Monday, September 25, 2023

An Update on the Lauzier Lawsuit in Delray and More

As Delray Beach tries to run off the current city manager, the previous manager’s case against the city continues.

On today’s city commission agenda is an item to reject the proposed settlement from Mark Lauzier. The commission fired Lauzier in March 2019—16 months into his tenure—after City Attorney Lynn Gelin alleged that he had violated city charter provisions related to hiring and salaries. Two months earlier, the commission had given Lauzier a raise.

Unlike the vote in June to take the first step toward firing George Gretsas, the vote on Lauzier was unanimous. Also unlike the Gretsas vote, the notice for the meeting about Lauzier actually told the public what the meeting was about.

Still, the procedure drew controversy. Gelin and the commission did not detail the charges against Lauzier until after the public had a chance to speak. Many residents asked for an explanation, but they didn’t get one. Lauzier also didn’t get a chance to speak in his defense.

So he sued, alleging breach of contract and claiming whistleblower status. In his lawsuit, Lauzier said that Mayor Shelly Petrolia engineered his firing because Lauzier had refused to approve the mayor’s request that the city pay for her son to accompany her to Tallahassee.

Details of the proposed settlement aren’t public. They are in a confidential memo Gelin prepared for the commission. So we don’t know why the recommendation is to reject it. The item is on the consent agenda, so there will be no discussion today unless a commissioner asks for it.

Lauzier’s attorney, Sid Garcia, has a theory. He believes that the sticking point for the city is “contingencies” in the offer.

Example: Garcia said Lauzier can appeal the trial judge’s denial of whistleblower status after resolution of the breach of contract claim, which Garcia called “extremely viable.” Breach of contract damages only can be economic. Whistleblower damages can be compensatory, such as for pain and suffering. Lauzier may be unwilling to give up the whistleblower appeal.

Two weeks ago, Garcia filed a motion seeking a jury trial that he estimates would take five days. Based on court records and Garcia’s comment, depositions are nearly done.

As with the Gretsas case, the city’s internal auditor is a key player. Linda Davidyan provided most of the ammunition for Gelin to make her case against Lauzier. Garcia said Davidyan’s work “was not an audit” and thus was outside the scope of her job. Gretsas’ attorney has expressed similar sentiment.

A LinkedIn item shows Lauzier as being an “Innovation and Performance Navigator” for the St. Lucie County Commission. He has sold his house in Delray Beach. Garcia said Lauzier had “a public humiliation” in Delray Beach and is “trying to get his life back together.”

On Oct. 3, the city commission will decide whether to fire Gretsas. If that happened, he would not go quietly. Delray Beach could face two lawsuits by former city managers.

Sea grape trees in Delray

Another item on Delray Beach’s agenda simply says: “Discussion of sea grape trimming options on municipal beach.” There’s so much more to it.

Beginning in 2000 and for nearly two decades, Delray Beach regularly trimmed sea grape trees at the beach under a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Though sea grapes are protected, they will crowd out other vegetation if left to grow unattended.

In 2017, however, Mayor Shelly Petrolia—then a city commissioner—and ex-Commissioner Mitch Katz upended that program. They questioned the science and argued—against all credible research—for making sea grapes the priority. Under a compromise designed to save the program, the city left three tunnels of sea grapes unpruned. But there has been no sea grape trimming since 2018, when Petrolia became mayor.

This week, the commission got an email from Robert Barron. He worked for the city in the 1980s and is a respected environmental consultant. Barron is among those who have urged a return to the original program.

In the email, Barron said he recently had “surveyed the dune areas” where his company had put in 260 plants since 2017. He found “only about half remaining alive.” The rest had been killed by the “untrimmed tree clusters” and by other sea grapes that the city has allowed to reach “at least twice” the height allowed under state rules.

Before Petrolia began calling sea grapes “iconic,” Barron wrote, successive commissions “had supported the science-based program which lowered the invasive trees, improved storm protection and habitat value, and restored some of the ocean vista which had characterized Delray Beach for the first 125 years of the town’s history.”

Barron blamed “manipulated Facebook vitriol” for the turn away from science. Like the sea grapes, social media nattering in Delray Beach can crowd out facts, even about protection for what everyone calls Delray Beach’s true iconic place — the beach. I’ll have an update after the meeting.

Davey up for P&Z

Also on today’s agenda is an appointment to the Delray Beach Planning and Zoning Board. It’s one of the most important advisory boards in the city.

Among the applicants is Chris Davey. In March, he ran unsuccessfully against Commissioner Shirley Johnson. Davey also lost a commission race in 2014.

Davey, a real estate broker, is a political ally of Mayor Petrolia. Under the rotation system, Petrolia will make the appointment. There are 20 other applicants.

Boca facilities reopening

With Palm Beach County this week entering Phase 2 of COVID-19 reopening, Boca Raton has reopened several municipal facilities to in-person visits.

City Hall is open between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. The city asks the public to make appointments if possible. Yet council meetings will remain virtual.

In addition, the Downtown and Spanish River libraries this week began offering more than curbside pickup. Both will be open between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. between Monday and Saturday, with capacity capped at 50 people and a 30-minute limit for browsing. Curbside pickup service will continue between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. every day except Sunday.

The city’s three community centers—next to City Hall and at Sugar Sand and Patch Reef parks—are now open for permit sales. The Building Department also is open, though the city still is asking people to file permits online.

South Florida real estate booms

real estate

Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell made an upbeat prediction during Tuesday’s budget hearing.

Local officials throughout South Florida had wondered whether the pandemic would drive down home values. Property tax revenue is the main source of city and county budgets.

I have reported that area realtors have seen the opposite effect. Homes are selling quickly. The pandemic has driven some people from the Northeast to Florida. Some buyers want an extra room, so they can work from home. City financial projections, Ahnell said, are “looking better” for next year.

Mayor Scott Singer and council members were happy, but Singer still urged caution. Good thought. Though residential real estate may be humming, no one is similarly optimistic about commercial properties. Boca Raton relies heavily on its commercial tax base.

Still, there’s no denying the surge in home sales. Singer noted the recent New York Times article headlined, “Florida Attracts More Northerners.” The accompanying photo showed Mizner Park.

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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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