At the end of 2019, Delray Beach’s 2020 election got very interesting.
Just before the deadline, Chris Davey qualified to challenge District 4 City Commissioner Shirley Johnson. Davey is a longtime ally of Mayor Shelly Petrolia and his candidacy came without much advance notice.
It appears that Petrolia is working to give herself a three-person majority on the commission. People who follow Delray Beach politics already noted that Juli Casale is running against Bill Bathurst in Seat 2.
Casale has received $500 contributions from Price Patton and Carolyn Patton, two Petrolia allies. Petrolia invited Price Patton to the community meet-and-greet last year for city manager finalists. Casale also got $500 from John Barrette. When his wife, Kelly Barrette, ran for the commission in 2017, Petrolia supported her.
This appears to be Petrolia’s second attempt at a power play. Three years ago, she didn’t just want Barrette to defeat Jim Chard for Seat 2. Petrolia also helped Josh Smith in his race against Johnson. Barrette and Smith lost badly. In 2018, however, Petrolia defeated Chard in the race to succeed Cary Glickstein.
Petrolia also invited Davey to that manager meet-and-greet. During Petrolia’s campaign for mayor, Davey listed himself as the agent of a Jupiter-based group called Progressives for a Better Delray. It sent mailers falsely linking Chard to President Trump and then-Gov. Rick Scott, who’s now in the Senate. Delray Beach is a heavily Democratic city. Progressives for a Better Delray never revealed the names of its donors.
Though Delray Beach doesn’t have a strong mayor system, Petrolia regularly has tried to act like one. She arranged the firing of the former city attorney and tried to secure community redevelopment agency approval for her preferred developer of the land next to the Fairfield Inn. On her own, she attended negotiations with city manager candidate Michael Cernech – who had not been her first choice – and caused Cernech to withdraw. Bathurst criticized her strongly for that action.
Like the August 2018 special election in Boca Raton, the March election in Delray Beach falls on the same day as a statewide primary – for president. Though commission seats are non-partisan, candidates find ways to advertise their party membership. Turnout likely will be much higher than for a normal city election.
Two other candidates are challenging Bathurst and there’s a third candidate in the Seat 4 race. But the focus will be on Casale and Davey. And Petrolia.
Gretsas is on the clock
George Gretsas doesn’t officially become Delray Beach’s city manager until Monday. Unofficially, he’s already started.
Working with Interim Manager Neal de Jesus, who again will be Fire Chief on Monday, Gretsas has filled two key positions. Allyson Love will be the second assistant city manager and Marie Kalka will be finance director.
When we spoke the day after Christmas, Gretsas said de Jesus had asked him about the assistant city manager spot. Gretsas recommended Love, who works with him in Homestead and also was on his staff when Gretsas was city manager in Fort Lauderdale.
De Jesus, Gretsas said, agreed that Love was a strong candidate and the choice was mutual. Kalka was one of two finalists, and de Jesus allowed Gretsas to participate in the interviews and discussion. As with Love, they agreed on the choice. Both also will start Monday.
Gretsas said Love’s strength is finance. The new hires should allow Gretsas to make a quick assessment of Delray Beach’s budget. That’s important because a city commission priority is to reduce the property tax rate. “We have to decide,” Gretsas said, “how we get to that.”
On Monday, Gretsas will meet first with “the leadership team” and begin “coordinating meetings” with Petrolia and the four commissioners. He still must hire three full-time department heads – for Neighborhood & Community Services, Public Works and Utilities. He wants to “see the pile,” meaning the department heads’ top projects. “I want to know where they are on those projects and what they need from me.”
Gretsas reiterated that he comes to Delray Beach “with no preconceived notions. My job is to ask, ‘What’s the mission?’ and then figure out how to get it done.” His guiding principle has been “stay in your lane.”
Though his first days will be jammed, Gretsas doesn’t face his first commission meeting until Jan. 16.
For those who want agreement on a new golf course for Boca Raton, the year is starting badly.
At the end of December, the city sent the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District a proposed agreement for construction and operation of the course. It would be on the roughly 200 acres at Boca Teeca that once were the community’s Ocean Breeze course.
In a memo, Deputy City Manager Mike Woika said the document “sets the responsibilities” for designing, building and running the proposed course. It also updates the agreement by which the district bought the property, with the city underwriting the bonds and the district reimbursing the city for the annual payments.
Woika noted that the agreement “is intended to mirror the discussions” from the Nov. 12 meeting between city council members and district board members. The city would choose the designer and contractor. There would be an 18-hole course on the west side and a driving range, putting green and short course on the east side.
The agreement would last for 20 years, with two automatic renewals of 20 years. Residents of the city and the district would get the same discounts and preferences for tee times.
The city council and the district board have disagreed over the design. The district wants to keep the design it approved before realizing that the agency – despite previous promises – didn’t have the money to finance construction and came to the city seeking $20 million. The city wants a different design.
Apparently, the agreement won’t satisfy everyone on either side. The district could “participate in the design process” and split revenue 50-50 with the city. Then the district could “comment on the design and mutually approve the design with the city.” If the district didn’t participate, the city would build and run the course alone.
City Councilman Andy Thomson said the document “doesn’t seem to embody” what he considers the consensus from that meeting: The district can comment on the design but would not have veto power.
As for the district, board member Craig Ehrnst said in an email that his agency and the city “are probably on different paths.” At its Monday meeting, Ehrnst said, the board “will discuss options that don’t involve the city.”
According to Ehrnst’s reading, the agreement would allow the city to build the course, then “give it back to the district and charge the district.” Such wording would give the city “the ability to financially blow up the district.”
In addition, Ehrnst wants the district to have more say in what the course would look like. “After spending thousands on design and maintenance,” Ehrnst said, “we have virtually no input. It’s simply not fair or reasonable. It’s unfortunate.” The document “does not reflect putting residents first. It puts the city in complete control.”
Board member Steve Engel said he wanted to reserve comment until he could “digest” the proposal. Susan Vogelgesang called it “very one-sided.”
The council and district will meet again on Jan. 27. Presumably, they will offer comment on the proposed agreement and discuss revisions. If there’s no agreement, it’s hard to tell what could happen. The time for a final decision, Thomson said, “is coming soon.”
Boca Raton residents got some very good news on the last day of 2019.
A news release announced that Moody’s Investor Service has reaffirmed the city’s AAA credit rating across the board, including water and sewer. Moody’s said Boca Raton’s tax base of nearly $30 billion is “significantly stronger” than the U.S. median.
Such a rating enables Boca Raton to borrow at much lower rates. It also signifies that the city has reserves to handle emergencies. Finance can be one of the dull, unappreciated parts of municipal government, but sound finances head off unpleasant surprises.
And a correction
In my end-of-2019 post, I referred to the Boca Raton Innovation Center – the former home of IBM. It is, of course, the Boca Raton Innovation Campus.