Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Petrolia Loses Case Against Lifeguard Towers, and Other Notes From Delray and Boca

Six days after Shelly Petrolia won her race for mayor of Delray Beach, she lost her case against the city.

Petrolia had asked the Palm Beach County Office of Inspector General to investigate the city’s purchase of eight lifeguard towers—each cost about $145,000. Only one company, Hartzell Construction, submitted a bid. Petrolia cast the only vote against the purchase when the city commission approved it in December.

Delray Beach political gadfly and Petrolia supporter Kenneth MacNamee had a complaint in January. According to the inspector general, Petrolia’s complaint aligned with MacNamee’s. They made six allegations:

  • The city didn’t seek competitive bidding;
  • The city’s qualifications were too restrictive;
  • The specifications were too narrow;
  • The city didn’t check with Miami Beach, for which Hartzell also built lifeguard towers, on the company’s qualifications for the work;
  • The city allowed Hartzell to revise its pricing;
  • The cost of the towers was excessive.

In its report released Monday, the Office of Inspector General found none of the claims to be substantiated. The report noted that city policy allows negotiations with the “responsible” bidder if only one company responds.

City staff considered starting over but concluded that it would not have been in the city’s interest. The report also notes that the specifications were tailored to Delray Beach’s needs, that the city did contact Miami Beach and that the final price reflected those “enhanced design features.” They were designed to make the towers last longer and reduce maintenance costs, which would save Delray Beach money over the long term.

To some supporters, the complaint showed Petrolia to be a critic of wasteful spending. To anyone who watched the commission discussion and thus had context, though, the complaint seemed more like sour grapes. City staffers persuasively answered all questions from commissioners, some of whom had been skeptical. Responding to the frivolous complaint took staff time from the many legitimate projects Delray Beach needs to complete.

As the editorial page editor of The Palm Beach Post, I supported creation in 2009 of the county’s Office of Inspector General and Commission on Ethics. Mayor Cary Glickstein, though, is correct that some Delray Beach residents “weaponize” the inspector general’s office with complaints that are more political than substantial.

So it’s worth noting that neither of the inspector general’s two important findings related to Delray Beach came from a citizen complaint.

In 2012, responding to news coverage, the office investigated and concluded that the city commission had been wrong to extend the trash-hauling contract without competitive bidding. The commission approved a lawsuit that resulted in a cheaper contract.

In 2015, a city-initiated audit flagged questions about purchasing that led to arrests, resignations and reprimands of employees who had used city jobs to help their private businesses. A follow-up inspector general’s report helped the city to improve purchasing practices.

Some of Petrolia’s critics believe that Petrolia and MacNamee engage in text messages during meetings and coordinate in other ways. Petrolia acknowledged to me only that she consults with MacNamee on financial matters. The lifeguard tower issue got traction in Delray Beach’s social media network, whose position usually is that the staff is always wrong and Petrolia is always right. Petrolia criticized the tower purchase in her campaign.

As mayor, however, Petrolia must balance between advocating on behalf of residents and defending the staff against harassment by residents. In this case, defending the staff would have been the right move.

Delray tennis contract

In our email exchange on Monday, Mayor Glickstein wondered why the Office of Inspector General isn’t investigating Delray Beach’s tennis contract. The commission approved a lawsuit seeking to determine whether the city can withdraw from the 25-year contract that the commission approved in 2005.

The county commission created the Office of Inspector General in 2009. For the office to investigate something that predated its existence would require “extraordinary circumstances,” Inspector General John Carey said in an email.

Carey explained that the office does “triage” on all complaints, as emergency room doctors assess patients. To look into something dating back 13 years would be unusual unless the potential “value”—Carey’s term—to the city was substantial. The office is understaffed as it is because some cities—including Boca Raton, but not including Delray Beach—successfully sued to avoid paying their share of the office’s cost. Those cities ignored their residents, who in 2010 voted to have cities pay that money.

Yet 12 years remain on the tennis contract, and the cost to the city is $1.5 million and rising. Grounds might exist for the office at least to consider investigating the tennis contract.

Or maybe a resident will file the complaint.

Boca High meeting

Palm Beach County School District planners will attend a 6:30 p.m. meeting on March 28 in Boca Raton High School’s theater to discuss crowding at the school. According to school board member Frank Barbieri, Boca High’s advisory committee asked for the meeting.

Participants likely won’t hear much new. They will hear that boundary changes should reduce the student population by about 350 in two years. Boca High is about 600 students over capacity. Expansion of Spanish River and Olympic Heights high school will shift students in western areas to those campuses.

In addition, Barbieri wants the district to recheck addresses to make sure that all students who attend Boca High are eligible to do so. A similar check at Calusa Elementary—when crowding there was an issue—found a negligible number of boundary jumpers, but the review makes sense. With Boca High’s reputation having risen, more parents might be tempted to game the system.

The Weinroth-Haynie campaign treasure chests

WeinrothHaynieRobert Weinroth outraised Susan Haynie by a little in their first month of intramural fundraising. In the second month, he outraised her by a lot.

The Boca Raton councilman and the city’s mayor, once allies, are running to succeed term-limited Steven Abrams on the Palm Beach County Commission. Weinroth leaves the council this month.

Weinroth raised about $20,000 in February, compared to roughly $11,500 for Haynie. That gives him $37,000 in all, about $10,000 less than Haynie. She announced her candidacy last October and began raising money, but a Palm Beach Post article alleging ethics violations by Haynie delayed the rollout. She denies the allegations.

Weinroth switched to the county race in early January. He had raised more than $100,000 for his council re-election campaign but couldn’t transfer the money to the county campaign.

One of Weinroth’s notable contributions is $1,000 from Art Koski, executive director and attorney for the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District. Haynie publicly criticized Koski’s request for a $120,000 fee to compensate him for negotiating the district’s $24 million purchase of the former Ocean Breeze golf course that the city is underwriting.

Haynie got $3,000 from Penn-Florida, developer of Via Mizner and University Village. Christine Lynn, Boca Raton’s leading philanthropist, gave $500. Another $2,000 came from political action committees controlled by Haynie’s campaign consultant. Haynie also received $1,000 from the parent company of Brightline, the new passenger trains service.

Interestingly, Haynie got $1,000 from former County Commissioner Jeff Koons. This is a partisan race. Haynie is a Republican. Koons is a Democrat. He resigned from the commission in 2010 after pleading guilty to a felony charge of extortion. Prosecutors said Koons threatened a West Palm Beach resident who opposed Koons’ plan for mangrove islands in the Intracoastal Waterway.

One more in District 4

The third announced candidate in that District 4 county commission race is William Vale. He lives in Boca Del Mar, just west of the city limits. He has filed paperwork to challenge Haynie in the Republican primary.

Vale told me that he spent 13 years unsuccessfully fighting approval of development on the former Mizner Trail golf course, which borders his home.

“That showed me a lot.” The county commission approved a 252-townhouse project in 2014 that remains unbuilt.

Haynie has been “a good mayor,” Vale told me, “although I’m not happy with the gridlock. I hope the allegations against her are not true, but they are one reason I’m running against her.” Vale said he is not coordinating with anyone to force Haynie into a primary. His priority would be protecting open space, especially the Agricultural Reserve Area.

Vale has “suspended” his work as a pharmaceutical sales representative. “This is out of my comfort zone, but I’m an outsider and voters want something new.”

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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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