Office of Inspector General To Investigate Delray Water Woes

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Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

The Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General (OIG) announced Monday that it would investigate Delray Beach’s troubled water utilities program.

In a letter to Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez, Inspector General John Carey said his office would “focus on individual responsibilities and conduct in regard to established policies, ordinances, regulations, rules and statutes. This will be done regarding the conduct of staff and officials in their records submissions and statements about water safety, quality, and management.”

The OIG probe will run in tandem with the investigation by the Florida Department of Health. The state will “regulate the utility,” Carey said, while his office “will focus on individual responsibilities.”

Now to the regular post, which is on the same subject.

The Delray water issue get murkier

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Does anyone know with certainty why Delray Beach has had so many water problems?

No.

Does anyone know with certainty who’s to blame?

No.

Should anyone doubt that the water problems could be linked to the attempt to fire City Manager George Gretsas?

No.

The problems have persisted since the issue became a big deal early this year because of action by the Florida Department of Health. Most recently, the city failed to perform required daily tests of chlorine levels in drinking water. That happened on Aug. 22 and 23. A city spokeswoman said Utilities Director Hassan Hadjimiry notified the Department of Health a day later.  The state fined the city $2,800. The spokeswoman said the city took “disciplinary action” against the employee who “missed the collection.”

Previously, Delray Beach had spent $850,000 to correct other problems that allowed reclaimed water—treated only enough for irrigation—to enter drinking water systems. That is called cross-contamination. According to the Department of Health, the city kept those complaints—from residents on the barrier island in late 2018—secret from the state.

This mess greeted Gretsas just after he started on Jan. 6. Gretsas told me Monday that he first heard about the problems in mid-January from Christine Ferrigan, an inspector for the water department. On Feb. 4, a letter arrived from the Department of Health. Gretsas notified Mayor Shelly Petrolia and city commissioners and convened staff meetings.

As the scope of the problems became clear, Gretsas ordered a forensic investigation, to determine how things went so badly. In early May, Gretsas said the early results showed “numerous examples of gross mismanagement and violations of law that put public safety at risk and likely made people ill.”

On June 24, Petrolia and commissioners Julie Casale and Shirley Johnson voted to suspend Gretsas and start proceedings to fire him for cause. City Attorney Lynn Gelin then dropped the accusation—which Gretsas denies—that had led to that vote and switched to a new set of charges—which Gretsas denies. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 23.

When I asked where that investigation of the water problems stands, Gretsas said, “I don’t know.” The spokeswoman said it is “ongoing.” 

At this point, it would be hard to trust any probe from the city, even though Gretsas hired Hadjimiry before the commission suspended him. Consider this text message that Petrolia sent Gretsas on Feb. 4.

Referring to Delray Beach’s response to the Department of Health, Petrolia said, “Whatever goes out, needs to include information that doesn’t not (sic) implicate this administration. It’s news to all of us that didn’t happen on our watch.

“We’re going to be creamed otherwise.”

Gretsas replied, “Will do.”

One assumes that, at the time, Gretsas believed Petrolia. He had been with Delray Beach for only a month. Gretsas since has had cause not to believe Petrolia.

In his July 31 letter to the city claiming whistleblower status, Gretsas said Petrolia in that text message “directed me to lie to the public and tell them that she had no role in the reclaimed water catastrophe.”

Gretsas added, “Initially, I believed that she was telling the truth.” Then Gretsas “discovered” that former City Manager Mark Lauzier had told Petrolia about the cross-contamination problem in 2018. Gretsas also noted that Petrolia and Johnson had voted in 2017 to approve a $4.1 million contract to expand the reclaimed water system.

“Many of the numerous violations I uncovered,” Gretsas said, happened where the company—Deerfield Beach-based Lanzo Construction—had worked. “Finding out who was responsible for the violations. . .was a significant part of the scope of the investigation that I was in the middle of before I was put on administrative leave.”

Gretsas concluded this section of his letter by saying that,  no matter who deserves blame for the violations, “the fact that (Petrolia) asked me to say publicly that it did not happen on her watch points directly to her motive in voting to terminate my employment and is one of many reasons why the mayor has a conflict of interest and should be conflicted out of the current process to terminate my employment.”

Petrolia, who is seeking a second term in March, has continued her concern about the optics of the water issue. On Aug. 2, Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez emailed Gelin about this email she has received from Petrolia:

“We need a memo sent out to everyone on the city’s email list and a social media announcement that states clearly and succinctly, our water is safe to drink. The message on our website is not sufficient. The message should being (sic) by addressing the ‘rumor’ going around that our water is safe to drink and tested daily and continues to meet or exceed state health standards.”

