Meet Mr. Cooper plus Auburn Trace update

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Mr. Cooper on the record

“Delray has very good bones.”

That is the municipal diagnosis from Don Cooper, who becomes Delray Beach’s city manager on Jan. 5. It’s his way of saying that Delray has many sound fundamentals— a vibrant downtown, a popular beach, a recovering tax base, an engaged community.

At the same time, Cooper understands that “I’m here to bring about accountability—to the greatest extent, turn (the city staff) into the team the city council wants.”

Forgive Cooper if for now he uses “council” instead of “commission.” He spent almost 20 years as manager in Port St. Lucie, where a city council sets policy. Terminology aside, Cooper has taken a crash course in Delray Beach since the city commission chose him six weeks ago.

Interim City Manager Terry Stewart gave Cooper “about three feet of stuff,” of which he has “two books left.” It’s all “dull as dirt” material, but it all covers the basic services that—delivered properly—separate well-run cities from, well, Delray Beach during the first six months of the year. Louie Chapman’s flameout created the vacancy that Cooper fills.

As a Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General investigation revealed, Delray Beach didn’t even have consistent rules on how the city buys things. Chapman was able to mislead the commission on a trash cart purchase in part because staff members didn’t agree on who could authorize which purchases for what amount.

Cooper agreed that the outside probe had “a valid point.” He cited the recent example of a commission agenda item to repair and maintain the Christmas tree at Old School Square. A staff member gave a confusing explanation of why the work should continue to go to one company. Downtown Development Authority Director Marjorie Ferrer had to explain that, given the unique nature of the work, a sole-source contract was proper. Once the commissioners heard that, they approved the contract.

So during our 30-minute phone conversation on Tuesday, Cooper said one of his first internal priorities will be to deal with management issues such as procurement and technology. Cooper stressed that he doesn’t seek to clean house from the first day, but he also made clear that he intends to be the “change agent” Mayor Cary Glickstein wanted when the search for a manager began.

Bringing that accountability “doesn’t mean you won’t have personnel changes,” Cooper said, “but I’m not here to carry out a purge. Those who can’t or won’t make it happen, they will have a problem. But you generally can get it done.”

The city commission may approve a new police contract before Cooper starts. Either way, he very soon will start on negotiations with the firefighters’ union. Pension reform, Cooper said, is vital to Delray Beach’s long-term financial future.

Another big issue is the trash-hauling contract. The city attorney’s office has been handling the bidding and the responses, but Cooper’s office will be responsible for monitoring the service.

Delray residents will like to hear that Cooper considers the proliferation of sober houses a serious problem. It also is a problem in Port St. Lucie. Cooper is “not prepared to discuss” what he might propose on a local level, but he says, correctly, that a comprehensive solution must involve the state and federal governments.

I’ve always found it ironic that turnout in city elections is far lower than for national races, even though the city is the government closest to the people. Delray Beach has more constructive civic activism than many South Florida cities. As Cooper says, “People have the ability to complain, and when they do, they might get something changed.”

Daily contact with the public “is why I went to work in municipal government when I got out graduate school,” Cooper said. “That’s what excites me.” As for the challenge of the Delray job, “I’m looking forward to it.”

Still, Cooper has spent nearly 35 years as a city manager in three states, and he understands the need to quickly establish trust with his bosses. He doesn’t intend to put his Port St. Lucie home up for sale until perhaps summer— “The market here isn’t that good right now anyway”—and will look for an apartment in Delray Beach during his first months. “I fully expect” things to work out between himself and the commission, but “some of it has to be fit.”

And the commission expects big things quickly from Cooper. To make them happen, Cooper told me, he will use what he says is the lesson from his time in Port St. Lucie: “Listen, and have some patience, but not too much.”

Auburn Trace

The agenda for a special, closed meeting Monday night of the commission and the city’s legal staff tells me that Delray Beach will have to deal soon with an issue that first appeared last spring and helped lead to former City Manager Chapman’s downfall.

Delray lent $4.2 million to Auburn Group to help develop the Auburn Trace low-income housing project. In March, Chapman scheduled a commission vote on a modification of that loan that would have given the city an immediate $1 million but on terms that were very unfavorable for the city. With Mayor Glickstein and Commissioner Shelly Petrolia absent, the commission approved the deal. Current commissioners Adam Frankel and Al Jacquet provided the votes with Angeleta Gray.

Two weeks later, with Glickstein and Petrolia present along with new member Jordana Jarjura, the commission rescinded the deal. The city attorney at the time wrote, “It appears that the Auburn Group misrepresented their default status (with prime lender Iberiabank) to the City Commission.” Jarjura laid out a persuasive case that Chapman broke city rules by scheduling the item for the previous meeting just one day in advance. Frankel changed his vote. Jacquet was absent.

Monday night, the city hired Robert Furr, a Boca Raton bankruptcy lawyer. The meeting was advertised as relating to the ongoing dispute between Iberiabank and the Auburn Trace developers.

In that April memo, the city attorney warned that Delray Beach might not get back all that $4.2 million. It would seem that the city hired a bankruptcy specialist to protect its interest. This might not end well for Delray, but even in the worst case it will end better than if that terrible vote last March had stood.

Correction

Writing last week about the mailer and phone calls to 12,000 Boca Raton residents seeking support for New Mizner on the Green, Mayor Susan Haynie was quoted as calling it a very “progressive” public relations campaign. The description should have been “aggressive.” Haynie is on record as opposing the four-tower condo project.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

For more City Watch blogs, click here.About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.

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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.