Barring the unexpected, on Friday, the Delray Beach City Commission will fire City Manager George Gretsas.
Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge John Kastrenakes on Tuesday denied Gretsas’ request to postpone the hearing, based on his claim that the city has not provided records the manager requested. After losing, Gretsas then asked the commission for a delay.
City Attorney Lynn Gelin relayed the request at Tuesday’s meeting. The commission rejected it, 4-1, with Adam Frankel dissenting. Frankel and Boylston were the two votes against suspending Gretsas in June.
“I look forward to this Friday,” Commissioner Shirley Johnson said. Johnson, Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioner Julie Casale voted to suspend Gretsas five months ago. None has indicated any change in position, so it may not matter how Boylston and Frankel vote.
As she did during the June hearing that resulted in Gretsas’ suspension, City Attorney Lynn Gelin will act as prosecutor. She will read the charges against Gretsas. He is accused of creating a private email network and not preserving public records, of improperly sharing public records and violating city financial policies.
Public comment will follow. Then Gretsas, through his attorney, will present his defense. That can include questioning of witnesses. Afterward, Gelin can question Gretsas and any of his witnesses.
Because the outcome seems a forgone conclusion, Gretsas’ defense will lay the basis for a lawsuit alleging wrongful termination. If Gretsas is gone from City Hall after Friday, he won’t be gone from Delray Beach. Based on the record, the city will owe him a lot of money.
Gretsas began work on Jan. 3. As of mid-May, no commissioner had questioned his performance. He had drawn praise for his aggressive moves to fix problems with the reclaimed water program. That investigation, from what I’ve heard, revealed management problems across many city departments. Gretsas was shaking things up, as the commission had asked him to do.
One of Gretsas’ targets was former Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher. As events reached that point last spring, the record shows, Petrolia entered the picture. The mayor met with Fisher. Gretsas contends that even though Petrolia began as his biggest fan, she turned against him because she couldn’t control him. Fisher thus became the mayor’s reason to get involved.
Five weeks after that meeting between Petrolia and Fisher, and based on an investigation by a firm that Gelin chose, the city attorney recommended that the commission put Gretsas on notice that he would be fired. Cause: Creating a hostile work environment for women and retaliating against Fisher.
Gretsas denied the charges. His attorney said the report emphasized the few women with complaints and barely mentioned the great majority of employees who disputed that characterization of the manager. At that June hearing, Gretsas was not allowed to present a defense.
Then Gelin rewrote the charges for the August meeting at which the commission had to formally approve the case against Gretsas. Curiously, Gelin claimed that pushing for termination based on the first indictment would have been too divisive. The new charges, though, headed off any inquiry into Gelin’s possible role.
Gretsas had sought to fire Fisher. He consulted with Gelin. Gretsas’ attorney pointed out that Gelin failed to tell Gretsas that Fisher already had made a complaint against him. In effect, the attorney said, Gretsas invited a retaliation accusation from Fisher–which Petrolia, Casale and Johnson highlighted in June–because he walked into a trap that Gelin had set for him. Fisher also had a history of making similar complaints.
If Gretsas considered his firing inevitable after June, he apparently decided to strike back at the ringleader. Because of records Gretsas has obtained and released, we now know this about Petrolia:
- She took the Fifth Amendment in 2017 during a deposition into her failure to produce records for a lawsuit. She also claims to have lost text messages between herself and Fisher from this year. Gretsas had wanted to see those records. The irony, of course, is that Gretsas is charged with records violations.
- She has given what Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez called “directives” to city staff. In Delray Beach’s manager/commission form of government, that’s a violation of the city charter. She’s under investigation for that accusation.
- She asked Gretsas to see whether the property appraiser’s office would raise valuations on 29 parcels owned by people who have opposed the mayor or are tied to projects that she voted against.
- Most recently, records seem to show that Petrolia used her city email address to solicit a campaign contribution in 2017. Candidates must use campaign addresses for fundraising. Ironically, given Petrolia’s stated dislike for developers, the contribution in question came from the developer of the Aloft Hotel.
Discovery from a lawsuit by Gretsas could produce revelations about how and why the manager fell from favor so quickly. Gelin has acknowledged, “I do anticipate something coming after the fact.”