Alvarez said Petrolia “keeps giving me directives.” Under Delray Beach’s manager-commission form of government, the mayor can’t give orders to staff members. Note that in the Feb. 4 text message, Petrolia referred to herself as part of the “administration.” The mayor and commissioners are administrators. They are policymakers.

Before and after his suspension, Gretsas identified four problems: reclaimed water contamination, the city’s failure to clean water storage tanks for 38 years, chlorine testing and the presence of dangerous chemicals in the reclaimed water. Though the city has tried to minimize the problems, Gretsas said, “Everything I’ve said about the water has been corroborated.”

Should anyone doubt that this story is far from over?

No.

Azure fights back

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The owner of a controversial oceanfront property in Boca Raton has successfully challenged the city’s council rejection of his plan to develop it.

Azure Development wanted to construct a four-story duplex on the 0.4-acre site just south of Gumbo Limbo. In February 2019, the council denied the application, saying that the project would be east of the state-drawn Coastal Construction Control Line and thus would damage the environment. Boca Raton requires a variance for any building east of the line. The staff report recommended that the council deny the variance.

Because protecting the beachfront is a signature issue in Boca Raton, public sentiment ran against the duplex. According to the ruling by a three-judge panel of the Palm Beach County Circuit Court, responding to that sentiment was the problem.

During his campaign for mayor the previous August, Scott Singer had promised not to allow development of beachfront property “based on the environmental evidence that exists.” Council members Monica Mayotte and Andrea O’Rourke went further, specifically expressing opposition to any such variances and to the 2600 North Ocean project in particular.

The developer’s attorney asked all three to recuse themselves. All declined to do so. In its ruling, the panel condoned Singer voting because his comment was a “general political stance.” But the judges said Mayotte and O’Rourke should have recused themselves.

They had expressed “more than mere political bias or an adverse political philosophy,” the judges said. Their comments amounted to “prejudgment” of the application. Mayotte and O’Rourke “were not impartial.”

The judges ordered the city to hold a second hearing, minus Mayotte and O’Rourke. At the moment, however, Jeremy Rodgers is overseas with the Naval Reserve. Only Singer and Councilman Andy Thomson could participate. But that wouldn’t be enough for a quorum.

That issue could resolve itself with Rodgers’ return. Or the city might appeal. That could stretch things out well past March, when Rodgers is term-limited.

When this issue came to the council, I wondered if the developer’s endgame was to have the city buy the parcel. An appraisal had placed the value of the property at several million dollars, but the appraiser made that calculation based on city approval of development rights.

Bob Sweetapple, the developer’s attorney, said in a statement: “Boca Raton has engaged in a decades-long program to deny any development of this private, taxpaying, oceanfront property. To date, it has failed to acquire the property as part of its spectacular oceanfront park system. The continued denial of any reasonable development of this parcel constitutes a taking. The ongoing illegal actions of the city will continue to be addressed in the courts.”

Owls vs. COVID

COVID-19 keeps shrinking Florida Atlantic University’s football schedule.

The Owls were supposed to open last Saturday at Georgia Southern. An outbreak among team members caused a postponement, and a new date is uncertain. The teams don’t have a mutual open date. They could play again if FAU doesn’t make the Conference USA championship game, though the Owls hardly would root for that to happen.

Regular seasons normally run 12 games. FAU now is likely down to no more than eight games, and that’s presuming no further COVID-19 issues. The Owls lost a moneymaker game at the University of Minnesota when the Big Ten—like other Power 5 conferences—restricted their season to games within the conference.

Conference USA requires players, coaches and support staff to be tested three times a week. Yahoo Sports reported that FAU had so many positive tests that the team lacked enough players at one position to compete safely.

Delray won’t let COVID steal Christmas

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Despite all the other COVID-19-related cancellations, Delray Beach is moving ahead with the usual Christmas display of the 100-foot aluminum tree and North Pole Villages.

On the agenda for today’s city commission is approval of a contract to put up, take down and maintain the tree and the villages. It would run for five years and cost $927,500, with $185,500 for this year.

The display is one of the city’s most popular events. It will be interesting to see if people will still come if they must wear masks and socially distance.

After school fall-out?

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Palm Beach County public school campuses reopened on Monday after much controversy over whether they were adequately prepared to welcome students. Now comes the challenge of dealing with COVID-19 cases.

After all the uncertainty, School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri struck a hopeful note when we spoke on Sunday. Barbieri said he had visited all 21 schools in his district, which includes Boca Raton and West Boca. He found that every principal had done everything possible to help students maintain social distancing.

Obviously, reality can undermine even the best plan. Barbieri, though, praised the principals for their “extraordinary” work. Barbieri also said that the percentage of students returning at each of those 21 schools mirrors the percentage across the district—between 40 percent and 60 percent.