Delray Drama Continues as City Could Face Water Investigation, Unpacking Boca BPD Candidates

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Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

Palm Beach County Inspector General John Carey said his office is determining whether to investigate Delray Beach’s problem-plagued water system.

City Manager George Gretsas, whom the commission suspended on June 24, copied the inspector general’s office on the letter he sent last Friday to Mayor Shelly Petrolia and the city commission. That letter was the subject of my Tuesday post.

In that letter, Gretsas blames his suspension on retaliation for his criticism of the water department and his attempt to fix those problems. Among other things, Gretsas accuses Petrolia of asking him to lie by denying any link between the mayor and the problems. All the issues predate Gretsas, who began work in January.

It can he hard to sort out the hot mess that is Delray Beach government, but one thing seems clear: Only an outside investigation can determine how the city so badly botched its reclaimed water program. Delray Beach already has spent $850,000 to fix problems identified by the Florida Department of Health. That cost could increase.

City Attorney Lynn Gelin asked for the investigation that led to Gretsas’ suspension for allegedly creating a hostile work environment and seeking to fire Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher because she complained about him. Gretsas’ letter includes much criticism of Gelin. Under those circumstances, a Gelin-initiated probe of the utilities department would not be credible.

In an email, Carey said, “We are in receipt of Mr. Gretsas’ letter and are conducting an initial analysis of the issues to determine further actions.” Those actions could include an investigation into the water problems and other issues Gretsas raised, a referral to the state attorney’s office for possible criminal charges, a referral to the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics—or all three.

As he notes, Carey could start an investigation based solely on the letter. It would help, however, if the city commission asked for an investigation. The commission meets twice on Tuesday—at 10 a.m. for a budget workshop and at 4 p.m. for the regular meeting.

Commissioner Ryan Boylston told me Wednesday that he “would welcome” such an investigation. Boylston opposed Gretsas’ suspension. So did Adam Frankel.

Petrolia and commissioners Julie Casale and Shirley Johnson voted to fire Gretsas. Since Gretsas’ letters contains criticism of Petrolia and Johnson, they might not welcome an investigation.

As a city commissioner in 2018, however, Petrolia filed a complaint with the Office of Inspector General after she was the lone dissenting vote on the purchase of new lifeguard towers. Petrolia accused her colleagues of overspending and ignoring bidding rules. The investigation found that all of Petrolia’s claims were unsubstantiated.

Beyond the toxic politics surrounding Gretsas, there’s much at stake for Delray Beach residents. Because of those politics, no internal probe of the water department would be credible. Situations like this are why the county commission created the inspector general.

More water troubles

This week, the Tallahassee office of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility issued a news release stating that the wastewater plant serving Delray Beach and Boynton Beach contains high levels of cancer-causing chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Studies also link them to other serious conditions.

PEER’s Florida director, Jerry Phillips, said PFAS are “not proven safe at any level.” Phillips said PFAS in systems that provide reclaimed water—like the one in Delray Beach—can lead to PFAS in underground aquifers from which cities draw drinking water.

PEER describes its mission as supporting “current and former public employees who seek a higher standard of environmental ethics and scientific integrity within their agencies. We do this by defending whistleblowers, shining the light on improper government actions, working to improve laws and regulations and supporting the work of other organizations.”

In his letter to the mayor and commission, Gretsas claims whistleblower status.

Gelin strikes back at Gretsas

Gelin has fired back at Gretsas, not once but twice.

In letters to the mayor and commission, the city attorney first suggests that Gretsas may not deserve the whistleblower status he seeks. She then calls Gretsas’ letter a collection of “inaccuracies, misstatements and misleading information.” The letter is “an unacceptable act by a suspended employee.”

Regarding the utilities department, Gelin claims that Gretsas wants only to blame others and takes “no responsibility for his role, or lack thereof, in the issues he encountered during his tenure.” Gelin defends Fisher, whose duties included supervision of the department. Gretsas, Gelin said, “did little to address the issue.”

Yet on May 5, Gretsas made a detailed presentation to the commission about his findings to that point. He listed numerous issues—some dating back more than a decade—and explained that he hired a new utilities director whose priority would be the water system.

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George Gretsas

In his letter, Gretsas also referenced the city’s golf courses. He said Fisher, who also supervised the parks and recreation department, gave work at the courses to the company that employs her boyfriend. Fisher and Gelin, Gretsas said, had signed a contract with the company “unbeknownst” to him.

In fact, Gelin said, Gretsas designated Fisher and the other assistant city manager, Allyson Love, as signatories in his absence. Gelin said Gretsas did this against her advice. In a follow-up memo, Gelin includes a Feb. 4 letter from Gretsas giving that authority to Love and Fisher.

“Had Mr. Gretsas been truly interested in the business and operations conducted by the city,” Gelin wrote, “he would never have delegated his authority to execute city documents, thereby ensuring that no contracts would be signed ‘unbeknownst’ to him.”

Gretsas accuses Gelin of telling him not to investigate the golf courses, saying, “It’s making you look bad.” Gelin denies making the statement.

