. Gretsas discovered, however, that “hundreds” of homes didn’t have these safety devices. The city is supposed to replace them every five years, but many were outdated. Other problems include faulty or missing inspection records.

Because of those state complaints, the city had to issue a boil-water notice on February and shut down the reclaimed water system. Delray Beach already has spent $850,000 to fix the problems and the cost may increase. Gretsas hired a new utilities director, Hassan Hadjimiry, recently the county’s deputy utilities director, and gave him the task of fixing the problem.

(Perhaps not coincidentally, on Monday the city emailed a “Clean Water Update.” It said city employees “work tirelessly every day” to ensure water safety.)

As assistant city manager, Fisher’s portfolio includes the utilities department. Gretsas points out that Fisher went on leave in early May after he had been investigating the reclaimed water program. Fisher then took her complaints about Gretsas to the mayor and Gelin.

As I have reported, Gretsas was prepared to fire Fisher. He had prepared a memo for doing so and took it to Gelin. But even though Gelin approved the memo, she did not tell Gretsas that Fisher had made a complaint against him. According to Gretsas’ attorney, Gelin’s failure to warn Gretsas set him up for Fisher’s retaliation charge that Petrolia, Casale and Johnson used to justify firing him.

Now back to the dirty water.

Gretsas said he first believed that Petrolia “had no role in the reclaimed water catastrophe.” Later, though, he “discovered” that then-City Manager Mark Lauzier “notified” Petrolia about the problems on the barrier island.

Gretsas goes on to say that his investigation had focused on “numerous violations” by Deerfield Beach-based Lanzo Construction, which received a $4.1 million contract in December 2017 to expand the reclaimed water program. Petrolia and Johnson were commissioners at the time. Both voted for the contract.

Those violations, Gretsas wrote, “definitely did happen on the mayor’s watch, and the fact that she asked me to say publicly that it did not happen on her watch points directly to her motive in voting to terminate my employment. . .”

He added, “To this day, there are still areas where Lanzo did the work that still don’t have backflow preventers, and the public has a right to know why.”

Gretsas also implicates Gelin in what he considers a cover-up of the water problems. Gelin was “well aware of the situation at least nine months before I became the city manager. In fact, City Attorney Gelin was in up to her neck in reclaimed water, and the more time that I spent digging on this issue, the more she became increasingly uncomfortable with me.”

Other problems Gretsas listed include overchlorination of drinking water and failure to clean water storage tanks. He called it “the most scandalous condition of a city drinking water system since Flint, Mich.”

The Boyfriend and the Golf Job

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Though Delray Beach owns the municipal courses, a private company manages the operations. That company is BJCE.

Fisher’s portfolio also includes the Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the golf courses. According to Gretsas, BJCE hired Fisher’s boyfriend on March 28 and put him in charge of the food and beverage concession at the courses. Fisher, Gretsas says, never told him about this connection.

Gretsas cites examples of Fisher involving herself in decisions that affected her boyfriend. Example: The boyfriend wanted reimbursement for a $125 expense that the accounting staff at the course had denied. Fisher asked the city’s financial staff to approve the reimbursement.

Gretsas further questioned the boyfriend’s qualifications for the job. Though the boyfriend had worked in food service, Gretsas could find no evidence that he had experience at golf courses. The implication is that BJCE hired him because of the Fisher connection.

“Over $2 million per year,” Gretsas wrote, “is spent on the city golf courses and there is a profit-sharing agreement between BJCE and the city. The person that monitors the contract and enforces all of the provisions of the contract on behalf of the city … is Fisher, whose boyfriend now has a high-paying, high-profile job with the company and who was regularly interacting with Fisher while on the job.”

Here again, Gretsas references Gelin. As he was investigation Fisher’s potential conflict of interest, Gelin told him to “stop investigating the golf course, It’s making you look bad.”

“The Imperial Approach”

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At that May 5 meeting when Gretsas summarized problems with the reclaimed water system, Johnson made one of the loopiest proposals I’ve heard in local government.

She wanted the commission—that night—to authorize Gretsas to begin negotiations with a West Palm Beach non-profit called United Hands for Global Impact, whose CEO is named Fredrick James. A month earlier, Gretsas wrote, Johnson had brought James for a meeting.

Johnson wanted a new City Hall and other projects. James, she said, had figured out how to get around the state law that requires voter approval for bonds backed by property tax revenue. That’s usually how city finance such major projects.

Delray Beach simply had to give United Hands for Global Impact $20 million a year—for 50 years. Using that money, James said in letter to the city, he would “fundraise at least One to Nine Billion Dollars on behalf of the city of Delray Beach.” James called it “The Imperial Approach.”

In checking out James, Gretsas found that he had been arrested on, among other things, drug and child abuse charges. Johnson responded, Gretsas said, by saying that she had asked James about “his criminal past” and been told that he was “sorry for the mistakes he had made.”

Gretsas told Johnson “that agreeing to pledge $20 million per year for 50 years from the general fund without voter approval to Mr. James was illegal.” He pointed out that because United Hands for Global Impact “had no track record, no history of raising funds other than $5,000 from (Johnson), no history of developing projects, and no history with any governments, it was not something that I felt comfortable putting on the commission agenda.”

So Johnson brought it up herself, during commissioners’ comments at the end of that May 5 meeting. She said that because James was an associate member of the Palm Beach League of Cities, he had been “thoroughly vetted.” In fact, only a check is required for an associate membership.

Johnson persisted, Gretsas said, even after no other commissioner went along with the idea. Johnson’s “hostility towards me is no surprise. She wasn’t willing to take no for an answer. . .Her malicious attempt to suspend me without pay. . .in violation of my contract is just one example of her retaliation.”

I asked Petrolia, Johnson and Gelin for their responses to Gretsas’ letter. I did not hear from any of them.

Gretsas refers to “an organizational culture of corruption” at City Hall when he took over in January. He concludes: “The citizens of Delray Beach are entitled to a better government than what they are getting. Retaliating against me for bringing these issues forward won’t make anything better. In fact, it will make things worse.

“People deserve to know that when they turn on their faucets, the water is clean and safe. They deserve a government that is ethical and watching out for their interests.”

On Thursday, I’ll write about what might happen now.