Thursday, February 15, 2024

How Divisive Politics Influenced the FAU Search and Delray’s Election

Normally, this blog is heavy on reporting and light on commentary. Today will be different.

Here’s why:

One event that happened last week and another that will happen tonight matter greatly to this area. One concerns Florida Atlantic University. The other concerns Delray Beach. Each demands explanation that straight reporting can’t provide, which is why this post includes much of my own opinion.

Last week, the Board of Governors, which supervises the state university system, approved a vote of no confidence in Brad Levine. He chairs the FAU board of trustees.

Such a vote had not appeared on the board’s agenda. It came during discussion of extending the contract for Stacy Volnick. She became interim president last January, with the idea that she would serve until the hiring of a permanent successor to John Kelly sometime in 2023.

But Chancellor Ray Rodrigues halted the search in July, two days after the committee chose three finalists. Last month, the Board of Governors invalidated the search, based on an inspector general’s report that alleged procedural violations. Without an extension for Volnick, FAU would have no leader.

On Nov. 17, FAU’s trustees approved that extension, for up to another year. It went to the Board of Governors last week for what should have been routine approval.

Instead, an objection came from Alan Levine. He challenged that Nov. 17 vote because documents explaining the extension hadn’t gone to board members in advance.

Alan Levine said he had watched the video of that Nov. 17 meeting. The item, he said, had not been “properly noticed.” The requirement, he said, “is not a recommendation. It’s the law.”

Yet he then became part of the vote against Brad Levine, even though the vote had not been “properly noticed.” The motion came from board member Craig Mateer, who called the FAU search “a mess.” Others quickly piled on.

Board member Eric Silagy cautioned against an “unprecedented” action that he called “premature.” He added, “I’d like to have seen that video.” The fact that Alan Levine had seen it suggests that the ambush was planned.

Brad Levine explained that the trustees simply were extending an agreement, with the only change being a higher salary. Even after Trustee Linda Stoch objected, the trustees approved the extension by a wide margin.

None of that mattered to the Board of Governors.

Why did this happen? And what’s next for FAU?

It happened because of politics.

Gov. DeSantis’ main allies on the FAU board, Barbara Feingold and Stoch, were the only two not to support the search against Rodrigues’ accusations. Feingold had wanted State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Beach, to be FAU’s president. Fine was not one of the finalists. He was also DeSantis’ early choice.

Few in Florida challenge DeSantis. Members of the search committee were among the few.

By also naming himself chair of the search committee, Brad Levine tied himself to the search and thus fell out of favor with the governor who appointed him to the FAU board. DeSantis has appointed almost every person on the 17-member Board of Governors, who are Rodrigues’ bosses. Every judgment call of Rodrigues and the board has gone against the search and thus against Levine.

Yet Levine has resisted what many assume have been private calls for him to resign. If he doesn’t, only the governor can remove him. The trustees only can remove him as chair.

Alan Levine was the Board of Governors member assigned to the FAU search committee. As late as June, he told the board that the search was proceeding well.

In an email on Monday, Levine denied that his criticism of the search had come late. “I was clearly raising issues with the process during the process.”

Levine also defended the action on Brad Levine by saying that the issue of Volnick’s contract “arose during the meeting” and led to Mateer’s motion. Only if the no-confidence vote had been an official act, he said, would public notice have been necessary. The no-confidence vote is non-binding.

Around FAU, the feeling is that Alan Levine needed to restore his standing with DeSantis by acting as the main critic of the search he once defended. Under this theory, only when Brad Levine is gone will the board drop the flag on a new search.

What does this mean for FAU?

Nothing good.

According to the Board of Governors, the new search can’t start until the board approves updated policies that the previous search supposedly violated. That admission alone shows that the board could have considered the alleged violations minor and allowed the results of the search to stand.

But the board has moved slowly on those updates. Alan Levine said the item could come to the Board of Governors at its meeting next month. Of course, FAU had hoped that it would go to the board this month. FAU could be lucky to have a permanent president by the start of fall semester.

Meanwhile, as I have reported, FAU must continue with interim appointments for several other top administrative jobs. Board of Governors members continue to express sympathy for FAU, but they won’t allow FAU to get out of limbo.

You can understand why support is building to give Volnick the job permanently. At that November meeting, she told the trustees that this year’s freshman enrollment is the largest ever, with a grade point average of 3.8. Applications for next year are up 38 percent. Trustees praised her for ignoring “the noise.”

If DeSantis wants Levine out, he should remove him or otherwise end this political standoff. Credit Volnick for trying to keep FAU from becoming collateral damage.

Delray’s divided ballot

Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels

Nine candidates are on the ballot for Delray Beach’s March 19 election.

Only four are credible. They are:

Ryan Boylston for mayor, Jim Chard and Tennile DeCoste for City Commission Seat 1, and Nicholas Coppola for City Commission Seat 3.

We know that they are the only credible candidates because the other five are skipping tonight’s Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce forum at Arts Garage. Those five are:

Tom Carney and Shirley Johnson for mayor, Thomas Markert for Seat 1 and Anneze Barthelemy and Juli Casale for Seat 3.

The chamber forum has been around for about 30 years. Candidates give their views on issues that the chamber—and its 800-plus members—consider important to the city. Those seeking office have considered attendance mandatory.

Until this year.

Rather than appear before one of Delray Beach’s most important constituencies, those five candidates will participate in a competing event at the Courtyard by Marriott. The chamber forum runs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The competing event runs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The moderator of the competing event is Richard Bey, promoted as a “talk show and podcast host.” There is no available record of Bey having any connection with Delray Beach. We do know that Bey was a practitioner of “humiliation TV” in the mold of Jerry Springer.

Carney was the first to snub the chamber. I wrote last week that he is following the lead of Donald Trump, who has skipped all GOP debates. The message behind this farcical competing event is to suggest that the chamber is part of some deep state in Delray Beach. It is national politics of imagined grievance percolating down to the local level.

I wanted to ask Carney, Johnson, Barthelemy, Markert and Casale why they are snubbing the chamber. I wanted to ask how the event came about and how Bey was chosen.

No one responded. But there are a couple of ironies.

Markert, who has no record of civic or community involvement in Delray Beach, told me previously that he’s a good candidate because of his work for large corporations. Yet he’s refusing to speak to Delray Beach’s business community.

Now consider Johnson and Barthelemy.

Mayor Shelley Petrolia has posted on social media her support for Carney, Markert and Casale. We know that Carney organized the competing event because, DeCoste said, he begged her to participate.

Yet Johnson and Barthelemy are still attending, even though the organizers are allied against them, and the chamber doesn’t endorse candidates. Johnson’s refusal to participate is especially odd. She attended the chamber forum during her two commission campaigns.

I asked the four candidates attending the forum for their responses.

Boylston said Carney “is giving us a preview of how his poor leadership would divide the community and the commission. He’s divisive, ducks the tough issues, and refuses to face the voters with any level of transparency. Carney is everything that’s wrong with politics today, and, I’ll tell you, Delray is tired of it.”

Chard, a former commissioner, said, “This move is an example of the toxicity we are trying to move beyond.” Ten months ago, Petrolia lost Casale, her regular commission ally, and Johnson, her sometimes ally. Since then, Chard said, “The city has had time to work on solving issues.”

DeCoste reiterated that she had given the chamber her word and wouldn’t go back on it for something “ridiculous.” Coppola said the competing event is “an attempt to divide this community. My hope is that we can change that.”

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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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