State Reviews Delray Water Issue, Which Is a Flash Point In Mayoral Campaign

Delray Beach City Hall (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

Two state agencies will determine what happens to Delray Beach for safety violations related to the city’s drinking water.

I reported last week that a draft memo from the Palm Beach County Health Department recommends a penalty of $2.9 million. An accompanying proposed consent order proposes that Delray Beach declare publicly that the city cannot vouch for the safety of its water from 2007 until early 2020.

Rafael Reyes is the department’s director of environmental health. During an interview Friday, he explained what Delray Beach faces.

To give the city “due process,” Reyes said, the department’s conclusions and recommendations will go to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in Tallahassee and to the agency’s Southeast Florida office. Department of Health administrators in Tallahassee also will review the findings.

“We will get feedback,” Reyes said, “and decide which is the best option to neutralize the fines.” He made clear, however, that a lower penalty could come with other expenses. “The city has to take action” on water safety. “We want the violations corrected.”

City officials should not presume that the department arrived at the $2.9 million penalty and the language of the consent order on its own. The recommendations are based on a federal rule that Florida adopted 16 years ago. “We did not do this capriciously,” Reyes said. There is a matrix based on what an investigation discovers.

Indeed, the recommendations are harsh because the city was “significantly out of compliance,” Reyes said, with water quality rules. After the department completed its investigation, Reyes said, “We began the arduous task of documenting the violations.” Investigators found hundreds.

What will happen and when? It’s too soon to know.

Reyes said there is no “timetable” for the agencies’ review, though it can take as long as two months. Such recommendations are “usually changed,” he said, but that depends on how risk the violations posed to the public, “any mitigating factors” the city might argue on its behalf and what “restitutions” the city might make. In theory, Delray Beach could strike a deal by agreeing to make improvements that cost, say, about $2.9 million.

It is important to note, however, that the health department normally takes these actions when the violations occur over anywhere from 30 days, 60 days or 90 days. Sometimes, Reyes said, they can take place over just 24 hours. With Delray Beach, the violations stretch over 13 years.

Reyes added that the penalty recommendation could go higher. There also would be extra costs if the city sued. The department then might levy fines of up to $10,000 per day.

Another question is how much city administrators told Delray Beach’s elected officials about this looming crisis. Reyes said his team held “several meetings with the city.” City Commissioner Ryan Boylston, however, said that he didn’t hear until last week—after my report—that the city had hired an outside law firm and a public relations consultant.

I asked the PR consultant—who is taking all questions on this issue—when the city made those hires and who made them. I didn’t hear back by deadline for this post.

Caruso seizes on water issue   

Tracy Caruso, who is challenging Mayor Shelly Petrolia in the March 9 election, pounced on the Delray Beach water issue.

On Friday, Caruso emailed that Petrolia had “lied” about the safety of the city’s water. Caruso accused Petrolia of trying to minimize the Department of Health recommendations by saying that “the issues are in the past.”

Caruso also noted that last August Petrolia demanded an email from Interim City Manager Jennifer Alvarez “that states clearly and succinctly our water is safe to drink.” Petrolia said the message on the city’s website “is not sufficient.” As public health experts have said, cities cannot make such announcements. They must come from the health department.

Petrolia responded quickly. Also on Friday, the mayor emailed to criticize what she called Caruso’s “flood of lies” about the water department, According to the email, a Caruso-affiliated organization had sent out a recorded phone call Thursday night that criticized Petrolia.

The mayor’s email was notable for its familiar stridency and its attempt to deflect blame.

Petrolia said she would be “consulting” with the commission and city attorney “about the very real legal consequences and our options to prevent more public health misinformation at such a crucial time.” Petrolia added, “Ms. Caruso has effectively yelled ‘fire’ in a crowded theater and I will not see Delray citizens terrorized.”

In November, Petrolia used similar language to assail an email from Delray Beach resident Rob Long—who also chairs the county’s soil and water conservation district—about the presence of cancer-causing chemicals in the city’s water. Petrolia claimed that the email was inaccurate and thus justified Long’s removal from the planning and zoning board.

