Friday, March 17, 2023

Dysfunctional Delray: Caruso Swings and Misses, Petrolia Name-Calls, Katz Goes Way Low

In the race for mayor of Delray Beach, there is no more earth left to scorch.

Tracy Caruso, who is challenging incumbent Shelly Petrolia, posted on Facebook that the mayor is “under investigation” by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for campaign finance violations. The Sun Sentinel first reported Caruso’s claim.

But an FDLE spokeswoman said the agency is not investigating Petrolia.

I asked Caruso why she made the charge. She responded, “A supporter was called by an investigator.” Such communication, however, doesn’t make for an actual investigation.

In addition, Caruso said, “I have also learned there are investigations that are on going into Petrolia’s actions, both by the city and by the office of inspector general.” She did not explain how she “learned.” The inspector general’s office does not comment on whether it is investigating individuals.

Then on Wednesday, Caruso sent an email claiming that the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics is “investigating” Petrolia. Caruso attached a screenshot of an email from a commission investigator asking a Delray Beach resident for information about a list of commercial properties Petrolia compiled in 2020.

Former City Manager George Gretsas has stated that Petrolia wanted him to ask the property appraiser’s office whether the assessed value of the properties was too low, thus costing the city money. Gretsas compiled a list of the 29 properties and noted that all 29 were linked to Petrolia’s political opponents. Gretsas took no action.

But Mark Bannon, the commission’s executive director, said he “can’t verify that there even is an investigation.” Farther down in the email, Caruso said the commission is “gathering information” on Gretsas’ accusations “to investigate further.”

That second comment is much more nuanced than the subject line of the email. Caruso is correct to say that an investigator is seeking information. The commission’s policy, however, is to not acknowledge a complaint until after the commission determines whether or not there is legal sufficiency or probable cause.

“Bottom line,” Caruso said, “Mayor Petrolia’s actions are being investigated for impropriety.” Bottom line, the facts at this point don’t support that accusation. 

Another issue is the Caruso mailer that slammed Petrolia for being “a little too close” to former President Trump. A photograph showed Petrolia at the White House with other mayors for a bipartisan bill signing.

The irony is that Caruso, as the Sun Sentinel reported, is a former “Trumpette”—the self-named women who were strong supporters. Her husband, State Rep. Mike Caruso, won his 2018 primary by linking himself to Trump.

But Delray Beach is a mostly Democratic city, especially in the minority-heavy Northwest/Southwest neighborhoods. Caruso changed her registration from Republican to No Party Affiliation when she began her campaign for mayor.

That mailer came from a group called Progressives for Delray Beach. It is a political action committee organized as a 501(c)(4) under the IRS code. Such groups don’t have to disclose their donations. Voters thus can’t tell who financed the attack piece.

I asked Caruso why she made the Trump accusation and whether she would disclose the PAC’s donors.

On the first, Caruso said Petrolia “bragged about getting invited to the Trump White House and accepting a pen from him,” likely from the signing ceremony.

On the second, Caruso ducked the question. “Neither my campaign nor I have any connection to Progress for Delray Beach. To make the accusation because a group is pointing out the flaws of my opponent, saying that I control them is ridiculous. I do not.”

So the mailer and other campaign material just happen to come from a group with a Delray Beach name, aimed at Caruso’s opponent? Though Petrolia used dark money in 2018, that doesn’t make it any better now.

Petrolia’s texts

But just when voters might think that Caruso has given them reason to choose Petrolia, we hear more that confirms criticism of the mayor.

This week also brought news of a text message that Petrolia sent Gretsas. She was angry because the commission had outvoted her and approved a settlement of the lawsuit against Match Point, promoters of the city’s pro tennis tournament.

Petrolia was the only holdover from the commission that filed the lawsuit. It sought to end Match Point’s 25-year contract—through 2030—on the grounds that it had been issued contrary to city rules. The settlement allowed Match Point to keep the contract but the company will get less money from the city and make other concessions.

“Between us,” Petrolia texted Gretsas, “I serve with morons.”

Petrolia believed that the city could have won at trial. Any good lawyer will tell you that no jury outcome is certain. Commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel—whom Petrolia is working to defeat this year—and Bill Bathurst—whom Petrolia successfully worked to defeat last year—voted to settle.

During Tuesday’s commission meeting, Boylston raised the issue of that “morons” text. During yet another exchange about campaign tactics, Petrolia said to Boylston, “A lot of things happen in elections. Get over it.”

