Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia On the Offensive Again

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Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia wants to purge a member of the planning and zoning board for saying something that she didn’t like.

Rob Long is that board member. A civil engineer by training, he’s also chairman of the Palm Beach County Soil and Water Conservation District. Like the planning and zoning board, it’s an advisory group.

In that capacity, Long on Nov. 3 sent an email to say that he was “appalled” by Delray Beach’s response to the “alarming discovery” of cancer-causing chemicals–known as polyfluoralkyl substances, or PFAS–in the city’s water supply. He cited a report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). I mentioned the report in a recent blog post.

Long noted that the amount of PFAS was within legal limits under Florida’s “lenient standards.” Still, he wrote, the issue should be “cause for concern.”

In addition, Long suggested causes for the problem, such as consistent turnover among staffers in related city departments. He also claimed that Petrolia “downplayed the severity of the problem.”

Last week, Petrolia brought up the email, after a discussion of the city’s water department and its response to recent problems. Commissioner Shirley Johnson called the email “a disservice to our residents.” Julie Casale, Petrolia’s most reliable commission ally, asked what “recourse” might be available to punish Long. Petrolia said Long “doesn’t belong on our board.”

Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel disagreed. Boylston, who nominated Long to the planning and zoning board, said a reprimand or worse would be “an odd precedent to set.” To be consistent, Frankel said, the city would have to review texts and emails from all advisory board members. They serve at the commission’s pleasure, but removal is rare unless members are chronically absent or prove unfit to serve.

From what I can tell, everything in Long’s email with regard to the PEER report was accurate. He could have included the city’s official denial of the group’s finding. But PEER is a credible organization.

The political point of contention is Long’s reference to Petrolia. He based that on a Feb. 4 text message from Petrolia to City Manager George Gretsas, who is now suspended. Petrolia wanted Gretsas to avoid any comments that might “implicate this administration.” As a weak mayor, Petrolia isn’t part of any administration.

Petrolia said the (reclaimed water problem) “didn’t happen on our watch.” Gretsas has called that a lie, saying that Petrolia knew about the problem when residents first complained in December 2018.

Johnson accused Long of “yelling fire in a theater.” Long responded, “It isn’t a crime to yell fire in a movie theatre if there is a fire. This is an issue that should be taken seriously, and it’s my duty to keep the public informed.”

City Attorney Lynn Gelin said she would “reach out” to Long for a formal response. Judging by Petrolia’s comments, this was less about the city’s welfare and more about her own. Petrolia is seeking a second term in March. Long needed to “apologize to me,” Petrolia said. And he had “better be contrite.”

Long responded by thanking city employees “for their comprehensive approach to addressing the city’s reclaimed water issues.” He noted that the PEER article “has not been debunked or proven to promote ‘disinformation.’” He recommended that Delray Beach establish a PFAS standard and offered the soil and water conservation district’s help.

As for his city work, Long pointed out that he had served previously on two other boards. “I have always behaved professionally during my tenure. I recommend that the commissioners speak to staff in the Development Services Department to corroborate my professionalism and integrity while serving on this board.”

The commission meets today. I’ll have an update.

Petrolia’s challenger(s)

One response to Long’s email came from Kelly Barrette. She’s a social media presence in Delray Beach and another Petrolia ally.

“Sounds like you’re running for Mayor, Rob,” Barrette snarked. “Good luck with that!”

In fact, Long told me, he won’t challenge Petrolia in March. But someone else will.

Tracy Caruso filed paperwork last week to run for mayor. She is vice chairman of the historic preservation and is married to State Rep. Mike Caruso. He just won a second term in the House.

It may be coincidental, but before the election Petrolia publicly called out Michael Caruso for what she considered inaccurate criticism of the city. Caruso, a Republican, complained that Delray Beach was “defunding” the police department. He based that claim on inaccurate information from the city, but he didn’t stop making the claim even after learning that it was wrong.

Tracy Caruso is the third announced candidate in the race. Tennille DeCoste previously had filed paperwork to run against Petrolia. She is a former human resources director for the city. DeCoste now holds the same job in the Broward County city of Miramar.

Long’s early departure

The campaign against Long may have started before he sent that email.

At the end of the planning board’s Oct. 19 meeting, new members Max Weinberg and Allen Zeller began criticizing previous board decisions that they regarded as too developer-friendly. They wondered if the city could expand the board’s powers. They went on. And on.

Long finally rose from his chair–the meeting was conducted virtually–and left. Despite a relatively light agenda, the meeting lasted nearly three and a half hours.

Though Petrolia claimed that Long said, as he left, “This is bullshit,” that’s false. I listened to the audio three times. Long said, “This is ridiculous.”

Afterward, Long sent a letter of apology to Development Services Director Anthea Gianniotes for leaving early. She and department staffers are City Hall’s liaisons to the board. Long explained:

“I felt the meeting had been unnecessarily prolonged and had gone off course. Additionally, I did not appreciate a pattern of commentary from several board members that suggested previous (board) decisions and staff duties were carried out in bad faith.” Members should stick to “the duties specifically outlined for this advisory board in the Land Development Regulations.”

The politics of the board may have shifted. Since August, three new members have been appointed—Chris Davey (by Petrolia), Max Weinberg (by Casale) and Allen Zeller (by Johnson.) Davey serves as chairman.

When Casale—with Petrolia’s considerable help—campaigned against Bill Bathurst last spring, she accused the incumbent of being developer-friendly. She and Petrolia just voted against an apartment complex on Atlantic Avenue. One expects that Petrolia will use the anti-development theme next March.

Perhaps city commission politics is seeping into the workings of the planning and zoning board. Of course, politics has seeped into most everything in Delray Beach.

Back to virtual?

Having held in-person meetings since October, Delray Beach may go back to the virtual format.

On tonight’s city commission agenda is a resolution under which the city would invoke home rule powers to go against Gov. DeSantis’ executive order in September that cities and counties should prepare for a return to regular meetings in November.

The resolution states that the move would be in the best interests of residents’ health and safety. Boca Raton and Boynton Beach, using the same home rule authority, have stuck with virtual meetings.

Youfit update

I wrote last week about Youfit, the chain of fitness centers, filing for bankruptcy protection. The company has two outlets in Boca Raton. A company spokesman responded with this statement:

“As it did for many industries, including other health clubs, the pandemic hit Youfit hard, and we have made the decision to restructure the company through a bankruptcy filing as a way to continue operating and providing an uplifting fitness experience to our loyal members. Over the last few months, our clubs have reopened across the country with new stringent safety protocols, and it has been truly inspiring to see our members back in the clubs. As we enter this new phase—designed to position Youfit for future success—we remain committed to helping our members live healthy, fit lives.”