In fact, a later report backed up Long’s email. As he said, it’s not a crime to yell “Fire” when there’s a fire. Long kept his position on the planning and zoning board.

In the Caruso email, Petrolia blamed a contractor for failing to install devices that prevent reclaimed water—used for irrigation— from entering the drinking water supply. But Petrolia voted to award that contract. Oversight of the work obviously has been lacking.

Finally, Petrolia claimed that former City Manager George Gretsas for making “poor decisions in communicating” about the water problems. Gretsas started work in January, 2020, one month before the problems of 13 years became so serious. Petrolia, whose email spoke of her “commitment to finding the truth,” told Gretsas to state—falsely—that the water problems predated her time as mayor.

Petrolia also led the charge to fire Gretsas last fall. He has claimed that he was fired because of his aggressive effort to investigate the causes of the water crisis.

Why was Love let go?

delray beach

Delray Beach seems to be purging any administrator who had a connection to Gretsas. How else to explain the firing of former Assistant City Manager Allyson Love?

Gretsas brought Love with him from Homestead. Her expertise is finance. Terminating Love without cause cost Delray Beach. According to a city spokeswoman, Love received three months’ salary and was paid for all her unused vacation days and half of her unused sick time.

When Love left, Delray Beach had no assistant city managers—in the middle of a pandemic. The spokeswoman said the city has filled one of the two assistant vacancies and has made an offer on the other.

I asked who fired Love and why. The spokeswoman said, “The city does not comment on personnel matters.”

COVID rollout tries patience

In his newsletter, County Commissioner Robert Weinroth called the COVID-19 vaccine rollout “a frustrating source of anxiety.” No kidding.

Lack of planning at the federal and state levels before the vaccines received approval for emergency use has left local officials scrambling. Gov. DeSantis gave no notice before opening eligibility to anyone 65 and over. As Palm Beach County Health Director Alina Alonso acknowledged, on the current schedule it could take “several months” for everyone in that age group to get the required two doses.

Weinroth noted that the Food and Drug Administration granted that emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine not long ago—six weeks, to be exact. Authorization for the Moderna vaccine came a week later.

“I’m an optimist,” Weinroth said. He will “choose to recognize” the problems as “a bump in the road.”

The health department had to close its email appointment system until more vaccines allow more appointments. Alonso did say that, despite recent advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Palm Beach County does not plan to alter the schedule for when to receive the second Moderna dose—four weeks after the first—or to mix the vaccines, with one dose of each.

Will Ahnell stay on?

It had seemed that Boca Raton might be looking for a new city manager in 2022. That may not be the case.

On the agenda for tonight’s meeting is a proposed change to the pension plans for firefighters, general employees and executives. It would extend from five years to seven years the length of the Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP.

Employees who enter the program can work past what might be their normal retirement date, allowing the city or county to keep getting their services. During negotiations for the three-year contract that began last October, the firefighters union asked for the extension from 60 months to 84 months.

Councilman Andy Thomson, who supports the change, said the union wanted “more flexibility” for its members. Someone who had envisioned working only another five years might have second thoughts as the date neared. If that happened, Thomson said, the city wouldn’t want to lose a good employee.

Thomson said he expects that the city will make the same change when the police contract comes up again. Non-first responders will get the same benefit.

With that change, City Manager Leif Ahnell—who took the job in 1999—might stay longer. He entered the program in 2017, meaning that 2022 would be his last year. The extension could push his departure to 2024 if he wants to stay.

The pickleball fan club

Boca Raton’s pickleballers never give up.

At a recent city council workshop, one of them thanked the city for new courts at Hillsboro El Rio South Park—and then said Boca Raton needed even more courts. Perhaps the city could add some at Boca Country Club, which the owners of the Boca Raton Resort & Club just donated to the city. Or maybe some could go on the site of the former Ocean Breeze golf course, now that the Boca Country Club course will become the city’s main municipal links.

Lo and behold, during Monday’s council workshop meeting, Ahnell said those two sites might work for more pickleball courts. The city still hasn’t released the results of a survey with the Greater Boca Beach and Park District about what the public wants in new recreation amenities. Early returns, however, indicate that pickleball is in high demand.