“The only advice I ever gave Mr. Gretsas concerning his purported ‘investigations’ of his employees,” Gelin said, “was that it should be (a Human Resources) function and not a city manager function.

“In fact, in retrospect, it appears that Mr. Gretsas intentionally left the HR department out of any conversations regarding Ms. Fisher, the hiring of her boyfriend, and the golf course contract prior to issuing the notice of intent to terminate Ms. Fisher.”

Finally, Gelin denied Gretsas’ statement that the city attorney was “up to her neck in reclaimed water.” Gelin said she was involved in routine utilities department in late 2019 and early 2020. Her office was “never apprised as to the magnitude of the reclaimed water issue” until a Feb. 3 meeting with the Department of Health.

Gretsas, Gelin concluded, has “taken this time to disparage those who spoke out against him, to make baseless accusations against his superiors who voted to suspend him, and to inundate staff with additional work that takes away from the true, meaningful business of the city. How unfortunate.”

Speaking to the candidates for Boca’s Beach and Park District Board

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Red Reef Beach in Boca Raton. Photo by Aaron Bristol.

Two seats on the five-member board of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District are on the Aug. 18 ballot. Seat 1 incumbent Craig Ehrnst won a new, four-year term without opposition. Seat 3 incumbent Erin Wright and Seat 5 incumbent Steve Engle drew challengers.

Here’s a look at the candidates and their positions. I have edited their responses for length and clarity.

 SEAT 3

Candidates: Nanci-Jo Feinberg and Erin Wright.

Why are you running?

Feinberg: I’m an accomplished amateur golfer. I was involved in the construction of the golf courses at Broken Sound Club, and also served on the Board of Governors. I would bring golf expertise to the board that sorely needs it. They’ve made major expenditure mistakes and need real budgeting realignment, which I can help provide. Our community has other needs that require immediate attention: Ocean Strand; lighted pickleball courts; Gumbo Limbo, to mention just a few.

 Wright: I am running for re-election to continue the hard work I have put in for our residents. I believe I have learned a great deal and am not done contributing and speaking my mind.

One of my biggest reasons, and even more so now with the pandemic, is my belief in the benefits of parks and recreation for physical and mental health and preserving space for the next generation. We need these spaces more than ever and I am in an ideal position to promote what we have and make sure it stays as great as it is.  

What are the biggest issues facing the district?

Feinberg: The board significantly overspent on land for the (proposed Boca Raton National Golf Course) and the resulting debt service will hamper their ability to work on other projects. Now they will either have to raise taxes or cut services. Don’t be fooled by the minuscule reduction in the millage rate that (the board) just passed. Based on rising assessed values, our taxes will likely increase.

Wright: Our biggest issue is how do we provide even more open space but keep our budget in check? We are at a standstill with the city over design of the golf course. We have $5 million set aside for next year to begin construction, but we also want to be conservative with our budget. We will have Ocean Strand open to residents before the year is up. We need to try and create more pocket areas and connecting trails so that space is accessible not only by car but walking and biking.

What should the district do to improve relations with the city? What should the city do to improve relations?

 Feinberg: The district was created to partner with the city to enhance recreational facilities for our citizens. Each has become somewhat territorial and wants the recognition. I’m mature and not using this position as a steppingstone to higher office. I can be the grown-up in the room. At times of disagreement, I will urge everyone to move toward compromise since we all have a common interest.

Wright: One step the district has taken is hiring our new executive director. Briann Harms has been with the district for almost 10 years but has been overshadowed by past leadership. In her new role, she has blossomed and opened the lines of communication. She worked with the city to trim the city budget of over $500,000.

I have the endorsement of two council members, Andrea O’Rourke and Monica Mayotte. I would hope that the council members strive to keep open lines of communication but also relay that to the city manager and staff. Communication can’t work if it’s one-sided.

golf money

How would you resolve the impasse over the Boca Raton National Golf Course?

Feinberg: The district drastically overspent on the land. In order to keep greens fees affordable, I would be happy to let the city build the course and would like to advise and partner with the city over golfing issues that our citizens expressed. The city had planned to buy Ocean Breeze (the closed course in the Boca Teeca community that the new course would replace) for a fraction of the cost. The city is willing to build it rapidly out of the city’s budget. That’s a win-win.

Wright: Both bodies understand the importance of getting recreation and green space available to our residents and that is 255 acres of green space in our city. It can and will be a great recreation spot. The difficulty is that the city owns the west side and we own the east. We need their approval to start construction on the west side. The district may need to move forward on the east side until we can get approval from the city on the west. We can start the east on our own and open that to the public sooner rather than later.

What would you like readers to know about your opponent?

Feinberg: I’m sure she’s a good and honest person but she’s been unable to prevent decisions that will likely lead to an increase in taxes or a reduction in services. Ocean Strand has been 24 years delayed, improvements for Gumbo Limbo are years behind schedule and Boca doesn’t have lighted public pickleball courts for the fastest-growing sport in America.

When the city offered to take over and pay for construction of the golf course, my opponent objected to that as a personal slight because the board had spent all of their time on it for the prior two years. Now she wants us to wait another five years for the district to complete the project. That’s no way to treat our residents.

