Thursday, May 25, 2023

Gretsas Wants to Postpone Hearing Again, Boca CRA Funding Debate, and More

Delray Beach City Manager George Gretsas wants another delay in the hearing on whether to fire him.

On Tuesday, Gretsas filed a complaint asking that a judge enjoin the city commission from holding the hearing on Nov. 20. Gretsas argued that the city still has not produced records that he considers essential to his defense.

In June, Mayor Shelly Petrolia and commissioners Julie Casale and Shirley Johnson voted to suspend Gretsas based on charges that City Attorney Lynn Gelin has since rewritten. The follow-up hearing had been set for Oct. 23, but Gretsas’ attorneys received a delay—because the city had not produced these records.

According to his attorneys, Gretsas has received only 3,100 of roughly 10,000 records that he has requested and paid for. And now, key records may be gone.

Some of the most important records cover text messages and phone calls between Petrolia and former Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher. On Sept. 29, Petrolia emailed City Clerk Dolores Rangel to say that “somehow the entire text stream disappeared.”

Her son and a city technology staffer, Petrolia said, were unable to retrieve the documents. She wondered if Fisher could supply the missing material.

“Not giving up,” Petrolia wrote, “as there is a message on my phone indicating there is still some downloading taking place. Hoping maybe it will reappear!”

Apparently, it didn’t.

The Fisher communications matter because the first set of charges alleged that Gretsas retaliated against Fisher for making a complaint against him. Fisher left the city in September. Gretsas denies the charge.

The lawsuit refers to Fisher as Petrolia’s “trusted confidante, friend and now ally.” Fisher met with Petrolia in May, as Gretsas was seeking to fire Fisher for trying to direct city business to her boyfriend. 

Stuart Kaplan, who represents Gretsas, told me Wednesday that the records issue is before Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge John Kastrenakes. Kaplan did not know when Kastrenakes might rule.  

Separately, Gretsas wants Petrolia to recuse herself from the hearing. Petrolia has led the campaign to remove Gretsas, and the manager argues that her actions and comments have shown bias against him.

Not surprisingly, Gretsas continues to focus on Petrolia. In an email, he said, “This is not the first time Mayor Petrolia has failed to produce public records in accordance with” state law.

In April 2017, Petrolia was deposed in a lawsuit to which neither she nor the city was a party. In that deposition, Gretsas said, “Mayor Petrolia admitted under oath” to having “responded falsely” to a subpoena “by claiming that she did not possess the requested public records when in fact she did have the specified public records that were stored on her private systems.”

Court records show that after Petrolia, then a city commissioner, produced the records in response to a second subpoena, the plaintiff’s attorney asked why she had not turned them over a year earlier, after the first subpoena. Petrolia, with Gelin present, took the Fifth. Gelin then was on the city’s legal staff.

Here’s the exchange:

Attorney: Now do you have a recollection that before we served this subpoena on you to appear for deposition that we had served a subpoena just for documents? 

Petrolia: Yes.

Attorney: Back in 2016?

Petrolia: Yes.

Attorney: Were you involved in responding to that subpoena?

Petrolia: I believe I was, yes.

Attorney: OK. And what was your involvement in responding to the 2016 subpoena?

Petrolia: I just responded that I had no documents to turn over.

Attorney: And why did you do that if you’re telling me today that you have emails you gave to the city?

Petrolia: Because the documents that were found were documents that mostly came from my personal—my public server to my private server. And some of—most of those when I’m sharing documents between my personal—my public server to my private server, it’s because I have a glitch on my computer that doesn’t allow me to copy what is on that document.

And if I needed it for something or if I wanted it to bring it into a meeting, I have no way of being able to copy it at my home computer from my public server. So I sent stuff over to make a copy so I have it in hard copy to take or to use if I’m bringing it to a meeting or whatever.

Attorney: How is that responsive to my question? I don’t understand. Why did you state you have no documents when we served the subpoena on you initially? 

Petrolia: Because I didn’t recognize that because I. . .

Gelin: I’m sorry, Commissioner. I’m sorry. 

Petrolia: Yes.

Gelin: At this point I’m going to object and I’m going to instruct her not to answer that question and invoke her rights.

Attorney: On what basis? On what? 

Gelin: Her Fifth Amendment right against self- incrimination.

Kaplan suggested that the disappearance of Petrolia’s texts with Fisher was not accidental. He called her “collusive” and said Petrolia “has a history of withholding documents.” The Fisher material, he said, “would not be beneficial” to Petrolia and the case against Gretsas.

