Recapping the Timeline Ahead of the Gretsas Hearing

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Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

On May 5, Delray Beach City Manager George Gretsas updated city commissioners on the troubled reclaimed water program. Gretsas told them that he had hired a new utilities director to analyze the problems and decide how to fix them.

Commissioners were pleased. At that point, it appeared that Delray Beach finally had the take-charge manager commissioners had said they wanted. Gretsas had been unsparing in his criticism of the program, which predated him. But commissioners had hired Gretsas to bring change. Four months on the job, he was delivering.

Seven weeks later, Mayor Shelly Petrolia and commissioners Julie Casale and Shirley Johnson voted to suspend Gretsas and serve notice that they intended to fire him. At 10 a.m. Friday, the commission will hold a hearing on whether to do so.

What happened?

Gretsas and his attorney allege that Petrolia sought to fire the manager because she couldn’t control him and used City Attorney Lynn Gelin and Internal Auditor Julia Davidyan as her allies. Gelin and Davidyan also were key players in the March 2019 firing of former City Manager Mark Lauzier.

Whatever the motivations behind that June 24 vote, Gretsas has not gone quietly.

In part because of communication from Gretsas, the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General is investigating the water department. Johnson and commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel voted to have the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics investigate Petrolia for allegedly giving orders to staff members. The city charter prohibits that.

Boylston and Frankel voted against suspending Gretsas. They and Johnson based their decision to seek the investigation of Petrolia on documents from Gretsas.

Most recently, Gretsas revealed that Petrolia asked him to speak with the property appraiser’s office about valuations of 29 parcels in the city. Petrolia told Gretsas that, because the values were too low, the city was losing out on revenue.

Gretsas linked all 29 properties to Petrolia’s political opponents. Petrolia denied that she had singled out those owners and claimed that someone had given her the list anonymously. Last week, Gretsas then produced email messages that undercut Petrolia’s defense. Gretsas’ attorney, Carmen Rodriguez, has asked Gelin to recommend that Petrolia recuse herself from Friday’s vote.

Questions arose as soon as the city scheduled that June 24 vote. The agenda contained no information about the topic of the special meeting. The meeting started late. Boylston said Gelin tried to force Gretsas to resign. Petrolia blamed the late start on technical issues.

Based on a report she commissioned, Gelin accused Gretsas of bullying female subordinates and of retaliating against former Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher for making a complaint about him. The accusations, Gelin said, were grounds for termination.

As Boylston noted, however, commissioners didn’t have the report. Rodriguez argued later than the report focused on a few Gretsas critics and barely mentioned the great majority of pro-Gretsas employees. Rodriguez wanted transcripts of all the interviews from the investigation. She didn’t get them. Gretsas has denied that he bullied anyone or sought to retaliate.

Two months later, Gelin pivoted. She released a new set of charges against Gretsas. This time, she accused him of creating a separate email account and skirting the state’s public records law.

Gelin claimed that she rewrote the charges because seeking to fire Gretsas on the first set would have divided the staff. Then why raise them at all? Rodriguez noted that Gretsas would have defended himself, in part, by arguing that Gelin failed the city by not warning Gretsas of Fisher’s complaint when he approached Gelin about firing Fisher. That issue now will not be part of Friday’s hearing.

In June, Gelin and Petrolia did not allow Rodriguez to present a defense. “Is due process involved?” Rodriguez asked at one point.

As of Friday, the city had not announced a format for Friday’s hearing. Gelin told me Monday, “There is an agenda item that is being uploaded for (today’s commission meeting) that will address the procedure for Friday. 

Boylston said Gelin told him that she and Davidyan would lay out the charges—as happened with the Lauzier firing—after which Gretsas could present his case. Lauzier did not get to present a defense. He is suing the city.

In addition, Rodriguez emailed Gelin last week asking about Gretsas’ request for “text messages and emails from private devices.” The city, Rodriguez said, had provided only about one-fourth of the 10,000 documents the request had produced. Someone, Rodriguez said, is “withholding” release, especially documents relating to Petrolia.

“Lynn,” Rodriguez wrote, “you are a colleague and I can tell you that I do not want to see you embroiled in something not of your making. I am urging you to please immediately release all responsive documents that are now overdue. If someone is holding them, that’s wrong, and you certainly do not want to be part of that.”

