Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Did Delray’s Mayor Overstep? And What Happens Now?

Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia doesn’t understand—or doesn’t want to understand—the mess she has made of the search for a city manager.

During Tuesday’s special city commission meeting, Petrolia pushed back hard against charges by Commissioners Bill Bathurst and Ryan Boylston that she had ended negotiations with Tamarac City Manager Michael Cernech.

“It wasn’t me writing him off,” Petrolia said. “He walked away. I was dumbfounded.”

Bathurst, however, said, “That’s not what we’re hearing.”

He and Boylston spoke with Cernech on Friday after the negotiations collapsed. They questioned Petrolia’s version. To which Petrolia replied, “You weren’t there.”

Michael Cernech

That’s the problem. Petrolia was there, and she shouldn’t have been. As a ceremonial mayor, Petrolia has no more power than her four commission colleagues. The mayor signs the manager’s contract, but the mayor has no authority to negotiate the contract.

Former Mayor Cary Glickstein did not participate in contract discussions with the two managers hired when he was in office. Bathurst said after the meeting that the participants should have been the city’s recruiter, City Attorney Lynn Gelin and Cernech.

If negotiations then failed, with Gelin as the conduit, it would have been the commission’s collective decision not to meet Cernech’s demands. The commission then could have decided whether to interview one of the other finalists —Homestead City Manager George Gretsas or Deputy Miami Manager Joseph Napoli.

Petrolia’s overreach, however, damages her credibility and reinforces the obvious suspicions by Bathurst and Boylston that Petrolia sabotaged the negotiations so the city could hire Gretsas. Petrolia had ranked him first. Bathurst, Boylston and Adam Frankel had ranked Cernech first.

Indeed, Petrolia was ready on Tuesday to contact Gretsas. She had come prepared with favorable comments Bathurst and Boylston had made about Gretsas during the Aug. 20 meeting at which the commission picked Cernech.

George Gretsas

Again, Petrolia did not understand—or did not want to understand—that she could be hurting Gretsas by appearing to influence the search. By that point, it had become personal for Petrolia. And off she went.

“I’m beginning to think that this isn’t about Mr. Gretsas,” Petrolia fumed. “It’s about me. This is retaliation when you should be thanking me.”

Approving Cernech’s demands would have been “political suicide.”

Cernech, Petrolia said, had demanded a compensation package that would have amounted to about $400,000 a year, with annual increases.

“It was that outrageous.”

Boylston interrupted the rant to ask why Petrolia hadn’t raised those issues at last Thursday’s commission meeting—one day before the negotiations. Cernech’s proposal was available at the time.

“I follow protocol,” Petrolia responded.

Yet last November, with no public notice, Petrolia engineered the firing of former City Attorney Max Lohman. Most of Delray Beach was distracted that night by the midterm elections.

Bathurst noted that Cernech may have “asked for the moon.” I saw his proposal, and it was much more generous that what Lauzier made. But, Bathurst said, the response should have been, “You have our support. But there are some things are that we can’t accept.” Start the discussion.

On Tuesday, Petrolia got support only from Shirley Johnson to interview Gretsas or Napoli, whom Johnson had ranked first. Frankel wanted to start over, calling the search “really tainted.”

Eventually, Frankel joined Bathurst and Boylston in asking the recruiting firm to contact the two candidates who had made the final cut top five but work out of state. The commission had preferred to interview only the three finalists from South Florida.

In 2018, Petrolia defeated Jim Chard by campaigning as the experienced, steady and responsible candidate. Since then, Petrolia has tried a series of power plays, embraced victimization when criticized and cast herself as the only person the public can trust. When Bathurst and Boylston didn’t agree with her Tuesday on the next step in the search, Petrolia said, “That’s not being a leader. That’s not doing what’s in the best interest of this town.”

Petrolia ran for the commission in March 2013 as a reformer. She complained that the incumbents cared only about their power.

After Tuesday’s meeting, I asked Petrolia if the commission had authorized her to participate in the negotiations. She glared, turned and walked away.

Back to de Jesus

Neal de Jesus during his tenure as fire chief

For the time being—and perhaps for a long time— Neal de Jesus will continue as Delray Beach’s interim city manager. He indicated again Tuesday that he does not want the permanent job.

