The Ugly Saga of the George Gretsas Era in Delray Beach

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It was clear even before Friday’s hearing that George Gretsas would not return as Delray Beach’s city manager. The question was how messy his departure would be.

The answer: very messy.

The mess began building immediately, when Robert Norton spoke. His law firm conducted the investigations of Gretsas instigated by City Attorney Lynn Gelin and City Auditor Linda Davidyan.

Norton began by invoking Gretsas’ dealings with former Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher. But Fisher had been central only to the first set of misconduct charges against Gretsas. Gelin discarded them and wrote others, which were the point of discussion on Friday.

Gretsas’ attorney, Carmen Rodriguez, quickly objected. She called the reference to Fisher part of a “smear campaign.” Norton shot back, saying of Gretsas, “He’s the champion of smear campaigns.”

From there, Norton ranted about “cronies” Gretsas brought with him from Homestead, where he had been manager. Norton seemed to scoff at the idea that Gretsas was not there in person because he was in Montana, where a surrogate mother will deliver the Gretsas’ daughter. “What on Earth?” Rodriguez responded.

In my mind, Norton’s rant undercut the credibility of what his firm produced. He spent more time gushing over Davidyan’s credentials than analyzing the charges.

Style points mattered, because the outcome never was in doubt. Even commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel—who had voted in June not to suspend Gretsas—acknowledged that the manager wouldn’t be back.

Fighting back

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Gretsas did not wait silently for a decision. He wrote a long letter on July 31 to claim whistleblower status for seeking to change Delray Beach’s “toxic culture of turnover and corruption.” He continues to provide documents, obtained through public records requests, to make his case. Boylston acknowledged that the rupture with the city was complete.

But Mayor Shelly Petrolia, Gelin and Davidyan started this fight that the commission had to end. Protecting the city’s interest in the lawsuit that Gretsas will file meant establishing a solid case to fire him with cause. Based on the discussion and vote, that clear case did not emerge.

Yes, a majority of commissioners supported all nine charges of misconduct, which stemmed from alleged failures to preserve public records and decisions about hiring and salary. Only on one charge, however, was the vote unanimous. On two, the vote was 4-1, with Frankel voting no. On six, Frankel and Boylston voted no. Petrolia and commissioners Julie Casale and Shirley Johnson, who had voted to suspend Johnson, voted yes on all charges. 

Firing any manager is a city commission’s biggest decision. Firing this manager, after an effort that began in secrecy—the June hearing provided no public notice of the agenda­­­—needed extra credibility. With what amounted to a 3-2 decision, that didn’t happen.

Suppose Gretsas did commit the three violations that got at least four votes. (Gretsas continues to deny all the charges.) Would those alone have been grounds to fire him? Or would Gretsas have deserved only a reprimand?

In addition, the commission could have fired Gretsas without cause. Frankel proposed that on Friday. He didn’t get majority support. Casale complained that it would cost $180,000. But if she, Petrolia and Johnson had wanted Gretsas gone so badly, that option always was there.

The Gelin factor

Then there’s the extraordinary role that Gelin and Davidyan have played. After Norton referenced Fisher, Rodriguez again cited what she called Gelin’s failure to advise Gretsas in June against sending his letter seeking to fire Fisher. Gelin knew that Fisher had made a complaint about Gretsas. His letter could seem like retaliation, which is how Gelin described it in the first set of charges.

Boylston raised that issue on Friday. He had asked Gelin about the letter to Fisher—“Is this OK?” Though Gelin considered some of the language overly strong, Boylston said, Gelin told him that the letter was “OK.”

Gelin said, “I don’t recall that conversation.”

Less than a month later came that meeting without an advertised agenda. Petrolia had scheduled it for 3 p.m.

Boylston recalled that he had asked Gelin what was going on. She first told him, Boylston said, that issues about Gretsas had arisen, but that he would “be OK.” Then Boylston heard that “it was not OK.”

While on the phone with Gretsas, Boylston said, he “had not heard” from the manager about a pending resignation. Then Gelin called—with Gretsas on hold—to tell Boylston, “George is going to resign.”

Rodriguez and Gelin went back and forth on this subject. Gelin has suggested that Gretsas could have avoided controversy by resigning. Rodriguez countered that the offer came “at the 11thhour, with Gelin saying, ‘Mr. Gretsas is begging to resign to avoid consequences.’ “

Rodriguez said to the commission, “You blew it. You gave (Gretsas) no choice.” She added, “None of you would have resigned” when the city still would “besmirch” the manager’s reputation.

“Your allegations,” Johnson told Rodriguez, “are not facts.” Unfortunately, much remains in dispute about the city’s allegations. Gretsas and Gelin disagree about the allegations of misspending. Gretsas claims that the city attorney knew of them, and he has supplied emails that he believes support his version.

And what is left

Near the end of the hearing, Boylston and Petrolia displayed the two views of the Gretsas case. Boylston said, “I’m waiting for when I’ll be comfortable (with a decision.) I’m not there.”

Rodriguez wondered what “dumdum” now would take the manager’s job. Mark Lauzier came with strong recommendations and lasted—months, done in by similar allegations from Davidyan articulated by Gelin. Now Gretsas, who came to Delray Beach after stints in Fort Lauderdale and Homestead, is gone after a much shorter time—January to June, in effect—under similar circumstances involving similar people.

Petrolia, who—like Boylston—is running for re-election in March, dismissed the idea that the controversy has damaged Delray Beach. The commission will find a “dumdum,” she said sarcastically. “This city is running pretty well.”

Frankel is on the ballot with Petrolia on Boylston. Presumably, the voters will decide whether the city is “running pretty well.”