I emailed Gelin on Monday about the documents. “As I informed counsel,” Gelin replied, “there is a difference between reviewing records and releasing records. Not all records are considered public records, hence the city’s need to review the documents related to the extensive request.”

Will that review be complete in time for Gretsas to see the document? Gelin did not reply.

A city spokeswoman noted Davidyan’s recent report that the charges against Gretsas are substantiated. The report was hardly surprising. Davidyan basically reiterated what she told Gelin, who wrote up the charges.

Gretsas called it “more of the same from a city that has had nine city managers in eight years. It certainly seems clear that this is the price you pay in Delray Beach for exposing corruption and working to do the right thing.”

It seems unlikely that Petrolia, Casale or Johnson will change their minds. If they fire Gretsas, my guess is that he will get a lot of money from the city in a lawsuit. Too much of this process has been sloppy and suspicious.

The city may lose in other ways. In making his defense, Gretsas could reveal even more about how Delray Beach works—or doesn’t. Gretsas already has documented years of problems in the water department. The city has spent nearly $1 million and still hasn’t resolved all the issues with the Florida Department of Health.

Gretsas has produced text messages that suggest Petrolia wanted him to lie, by claiming that the water problems predated “this administration.” Again, Petrolia is not a strong mayor. She is not part of the “administration.”

Petrolia’s role is ironic. After the search for candidates to replace Lauzier, the commission chose Tamarac City Manager Michael Cernech. Petrolia had wanted Gretsas, who was the manager in Homestead. He had “checked every box for me.”

Petrolia then overstepped her role as ceremonial mayor and blew up contract negotiations with Cernech. The commission hired Gretsas, the second choice. He started work on Jan. 6. Petrolia got her manager.

Yet a week or so after that May 5 presentation, Petrolia began working to remove Gretsas. That’s when she met with Fisher, whom Gretsas had accused of steering business to her boyfriend. Coincidentally or not, Petrolia sent the list of properties to Gretsas one day later.

Fisher, who had been the victim in the first case against Gretsas, left her job in September. She signed after an agreement that prevents her from saying anything bad about Delray Beach or taking any legal action.

My theory is that the plan was to force out Gretsas and bury whatever led to his removal. But things got messy. The mess will continue no matter what happens Friday.

Mizner Park performing arts center

I wrote last week about the proposal from the Boca Raton Arts District Exploratory Corporation (BRADEC) for a performing arts center in Mizner Park. I wrote that the group wanted the city to donate the 1.8-acre parcel next to the amphitheater.

BRADEC President Andrea Virgin asked for the chance to clarify the transfer of land. The group, Virgin said, “has requested to enter into a 99-year ground lease” with the city for $1 a year. “This request and duration is standard for community-centered projects like this, such as the Boca Raton Museum of Art and the Mizner Park Cultural Center.

“For any ground lease, regardless of the duration, the land and any improvements made to the land, remain the property of the city. So in 99 years, or whenever the negotiated term of the lease terminates, the city would remain the property owner of the land as well as the infrastructure on it.

“As such, although the length of time may seem like a long time to anyone, BRADEC will have no right to the land after the lease expires. Hence the land is not donated.”

Virgin compared BRADEC’s potential acquisition to the “true donation” by the Boca Raton Resort & Club of its golf course at Boca Country Club. Under a 99-year lease, the resort would have allowed the city to operate the course but would have retained ownership.

As for the token lease payment, Virgin said the center “is projected to have significant economic impact ​from construction, ​occupancy and operations. The establishment of an anchor cultural institution on the north end of Mizner would represent a substantial capital improvement on a land parcel that’s been vacant for decades.

As such, the ​proposed $1/yr ground lease is also not considered a donation, ​given the profound cultural impact of a new arts complex in Boca, the potential for catalytic economic effects on Mizner Park and downtown retail and hospitality, and ​projected economic benefit to the city through increased tax revenues.”

Latson saga continues

The Palm Beach County School Board will reconsider this month’s decision to rehire former Spanish River High School Principal William Latson.

Chairman Frank Barbieri has placed the item on Wednesday’s agenda. Any of the four board members who voted for reinstatement–Marcia Andrews, Barbara McQuinn, Debra Robinson or Chuck Shaw–could ask for a new vote and switch.

In an email to a parent, Latson said he could not state the Holocaust happened because some parents might disagree with the statement. The revelation last year drew widespread criticism, as did the decision to rehire Latson. Even if he kept his job with the school district, Latson would not return to Spanish River.