The demand for Petrolia to recuse herself is separate from the demand for a delay in the hearing. “There is no response to date,” Gelin said, “from the city or Mayor Petrolia. “However, as the lawsuit recently filed by Mr. Gretsas references recusal by the Mayor, the city will respond accordingly.”

Gelin added, “Mr. Gretsas’ actions are disappointing but not surprising.  The city commission was more than fair in affording him an additional four weeks to prepare his defense.

“The issues that Mr. Gretsas has brought before the court have no bearing on his termination proceeding. The city is looking forward to its day in court and a full and transparent hearing on the allegations made by Mr. Gretsas.”

Kaplan responded that suspending Gretsas was done “vindictively to shut him up.” Only by getting access to the documents can Gretsas “prove that that he did nothing that was incompetent or illegal.”

Boca Beach & Park District doesn’t want to pay

On Tuesday night, the Boca Raton City Council rejected a request from the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Parks District to end its annual payment to the city’s community redevelopment agency.

That payment is $1.4 million for this year and will rise to $1.6 million for the 2024-25 budget year. Through the CRA, which the city created in 1980 to eradicate downtown blight, the money goes only for expenses related to downtown maintenance and improvement.

The CRA’s major investment was the Mizner Park bonds. Because those bonds have been repaid, the district argues that its downtown obligation has ended.

Board Chairwoman Susan Vogelgesang said the district should be free to use the money for “other recreational usage throughout the community,” such as for Patch Reek Park or Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.

“The CRA of Boca Raton has prospered,” Vogelgesang said, “and is no longer as much in need of improvements.” Board member Craig Ehrnst said, “With recreation demands increasing, the district prefers to allocate monies to recreation.”

Agencies that want to stop paying into CRAs must meet criteria set out in state law. Deputy City Manager Mike Woika said the staff recommended that the council deny the request because the district hadn’t met those standards. That’s what happened. The vote was unanimous.

City Manager Leif Ahnell took issue with the idea that the payment is burdening those who don’t live in downtown Boca Raton. He noted, correctly, that the money in question comes only from downtown property owners. As property values rise, the added revenue goes to the CRA. Palm Beach County also makes annual payments.

To the average person, this issue seems confusing. Isn’t the CRA part of the city? If so, what difference does it make? And doesn’t the district already devote much of its budget to reimbursing the city?

The answer to the first and third questions is yes. The answer to the second, according to Ahnell, is that it could make a big difference.

Boca Raton’s CRA, Ahnell said, has “significant (financial) obligations.” He has warned of a looming deficit in the city budget from decreasing revenue that the city receives from the CRA. Without that money from the district, the deficit would be higher. The worst-case response could be to cut services or raise taxes.

The CRA is supposed to end in 2025 unless the city seeks to extend it. With downtown redevelopment all but complete, that will be a question for a future manager and council. Ahnell is scheduled to retire in 2022. When the CRA goes away, so will those payments from the district and the county.

Eta’s impact

Fortunately, Boca Raton and Delray Beach reported no serious damage from Tropical Storm Eta.

Though the storm contained lots of moisture, Boca Raton reported “nothing significant” in terms of flooding, a city spokeswoman said. “Delray Beach fared very well,” according to a city spokeswoman. Nearly six inches of rain fell on the barrier island north of Atlantic Avenue, causing “very minimal localized flooding. Storm drains and roadways were cleared Monday morning.”

Delray Beach residents who live in low-lying areas must be especially grateful that they avoided the high water in parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The new King Tide window opens Saturday and closes Tuesday.

Though the traditional wet season ended a month ago, rainfall had been unusually high even before Eta. It’s more evidence of climate change.

More COVID closures

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to punch holes in local retail.

This week, Deerfield Beach-based Youfit filed for bankruptcy protection. The company has two gyms in Boca Raton and 38 others in South Florida.

Though Gov. DeSantis allowed gyms to reopen fully, against the advice of public health experts, many people have cancelled their memberships. With the region now facing a third wave of cases, public confidence in places like gyms won’t return fully until the virus is under control.

Yet again, school board votes on Latson

Having fired former Spanish River High School Principal William Latson once, the Palm Beach County School Board did it again on Tuesday.

The board needed a second vote to certify the final order in Latson’s case. In 2018, Latson told a parent that, as a school district employee, he couldn’t confirm that the Holocaust happened.

The Romans supposedly plowed the ground with salt after defeating Carthage in the Third Punic War. Historians doubt the story, but the metaphor applies here. Board members would like no more bad publicity to grow from this self-inflicted mess.

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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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