Monday, September 25, 2023

Is Delray Beach’s Water Safe to Drink?

On its website, Delray Beach proclaims prominently that the city’s drinking water is safe. The page for the Utilities Department sends the same message.

Yet Mayor Shelly Petrolia and city commissioners Julie Casale and Shirley Johnson want to fire George Gretsas, the city manager who was trying to fix water-quality problems that already have cost the city nearly $1 million to address. An April 20 memo from Gretsas raises questions about whether the city has addressed all the problems.

In the memo to officials with responsibility for the utilities department, Gretsas recommended firing John Bullard, manager of the water treatment plant. Gretsas charged Bullard with “failure to perform duties in an efficient or competent manner” and with “theft, destruction, carelessness or negligence” in control of city property and “unauthorized use” of city property.

George Gretsas

Gretsas wrote that on March 27, the city had received complaints from customers about “brown water.” An investigation determined that sediment had been allowed to enter the water distribution system. No one outside the water plant, Gretsas said, told anyone else about the problem.

According to the memo, sediment built up because the North Storage Tank had not been cleaned every five years, despite regulations mandating such cleaning. The two South Storage Tanks had been cleaned on schedule.

When Bullard was questioned, the memo said, he said there had been no cleaning in 38 years. “It is Mr. Bullard’s responsibility,” Gretsas wrote, “to ensure the wells meet regulations and are operational at all times.”

Gretsas noted that Bullard had been reprimanded last July “for failing to adhere to regulatory requirements.” Because of his “failure to improve performance” and “gross negligence, Gretsas recommended that Bullard be fired.

Bullard has left the city. All the questions about Delray Beach’s water system, though, have not been answered. Utilities Director Hamid Hamidjimy gave a presentation on the reclaimed water system at the commission’s Aug. 11 meeting.

Gretsas hired Hamidjimy to fix the problems that required action from the Florida Department of Health. Yet Petrolia, Casale and Johnson served notice to fire Gretsas as he was still digging into the water department. This week, City Attorney Lynn Gelin dropped all the accusations that had led to the June 24 vote to suspend Gretsas and substituted new charges. Through his attorney, Gretsas has denied all the accusations.

Given Delray Beach’s current politics, there is little reason for public trust. This memo further suggests that only an outside investigation by the Office of Inspector General can determine how problems arose with Delray Beach’s water system and whether residents can be assured that the water is safe.

Big change for amphitheater?

A rendering of the east promenade following removal of the collonade.

Dramatic change could be coming to the Mizner Park Amphitheater in Boca Raton.

During Monday’s workshop meeting, city council members expressed approval—without taking a formal vote—of the Boca Raton Museum of Art’s plans to demolish the colonnade on the west side of the amphitheater. That colonnade is the east side of the museum, which wants more accessibility in preparation for what Executive Director Irvin Lippman says will be a major exhibition coming next year, regardless of whether the COVID-19 pandemic is continuing.

The potential problem is that the project would mean the loss of roughly 200 seats that carry VIP prices for ticketed events at the amphitheater. Speakers representing the Festival of the Arts and Mizner Park restaurants expressed concern that the project could mean fewer events and patrons, and thus fewer people dining before the shows.

Council members Andrea O’Rourke and Monica Mayotte, however, expressed strong support as a way to boost the museum’s profile. They and Lippman believe that the facility often is overlooked. Andy Thomson opposed the project because of what it could mean for the amphitheater.

According to a spokeswoman, the city will meet with museum officials to determine details of their plans. The museum would pay for the demolition and does not want to acquire any city land. One issue, though, is what the spokeswoman called the museum’s plan for landscaping and whether any of it would be on city land.

Thomson told me that while he considers the museum “a centerpiece,” he believes that the amphitheater “serves everybody, highbrow and lowbrow.” He also opposes losing control over city land, in this case the 20-30 feet between the colonnade and the amphitheater’s circular drive.

jazz brunch

Ten years ago, Boca Raton took over the amphitheater to get control over programming. There have been many discussions about installing a retractable roof, which would allow more events, but nothing has happened because of the multi-million-dollar cost. Free events—especially during pre-pandemic summers—have been popular. But they don’t bring revenue, even if they bring diners to restaurants.

With the demolition on the west side only, the amphitheater would look off-center. Museum supporters might argue that if the city hasn’t made long-term plans for the area, the museum might as well move ahead on its future.

In addition, the city’s cultural consortium soon will be back before the council, likely asking for the vacant, roughly two-acre property east of the amphitheater. The group wants to create a performing arts center and first asked about a 10-acre, city-owned site east of the Spanish River Library. Perhaps the consortium’s plans include taking over the amphitheater.

After their discussions with the museum, city staff will craft an agreement about the colonnade and the adjoining property on which the council would have to vote.

Agricultural Reserve remains under siege


I had written about the latest attempt to get around development restrictions in the Agricultural Reserve Area. That dodge goes before the county commission today.

The Lake Worth Drainage District operates the second tier of flood-control canals in southeastern Palm Beach County. The agency wants to sell GL Homes—the largest developer in the reserve—313 acres of narrow rights-of-way along the district’s canals. GL then would declare that land to have been preserved from development and get permission to build on a similar amount of property elsewhere in the reserve.

But the properties adjoining the canal can’t be developed. So GL would be getting a lot for nothing. The district would get $20 million for nothing. Meanwhile, the reserve would get more homes and a bigger threat to agriculture.

Tommy Strowd, the district’s executive director, argues that the money would improve flood control. As county planners note in their memo to the commission, however, there isn’t even a system for this transfer of development rights. Allowing it also would be bad policy. Staff recommends that the commission reject this dodge. I’ll have a follow-up after the meeting.

Boca Ice is happening

ice rink
Boca Ice Rink (Rendering by RLC Architects)

At Tuesday night’s meeting, the Boca Raton City Council approved the Boca Ice and Fine Arts project.

Council members attached conditions related to traffic, which had been the concern of nearby homeowners. Each year, the facility would have only eight days for special events, which draw more traffic. Neighbors would have two years to seek city approval for traffic-calming measures that could include the installation of speed humps.

The developer wants to build two ice rinks, dance studios and ballet rooms on four acres near the Congress Avenue interchange on Interstate 95. Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who first supported the project, called it an “amenity” and a “new recreation idea.”

County COVID update

Hillsboro El Rio Park in Boca Raton

Based on comments at Tuesday’s county commission meeting, playgrounds likely will reopen this week. The county closed them—along with beaches —in the early days of the pandemic because use of the equipment can transmit the virus. Beaches reopened in May.

At next Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners will debate whether to ask Gov. DeSantis for permission to move to Phase 2 reopening. I’ll have an update in Tuesday’s post.

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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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