Wright: Nancy-Jo is not quite clear on what the district does or the specifics with some projects. She thought Art Koski, who had been the golf course consultant, was still in this role. This was one of her main issues for running. He has not been with the district in any capacity since last year, and I was the one who spearheaded that effort.

Another issue she has brought up is Ocean Strand.  The district has owned it for over 25 years. I have only been on the board for 3.5 years and we will have it open before the end of my first term. I made sure we put aside money to get it open and also to set aside additional funds for Gumbo Limbo. I think she should have learned more about the projects we have been working on and what each member of the district has actually done. If she had, I do not think she would have chosen to run against me.

SEAT 5

Candidates: Steven Engel, Eric Pendergraft and William “Billy” Vale.

Why are you running for election/re-election?

Engel: I am running because there are issues we face, both old and new, that require the experience, insight and innovative ideas that I bring to the table.

Pendergraft: I cherish our parks and beaches, and I want to live in a beautiful place with good government. I am running because these important things have been jeopardized by the current leadership of the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District.

Vale: I am running not only to protect beaches, parks and undeveloped land. I am also running to preserve and protect our tax dollars. I applaud the district for protecting the property owners of Boca Teeca, soon to be home to Boca National Golf Course. However, I believe they overpaid for the property and bailed out Lennar Homes. 

What are the biggest issues facing the district?

Engel: How to do more with less. We need to be prepared for the possibility of declining real estate values—and the accompanying drop in tax revenues —while maintaining, and in some cases increasing, the level of facilities and services we offer to the district’s residents.

We also need to protect district properties from development interests who would rather see hotels and condominiums than green space and recreational facilities.

Pendergraft: The most immediate and apparent issue is making sure that the parks and beaches remain accessible and safe. We all have to do our part to conquer COVID-19, and social distancing measures are key to this. However, we still need access to the great outdoors to maintain our physical and mental health.

Another big issue is the Boca Teeca/Ocean Breeze/Boca National Golf Course debacle. The third big issue is the Ocean Strand property. This prime Intracoastal Waterway property was purchased over two decades ago, and the district has barred the public from accessing it and otherwise done nothing with it until this year, when commissioners bent to election-year pressure and announced that they were willing to slap up a few park benches. But so much more can be done with this area.

Vale: The biggest issues are the protection of Ocean Strand, the cost to build Boca National and the relationship between the district and the City. 

What should the district do to improve relations with the city? What should the city do to improve relations?

Engel: Both sides need to address and understand the concerns that underlie the positions taken by the other side. Both sides need to become better listeners and hear more than the echoes of their own narratives. Both sides need to understand that the need for a strong partnership between city and district is essential to successfully dealing with the issues facing us now and in the years ahead.

Pendergraft: We all live in the Greater Boca Raton area and enjoy the beaches and parks. Both entities need to realize that they are partners representing the shared interests of residents, and they need to set aside petty past differences and forgive perceived slights to ensure that, at the end of the day, we maintain our great open spaces in an affordable manner, which includes keeping public golf in Boca Raton.

Vale: I’ve seen this mild dysfunction for some time. As an outsider, I believe the city and the district should be working together for the greater good of the people in Boca Raton. I would call for a series of meetings to discuss how we can air out issues and come together. 

restrictions

How would you resolve the impasse over the proposed Boca Raton National golf course?

Engel: The first thing we need to do is to find the areas in which there are already agreements and use those as the foundation for a larger agreement. In the areas where disagreement exists, we need to address the concerns on each side and find ways to reconcile them. This will have to involve concessions by both parties.

Pendergraft: While Greater Boca Raton needs a public 18-hole golf course, it doesn’t need one that we cannot afford. The district’s current position regarding the city is as follows:

You bailed us out after we negligently spent $24 million on a $5 million rundown golf course; We want to spend another $16 million to develop that derelict golf course into an elite global tourist attraction instead of a usable and modest public course; We don’t have $16 million; So give us that money, but butt out. We want to remain in charge of selecting the developer and design.

The district should begin working with the city to develop a realistic budget for golf course development, select a designer that can do the job for less than the $16 million proposed by the district’s preferred designer, Price/Fazio, and come up with a cost-sharing agreement.

Vale: I would fund Boca National through a revenue bond. The current proposal to build a world-class facility will cost over $30 million. I think we could build the same facility if we used and expanded upon the successful county model at Osprey Point Golf Club. The county spent less than $12 million to build 27 holes, and the course is very profitable.

What would you like readers to know about your opponents?

Engel: Neither of my opponents has the experience, insight or knowledge necessary to handle the job of commissioner. Given the present circumstances, learning on the job is not an option.

Pendergraft: Steve Engel voted to spend $24 million on a defunct golf course that was only worth $5 million and he advocated raising taxes to pay for this mistake. This resulted in a taxpayer revolt, the district scrapping its proposed tax hike, and the district going deep into debt to the city. Now, as an election year gimmick, Engel pushed a tax cut, which will further damage the district’s finances and make it that much harder for the district to fulfill its responsibilities.

Vale: No comment at this time.