Petrolia’s critics will note that she did not “get over it” last year after losing a vote on sea grape trimming—of all things. She vowed revenge on Boylston and Frankel.

This is the sad choice Delray Beach voters face. Petrolia, Boylston said Tuesday night, had set a low campaigning standard, but Caruso’s “inexcusable actions” have “brought it even lower.” Both of what the mayoral candidates have done “will have to be addressed,” Boylston said, when the new commission gathers for its organization session on March 25.

Responding to Petrolia, Boylston said, “I don’t want to get over it.” Given the campaigning, voters likely are glad that the election will be over on Tuesday.

Katz vs. Jarjura?

Mitch Katz is running for the Delray Beach City Commission against Boylston. So why is Katz still making baseless accusations against Jordana Jarjura?

When Katz served on the commission with Jarjura in 2016, he verbally ambushed her during a discussion about the city attorney. Katz had to apologize after wrongly accusing Jarjura of an ethics violation.

Jarjura now is president and general counsel of Menin Development, which is based in Delray Beach and is building The Ray Hotel, the Delray Beach Marketplace and The Linton residential project. Jarjura went to the Feb. 10 Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce candidate forum as Boylston’s guest. Pandemic rules limited attendance.

In keeping with the tenor of the campaign, Boylston got heckled. After a moment, Jarjura rose and quoted Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.”

On social media, however, Katz characterized Jarjura’s comment as a “drunken rant.” On Wednesday, I asked Katz if he could back up that characterization.

Katz first called the issue “trivial,” in light of the city’s many pressing issues. Then he said that Jarjura had “a cocktail in her hand and screamed.” If alcohol wasn’t the reason, Katz said, “What else explains it?”

Because Katz is a former commissioner and current candidate, I don’t consider his remark to be “trivial.” I asked Jarjura for her response.

Jarjura noted that Katz didn’t just refer to a “screamed-out drunken rant.” He “also posted on a different Facebook post ‘#drunkformercommissioner’ and referenced my title with Menin.

“To be clear, I was not drunk. And, not that it matters, but I wasn’t even drinking—unless you count water and peanut M&M’s as alcoholic beverages. There were three people that spoke out from the audience during the debate; the other two were both men. I am sure that most would reference their outbursts as much closer to ‘drunken rants’ than my quoting our former First Lady.

“But Mr. Katz not only fails to criticize their behavior; he never even raises it. Instead, he singles me out, the one woman, who dared to respond to a heckler, and, more telling, he falsely characterizes my statement of positivity as a ‘drunken rant’ and me as a ‘drunk.’

“This is not the first time that Mr. Katz has denigrated or defamed me. Last time was when we served together. I am no longer a public official, and so Mr. Katz no longer gets to fly under the cloak of protected free speech. As a now private citizen, should he continue to make defamatory statements about me I will exhaust all legal remedies available to me under the law.”

301 Apartments approved

Despite the politics on and off the dais, the city commission did manage Tuesday to approve a 100-unit apartment project in the Railroad Corridor.

The vote for 1st Avenue Capital’s 301 Apartments was 4-1, with Juli Casale the only dissenter. Petrolia switched after voting against the project on first reading.

Frankel compared 301 Apartments to the nearby SofA–South of Atlantic–rental complex, noting that it had many detractors during the approval process but had become popular. Supporters said the new project would continue development of that neighborhood as an alternative to Atlantic itself and help Osceola Park.

Still, you couldn’t escape the politics. Boylston said he “anticipates” an email criticizing his vote, since Petrolia labeled him and Frankel “Team Developer.” Frankel called himself part of “Team Quillian,” referring to the president of the Osceola Park Neighborhood Association. The association supported the project.

Tribune gaffe

The Boca Raton Tribune hosted a virtual debate Wednesday night among the Boca Raton City Council candidates. Though the Tribune bills itself as “Your Closest Neighbor,” the moderator kept referring to Seat D challenger Brian “Steinberg.” It’s Stenberg.

I asked Stenberg why he didn’t correct the moderator. “I’m used to people mispronouncing my name,” Stenberg said. “I figured he was close enough.”

Boca pickleball courts

After all the negative campaigning, here’s a happy note to end on: pickleball.

On Monday, the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District opened six new courts at the Patch Reef Park Tennis Center. And they are lighted, the first in the city. Perhaps in a sign of the times, the courts were repurposed from two tennis courts.

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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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