Oh, yes, it will. Then there’s the matter of whether the commission gives Alvarez the job permanently or keeps her as the interim and conducts another search for someone who might look past all this and become Delray’s next manager. I’ll have a full report on Tuesday.
Petrolia vs. Long continues
Even by recent Delray Beach standards, Tuesday’s discussion about Rob Long was bizarre.
As I wrote Tuesday, Long serves on the city’s planning and zoning board and also is board chairman of the Palm Beach County Soil and Water Conservation District. Long used his district email account to send a recent finding by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that the level of some carcinogens in Delray Beach’s water meets state standards but is high enough to be “cause for concern.”
Petrolia and Casale were aghast. Petrolia demanded that the commission remove Long from the planning and zoning board unless he apologized, even though the email didn’t concern the board.
On Tuesday, Casale claimed that Long had panicked residents who already were stressed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A neighbor, Casale said, had lost her job and couldn’t afford the bottled water she was buying because of the email. “This is not right,” Casale said.
Petrolia had demanded that Long apologize. His response to the commission was less than that. So Johnson wondered what an “acceptable apology” might sound like. “We need standards,” Johnson said.
Gelin warned that, while she disagreed with the email, removing Long “is a slippery slope.” Would the commission remove all board members who made public comments that they didn’t like?
Eventually, the commission asked Long to set the record straight with his email audience and apologize to Allen Zeller. He’s the planning and zoning board member who was speaking when Long left last month’s meeting early, saying that comments by Zeller and others were “ridiculous.” Long already apologized to city staff.
Before things ended, however, the debate turned back to Petrolia–as it so often does–and the mayor got snarky–as she so often does.
“I deal with boys,” Petrolia sniffed, referring to Frankel and Boylston, who disagreed with her on Long.
Frankel proposed a system under which any commissioner who sent out misleading information would be “subject to removal.” Addressing Petrolia, he said, “You do it all the time.” Petrolia then compared Frankel to a four-year-old throwing a tantrum in the aisle at Publix.
And Rob Long needs to apologize?
Water talk continues
Petrolia’s reaction to Long’s email may relate to the potential for water being a major issue in her campaign for re-election next March. On Wednesday, the city emailed a news release again saying that tests in August found that the amount of carcinogens present was “significantly below the EPA’s established health advisory level.”
According to the release, the Florida Department of Environmental Protections and the Florida Department of Health agreed with the EPA. The city “maintains constant communication” with state agencies “to pursue transparency and seek guidance based on science from the environment and health protection authorities.”
A bit of irony
Gelin said Long’s email was “a slap in the face” to Utilities Director Hassan Hajidmiry. While criticizing Long, Petrolia, Casale and Johnson repeatedly have praised Hajidmiry. “Thank goodness you’re with us,” Petrolia said last week.
The person who brought Hajidmiry to Delray Beach—and tasked him with fixing the water problems after years of poor management—is George Gretsas, whom Petrolia and others will vote to fire.
Long’s second issue
Long is part of another controversy that arose in the last week. His girlfriend is Alexandria Ayala, who this year was elected to the Palm Beach County School Board.
In June, Long and Ayala bought a house in the Verona Woods neighborhood. But Ayala was elected from Seat 3, which doesn’t include Delray Beach. School board members must live in the district they represent.
According to news reports, Ayala put her name on the property only to help Long buy his first house. She claims residency at the family home in Palm Springs, near Lake Worth. But in the mortgage documents, Ayala represented that she would live full-time in Delray Beach.
Long told me that Ayala’s name is being removed from the mortgage documents. Though Ayala was sworn in Tuesday, critics are pressing for an investigation and contend that Gov. DeSantis should remove her.
Meisner Electric moves
I’ve written recently about companies leaving Boca Raton for Delray Beach. Now there’s news about one going in the opposite direction.
Commercial real estate broker Avison Young announced this week that Meisner Electric will move from downtown Delray Beach to the North 40 building on Yamato Road in the Park at Broken Sound. The contractor, which also has offices in Miramar and Sarasota, has been in Delray Beach for 43 years.