Monday, September 26, 2022

Delray’s Bizarre Old School Square Talk and Local Election Landscapes

Breaking news: Florida Atlantic University President John Kelly will resign at the end of this year to take a new position at FAU. Kelly has been president since 2014. I’ll have more in my Thursday post.

More Old School Square fallout

How to describe last week’s Old School Square discussion at the Delray Beach City Commission meeting?

Is “odd” the proper adjective? Maybe “bizarre” is more appropriate. Toss in “arrogant.”

On the agenda was “discussion and direction concerning collaboration” between the city, the Boca Raton Museum of Art and a group called Visual Adjectives “for additional activation of the Old School Square campus.”

Yet the commission previously had scheduled a town-hall type meeting, known as a charrette, for this Thursday at 6 p.m. The city’s website advertises that meeting as a chance for public comment on Old School Square’s future. “Everyone,” the announcement reads, “is invited to share their ideas!”

So if the commission already decided before the charrette that these two groups would play major roles at Old School Square, what would be the need for residents to “share their ideas” or for other groups to inquire?

That was the odd. Here comes the bizarre.

In April, City Manager Terrence Moore presented the commission with a proposed 18-month contract for the Boca Museum of Art to operate the Cornell Museum, which is a major component of Old School Square. With Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel, Commissioner Shirley Johnson provided the deciding vote against awarding the contract. Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioner Julie Casale dissented.

Yet there was Johnson last week, saying that she wanted to bring the museum “back on board.” Johnson sought to explain her decision by saying that the contract had been confusing.

Even though the agenda listed the Old School Square item as a presentation, Johnson joined Petrolia and Casale in asking Moore to start talking with the Boca Raton Museum and Visual Adjectives. Visual Adjectives is a two-person group that rents space at Arts Warehouse. Visual Adjectives would provide programming.

Supposedly, these communications would not amount to discussions, but Boylston and Frankel argued that the decision would appear to pick favorites before hearing from residents. City Attorney Lynn Gelin also expressed “concerns” about moving too quickly since the city also might ask for proposals after the charrette.

Now for the arrogance.

Casale attempted to defend her vote by saying that Delray Beach needs to move quickly because the Cornell and the Crest Theater remain closed. Air-conditioning problems reportedly have developed since the buildings closed in February. Old School Square, Casale said, “must showcase the best of Delray.”

Yet the Cornell and Crest are closed only because Casale, Petrolia and Johnson voted last August to terminate the lease Old School Square for the Arts had held on the property since 1989. They acted even though the agenda had not specified that a vote on the lease might happen.

And they clearly acted without a backup plan. The city’s first attempt at finding an Old School Square-like group to take over the cultural complex got no takers.

As Frankel pointed out when Casale claimed to be acting on behalf of residents, “Fifteen thousand people didn’t agree with you.” He referred to the petition asking the commission to rescind that termination and work out the differences with Old School Square. Petrolia, Casale and Johnson, however, refused even to discuss a proposed settlement of Old School Square for the Arts’ lawsuit alleging wrongful termination. Casale complained that the petition had been misleading.

Casale and Petrolia continue to pretend that Old School Square somehow arose organically, not because of thousands of volunteers and donors who turned abandoned, fenced-off buildings into the catalyst for Delray Beach’s revival.

“The last people,” Casale said, “were very well-meaning” but “could not make the operations work.” Petrolia allowed only that Old School Square for the Arts “delivered to a degree in some respects.”

Johnson blamed the difficulty with fully reopening the complex on “recrimination” against her, Petrolia and Casale by Old School Square supporters that has discouraged applicants. “The fear,” she said, “is still palatable (sic).”

Irvin Lippman is executive director of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Lippman told me Monday that he found out about last week’s development “after the fact.” The museum, he said, will wait until after the charrette before making any decision.

Boylston and Frankel accused the majority of seeking to undermine Thursday’s event. “The residents,” Frankel said, “have been ignored. Period. Overwhelmingly. They haven’t had a chance to provide public comment many times.”

