Delray Faces Water Crisis and City Manager Search as Elections Approach

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Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

Facing a crisis involving the city’s water department, Delray Beach has mobilized.

As I reported this week, a Jan. 7 draft report by the Florida Department of Health recommends that the city pay a $2.9 million fine for hundreds of violations related to the safety of drinking water. In addition, the department’s proposed consent order recommends that Delray Beach issue a public notice stating that the city “cannot attest” to the safety of its water between 2007 and 2020.

So last month the city hired the law firm of Lewis Longman Walker. One of its practices is environmental law. The firm’s job likely is to negotiate with the Department of Health.

In addition, the city has hired Conceptual Communications, a Broward County public relations firm that advertises its crisis management. My questions about the Department of Health issue go to a representative of that firm, not to the city’s public information officer.

So there are two issues: the report itself and how the city is responding. Let’s take the second first.

During Tuesday’s commission meeting, which came after I reported what the city faces, the topic came up only briefly. Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez and City Attorney Lynn Gelin said they had not seen the two documents from the Department of Health.

Yet on Wednesday, the spokeswoman said Gelin had seen the documents. In response to my question, she said, “The city attorney received a copy of the unsigned, unissued, draft document as part of a public records request submitted to the (Florida Department of Health.) The city has not received a signed letter, fine, or consent order from the Department of Health.” The spokeswoman said the city would have an “official response only if/when the city is issued a formal, signed communication from the (Department of Health.)”

One question for the city commission is what and when Alvarez, and Gelin knew about the penalty recommendation and proposed consent order. The spokeswoman said Lewis Longman Walker filed the records request. I’m told that representatives of the department and city met before the drafting of the report, which could have been a signal of what was coming.

One assumes that the city wouldn’t hire outside counsel except for a specific purpose—in this case to negotiate a better deal with the Department of Health. At least one commissioner, Ryan Boylston, said he didn’t know until this week that the city had hired the PR and law firms.

Then there’s the report itself. It may be a draft, but it’s a damning draft.

The proposed consent order repeatedly uses the the word “failed” to describe Delray Beach’s operation of the water department. The order would require six conditions from the city in addition to the public notice.

The Civil Penalty Authorization Memo lists 11 categories of violations. It notes that the city had no “dedicated employee” to oversee the cross connections between the reclaimed water system and the drinking water system. It notes the “willfull and intentional nature of the city’s violations.”

All this comes as three members of the city commission face re-election on March 9. The commission’s next scheduled meeting is Feb. 2. Can this crisis wait until then?

City Manager search

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Delray Beach won’t use a headhunter to look for a new city manager.

At a special meeting Tuesday, the commission decided that the city would advertise for applicants on its own through trade publications. The goal would be to have the manager start in May. A city official estimated the cost at $2,000, compared to $55,000 to hire a search firm.

Commissioner Shirley Johnson again lost her attempt to turn most of the work over to residents, some of whom, she said, “are very discerning.” Commissioner Adam Frankel wanted to offer the job to Alvarez, who took over on an interim basis after the commission suspended George Gretsas last June.

“I’ve never seem morale so high” at City Hall, Frankel said, offering no specifics. His colleagues didn’t agree, but the commission’s preferred method probably means that Alvarez will get consideration if she applies.

The Linton approved

As expected, the Delray Beach City Commission gave final approval on Tuesday for The Linton. Menin Development will convert the largest parcel of its retail cluster on West Linton Boulevard to housing.

During the meeting, some residents to the south objected because they said traffic would be worse. Residential, however, generates less traffic than retail and commercial. Studies from Menin and verified by city planners show that The Linton will result in roughly half of the current car trips.

Boca City Council endorsements

The Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce had an easy call when deciding whom to endorse in the March city council elections.

Seat D incumbent Monica Mayotte declined to return the chamber’s questionnaire or attend a candidate interview. Yvette Drucker, whom the council named to fill Seat C on an interim basis until the election, also declined.

Two decades ago, council elections often broke down as the chamber-backed candidate against the candidate with backing from the neighborhoods. More recently, however, candidates have won support from both camps. The actions by Mayotte and Drucker seemed like the old days. Chamber President/CEOTroy McClellan said it seemed “calculated.”

Though the chamber reserves the right not to endorse, McLellan said, there was strong backing for ex-councilwoman Constance Scott against Drucker and Brian Stenberg against Mayotte. “Brian is very much aligned with what we think businesses in Boca need,” McLellan said. During the interview, “Constance was as sharp as I’ve seen her.”

I asked Mayotte, who didn’t get the chamber’s endorsement three years ago, why she declined. “I have widespread business support,” Mayotte said in an email, “and won my first race by almost 40 percentage points without Troy McClellan’s endorsement, so my time as a councilwoman is better spent focused on COVID-19 recovery, responsibly getting our economy back on the move and continuing to bring new, innovative ideas forward for residents.”

As for Drucker, she said, “I welcome the support of the many individuals, groups and the businesspeople who support my candidacy, but Troy has become a one-man special interest who expects special treatment. We are engaging directly with the people and businesses of Boca Raton—and the response has been fantastic.”

Drucker added, “It is clear to many in the city that under Troy and (Executive Vice President Sarah Pearson’s) direction the chamber has moved politically backwards—and that is unfortunate.”

More on Boca candidates

I have neglected to mention that there is a fourth candidate in the Seat C race.

That would be Josie Machovec. She has never run for public office. Machovec told me that her interest in running began when local governments began enacting COVID-19 restrictions last spring and her daughter couldn’t use playgrounds, which the county commission had closed.

Machovec opposes mask mandates. “I believe that’s a personal choice.”

Also in the race with Drucker, Scott and Machovec is Bernard Korn. He has run twice unsuccessfully for mayor.

Staples/Office Depot talks

Office Depot has rejected Staples’ offer to buy the company, but a different deal may emerge.

Staples, the nation’s leading office supply retailer, proposed buying No. 2 Office Depot, whose headquarters are in Boca Raton, for $2.1 billion. Office Depot declined, but the company suggested another option.

In a letter to Sycamore Partners, the private equity firm that owns Staples, Office Depot Chairman Joseph Vassalluzzo said Staples could buy only the consumer retail portion or create a joint venture of both companies’ retail divisions.

As Amazon and Walmart have taken larger shares of the market, Office Depot has focused on direct services to businesses. In addition, Vassalluzzo said, a retail-only deal could draw less criticism from regulators. When Staples tried to buy Office Depot five years ago, the Federal Trade Commission intervened to block it, saying that less competiton would drive up prices.

Sycamore might pursue one of those options. Or the company might try to buy more stock and force a sale. City officials will hope for an outcome that keeps as many jobs as possible in Boca Raton.

Haynie trial delayed again

It continues to be delay, delay and delay in the trial of former Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie.

This month, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Gillen cancelled a status check and set one for April 16 that seems intended to set a date for a trial. Gillen ordered that all discovery end on April 2.

On April 24, it will be three years since Haynie’s arrest on public corruption charges. She has pleaded not guilty.

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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.