Monday, September 25, 2023

Delray’s New City Manager, a Murder in Boca and Dispensary Discussions

Officially, Michael Cernech isn’t Delray Beach’s city manager. Unofficially, he’s on the job.

Once he can, Cernech wants to meet with Mayor Shelly Petrolia and the commission “to find out what’s important to them. What things are we doing well? What things could we be doing better? What things are we not doing? What things should we not be doing?”

To make Tuesday’s choice official, the city commission must approve a contract with Cernech, who’s now city manager in Tamarac. Cernech told me that he spoke with City Attorney Lynn Gelin on Wednesday to start negotiations, which he’s handling himself. He agrees with Gelin that a contract could go to the commission on Sept. 5. “The sooner the better.”

Then, Cernech said, “We have to start filling vacancies.” Delray Beach lacks a development services director and other department heads. Interim City Manager Neal de Jesus created those vacancies and left them for Cernech to fill.

Cernech beat out two other very qualified finalists: Homestead City Manager George Gretsas had been the manager in Fort Lauderdale; Deputy City Manager Joseph Napoli had been chief of staff at Miami International Airport and had served for two decades in the Army. After the public interviews Tuesday afternoon, several commissioners said they would be happy with any of the candidates.

Michael Cernech, George Gretsas and Michael Napoli

When discussion began after the 30-minute interviews, Petrolia went first, departing from the normal protocol when she speaks last. She preferred Gretsas and wanted to swing others her way.

To make her case, Petrolia said Gretsas “checked all the boxes” more than Cernech and Napoli. Gretsas, she said, had dealt with tourism and had run two coastal cities. Tamarac is inland and Napoli has been in Miami for less than two years.

It didn’t work. The move was similar to what then-Mayor Carey Glickstein did when the commission hired Mark Lauzier in 2017. Glickstein also went first, noting that he had called managers under whom Lauzier had worked and that they raved about him. Lauzier got the job.

That time, Petrolia was the one holdout, preferring the other candidate. As she did two years ago, however, Petrolia switched her vote and backed Cernech to approve contract negotiations. It was a good move. A 4-1 vote looks much better than a 3-2 decision. Commissioner Shirley Johnson refused to budge from Napoli even after seeing that he had just her vote.

A key issue with Gretsas was his clash in Fort Lauderdale with the police union over pensions. He told commissioners that he was acting at the order of his bosses. Still, Boylston was concerned enough that he had arranged for Gretsas, Police Chief Javaro Sims and officers to meet and “nip that in the bud” if the commission had hired Gretsas.

Yet public safety costs will be one of many financial issues facing Cernech. The LeRoy Collins Institute at  Florida State University rated the city’s police and fire pensions a D for long-term solvency in its latest report. Since next year’s budget is all but done, Cernech will be preparing for 2020-21.

Notably, however, Cernech told the commission Tuesday that he had studied the budget enough to wonder about changes. Example: He said some departments—such as Building—should run on the money they generate in fees, so they don’t pull money from the general fund that finances most key services.

He also cited the golf course. Cernech said residents citywide should not subsidize those who play. “We need to create more clarity” in the city’s finances.

Cernech must give Tamarac 60 days notice, which he had not done as of Wednesday. From our conversation, however, he’s already working for Delray Beach.

Boca murder

The horrifyingly random murder on Tuesday of a 75-year-old women in a northwest Boca Raton neighborhood is the city’s first homicide since March 2018.

That was James Scandarito, Jr., charged with killing his father, James Scandarito, Sr., and dismembering his body. Though a jury convicted the younger Scandarito only on the lesser charge—a second-degree felony—a Boca Raton Police Department spokesman said the Uniform Crime Report considers the death a homicide because of the charge.

Before that, Tashane Chantiloupe was charged with murder for the May 2017 killing of a man in northeast Boca Raton. It appeared to have been a revenge for the victim testifying against Chantiloupe in an earlier case.

The killing Tuesday of Evelyn Smith Udell, who had worked as a librarian at Florida Atlantic University, will draw scrutiny to the practice of large retailers contracting out their delivery services. The Palm Peach Post reported that XM Delivery—whose employee is charged with first-degree murder—was a subcontractor of a nationwide delivery subcontractor—J.B. Hunt. Its market value is $11 billion.

Udell had ordered a washer and dryer from the Best Buy in West Boca. No doubt she intended that Best Buy employees—whom the company presumably would have screened—would deliver her purchase.

Instead, according to the police report, Jorge Luis Dupre Lachazo—for reasons still unknown—attacked Udell with a mallet and then poured a chemical that set her clothes on fire. She died in the trauma unit at Delray Medical Center.

Subcontracting is a massive business, and it’s another way for large companies to cut expenses. Best Buy closed its store, supposedly out of respect for the Udell family. Better scrutiny of its subcontracting would have been more helpful.

The dispensary issue

At its Monday workshop meeting, the Boca Raton City Council will discuss an ordinance to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in the city. Whatever sentiment may exist among elected officials to approve it, the backup material notes that city administrators have “serious concerns” about the proposal.

Florida voters approved the constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana in 2016. The Legislature then wrote a bill to determine how Floridians who qualified could obtain it.

That legislation allowed dispensaries only where cities and counties allow pharmacies. But pharmacies can’t sell it because the federal government still classifies marijuana as a controlled substance. So it’s only available through dispensaries and only in cash transactions.

The staff memo notes that the implementing legislation is “very restrictive” about what additional rules local governments can set and that there is “a dearth of relevant case law.” The proposed ordinance prohibits dispensaries within 500 feet of any school, allows only one dispensary per residential development, and requires any pharmacy be at least 2,500 square feet in area.

Deerfield Beach recently banned new dispensaries over fears of proliferation, even though the businesses have posed no appearance or crime problems. Lake Worth Beach did the same. The staff memo notes that there are two dispensaries near the city in unincorporated Palm Beach County.

Ten months ago, a new council—seated after the August 2018 special election—asked the staff to draft a medical marijuana ordinance after a previous council had banned the dispensaries. Council members generally give staff recommendations great weight. In June, however, the council voted not to outsource residential garbage collection even though the staff clearly favored it. So the discussion Monday will be interesting.

New performing arts center?

Rendering of Boca arts complex

Also at the Monday workshop, the council will discuss a resolution that would pledge the city’s support for a performing arts center next to the Mizner Park Amphitheater.

This comes from the Cultural Consortium, which last fall pitched the idea of Boca Raton donating 10 acres of land next to the Spanish River Library for an arts complex. Council members asked consortium representatives to study the idea more and come back with details. City Manager Leif Ahnell expressed reservations about losing such a large piece of property. Some council members worried that, if the complex couldn’t sustain itself, the city might have to take it over.

After hiring a consultant, the consortium seems to have determined that a more feasible would be to ask for the city-owned parcel in Mizner Park. The consortium didn’t provide its presentation in advance.

Meeting on Osceola Park

Delray Beach will hold a meeting Monday for residents of Osceola Park to hear about redevelopment plans for their neighborhood. The meeting will start at 6 p.m. in the city facility at 434 South Swinton Avenue.

According to a news release, city planners will discuss flood control and beautification projects and other ways to “enhance the neighborhood’s identity while staying true to its historic and artistic character.”

Boca National on agenda

The proposed Boca Raton National golf course will be back  before the city council next week.

Council members wanted to hear from other potential designers after criticizing the $28 million version from the firm that the Greater Boca Beach and Park District selected. To allow as much time as possible, the city has scheduled a special meeting on the issue for 3 p.m. Tuesday, before the regular meeting at 6 p.m. I’ll have more 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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