Boylston wondered why the majority had rejected “for months” his attempt to get public comment but now wanted urgent action. He said the museum and Visual Adjectives had been “hand-selected.” Petrolia, Casale and Johnson denied that.

Nearly a year after Petrolia, Casale and Johnson voted to evict Old School Square for the Arts, much of the complex they built is closed. The city could face a bill of nearly $2 million to finish work at Crest Theater that a private donor had financed and to replace equipment that Old School Square for the Arts took because the group owned it. Then there’s the potential cost from months of neglected maintenance.

“It’s not that easy,” Casale said, “to just go in” and start running Old School Square. Obviously.

Matchups set for upcoming elections

With qualifying having ended last Friday, the matchups are set for county commission, school board and legislative races in the Aug. 23 primary and Nov. 8 general election.

Highland Beach Town Commissioner Peggy Gossett-Seidman and first-time candidate Christina DuCasse will compete in the Republican primary for Florida House District 91 that includes Boca Raton. The winner will face Democrat and Boca Raton City Councilman Andy Thomson in November.

In House District 90, which includes Delray Beach, Democrat Joe Casello and Republican Keith G. Felt will meet in November. Casello, a former Boynton Beach city commissioner, is in the Legislature now. Because of new maps after the 2020 census, all legislators are running from new districts.

The new Senate District 26 includes all of southeast Palm Beach County and most of the southwest county. Lori Berman, an incumbent who now represents areas to the north, was the only Democrat to qualify. She will meet the winner of the GOP primary between Steve Byers and William Wheelen. Neither has raised any money. Berman has raised $124,000.

Frank Barbieri, the school board member who represents Boca Raton and West Boca, is not on the ballot. But three incumbents on the seven-member board—Marcia Andrews, Karen Brill and Erica Whitfield—will face the voters. Whitfield’s district includes part of Delray Beach. Debra Robinson, who represents the rest, did not seek a new term.

Collectively, the incumbents face eight challengers who fall into two groups. Most are campaigning in support of laws passed by the Republican-led Legislature, such as the “don’t say gay” restriction on teachers discussing gender orientation with students. Others are running with support from the Police Benevolent Association, which wants the sheriff’s office—the PBA represents deputies—to take over the school district police department.

Whitfield is in a two-person race that the primary will decide. In the others, the winners must get more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff in November. School board races are non-partisan, but Gov. DeSantis has made clear that he will involve himself to point out which candidates he prefers.

Angela Burns to run for Delray commission seat

Angela Burns has filed paperwork to run for Johnson’s seat in Delray Beach’s March 2023 election. Johnson is term-limited.

Angela Burns; image from Facebook

Burns finished third in a three-way race for the same seat in 2022. The other announced candidate is Angeleta Gray, a former commissioner who now is one of two appointed members on the community redevelopment agency board. Last week, as I previewed, Casale nominated Gray for another term. Gray is aligned with Casale and Petrolia. The board seat gives Gray a public platform before the election.

Redistricting to have little effect in Palm Beach

Congressional redistricting changed little in southern Palm Beach County.

Democrat Lois Frankel is running for reelection in District 22, which still includes Delray Beach. Five Republicans are competing for the chance to challenge Frankel.

Rep. Lois Frankel

District 23 includes Boca Raton, West Boca and now a larger part of Broward County. Democrat Ted Deutch is resigning to become president of the American Jewish Committee. Six Democrats and seven Republicans form the crowded primaries to narrow the field for November.

Rollins and Vogelgesang win reelection

Bob Rollins and Susan Vogelgesang won new, four-year terms on the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Parks District board without opposition. This will be the eighth term for Rollins and the fourth for Vogelgesang.

Delray to consider Juneteenth as city holiday

Monday was a federal holiday to celebrate Juneteenth, which commemorates the full emancipation in 1865 of enslaved people in the United States. During last week’s city commission, Boylston asked Gelin to research the idea of Delray Beach making Juneteenth a municipal holiday as well.

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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