Yet if you combine this and his previous stint on an interim basis, de Jesus has served longer than either of the previous two supposedly permanent managers. If he stays through the year, de Jesus will have served longer than any of the last three supposedly permanent managers.

With that in mind, the commission Tuesday approved a contract that will pay de Jesus $244,000—what Mark Lauzier was making when the commission fired him on March 1. The salary will be retroactive to that date.

In addition, the contract increases from 90 days to 180 days the amount of notice de Jesus would have to receive if the next manager terminated him as fire chief. If that happened, de Jesus would receive 20 weeks severance—the most allowed under state law.

And if de Jesus has to stay for a while, he will earn that money because he will have to behave like the permanent manager. Delray Beach just lost one of the two assistant city managers and five department head positions are vacant.

And Gelin

Petrolia also did no favors Tuesday for Lynn Gelin.

The mayor repeatedly asked the city attorney to verify her version of the talks with Cernech. “Only two people who were in the room are here,” Petrolia said, referring to herself and the city attorney.

Gelin measured her responses. “I was very surprised,” she said, by Cernech’s demands.

The attorney, however, reports to all the commissioners, not just the mayor. Petrolia tried to make Gelin an ally in a dispute with Gelin’s other bosses. That was a mistake.

Haynie trial date

Former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie

The public corruption trial of former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie won’t start until March 23. The timing poses an interesting legal question.

Though former Gov. Rick Scott suspended Haynie after she was charged in April 2018, Haynie never resigned. Under state law, Gov. Ron DeSantis must reinstate Haynie if a jury acquits her.

Haynie’s term began in March 2017. It expires roughly one week after the scheduled start of the trial. Scott Singer won the August 2018 special election to complete the term. Singer ran knowing that Haynie could retake the job if she were acquitted.

So would an acquittal before the March 31 organizational meeting for the new council mean that Haynie got her job back for a couple of days? According to a city spokeswoman who spoke with the city’s legal department, that answer seems to be yes.

Less clear is what might happen if Haynie were to argue that she should get a second term. Though she wouldn’t have been on the March 17 ballot, Haynie technically would have been the incumbent. The spokeswoman said that scenario is “untested.”

An earlier trial date would remove any doubt. It had appeared that the trial might start in the fall, but Haynie’s attorney, Bruce Zimet, said scheduling problems prevented it. Brian Fernandes, who is prosecuting the Haynie case, also is prosecuting Shelia Keen-Warren.

Keen-Warren is charged with the 1990 killing of a Wellington woman. Prosecutors allege that Keen-Warren dressed up as a clown, rang the bell, and fatally shot the victim when she opened the door. That trial starts on Jan. 31 and is expected to last three weeks.

So it will be nearly two years—at least—before Boca Raton learns the outcome of the Haynie charges. Does the delay bother Haynie? “She’s awaiting her day in court,” Zimet said, “so she can be vindicated.”

Clean & Cut works

A tree torn out of the earth by Hurricane Irma. (Photo by David Shuff)

Apparently, Boca Raton’s Clean and Cut program is having the desired effect.

Before Hurricane Irma in 2017, many residents belatedly and hastily trimmed trees and put the branches by the street. City trucks didn’t have time to pick up the debris, which then became a potential hazard. In addition, the regional transfer stations—to which city trucks haul the debris—close in advance of a storm.

So Boca Raton began offering extra vegetation pickups at the start of hurricane season. This was the second year. A city spokeswoman said employees were out before Dorian and saw relatively few piles of debris. Let’s hope for more of that pre-hurricane planning.

Another talk about Boca National

The Boca Raton City Council and the board of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District will discuss the Boca National golf course during a joint meeting today at 5 p.m. The meeting will be held in the city complex at 6500 N. Federal Highway.

Purdue update

News broke Wednesday afternoon that Purdue Pharma has reached a tentative settlement with 22 states and more than 2,000 cities and counties that sued the company over its role in the opioid crisis.

Delray Beach is one of those plaintiffs. I will try have a full report in my Tuesday post.

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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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