Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Lauzier “Trial,” Update on Boca’s Arts Complex and iPic Opens in Delray

It didn’t take long Friday afternoon to understand that this was going to be a hanging of Delray Beach City Manager Mark Lauzier, not a trial.

The city had advertised the special meeting as a “discussion” of Lauzier’s “performance pursuant to Section 4.02 of the City of Delray Beach Charter.” By citing the charter and providing 72 hours of public notice, the commission announced that Lauzier could lose his job. If that happened, the commission hoped that the action would look credible and reflect well on the city.

So much for that.

Amid the chitchat on and around the dais before the meeting, no one spoke to or looked at Lauzier as he sat between City Attorney Lynn Gelin and Commissioner Bill Bathurst. Gelin announced a 15-minute delay to make sure that the 72 hours had passed.

Public comment began. Every speaker praised Lauzier, citing his quick responses to residents’ questions and regular appearances at community meetings. Many wondered, though, what they were defending him against.

“I’m not sure why we’re here,” one said.

The city had posted the backup documents just before the meeting. Several speakers asked that the commission delay public comment until after hearing the allegations against Lauzier. Mayor Shelly Petrolia didn’t respond, having said that Gelin would run the meeting.

Run it she did. Gelin began by saying that Lauzier had “failed in the execution of his duties” and had committed “multiple violations” of the city charter. Gelin called Lauzier “incompetent” and said the case against him “supports termination.”

After Gelin acted as judge and jury, nothing else mattered. The city attorney and city manager don’t report to each other. They work for the commission. But they must work together a lot and have a professional relationship. That never could have happened after Gelin’s comments.

Gelin then acted as prosecutor, with Internal Auditor Julia Davidyan as the key witness. Davidyan had questioned whether some of Lauzier’s hires—including for assistant city manager—met the required qualifications. She also questioned “Executive Leadership Team moral (sic)” because of late evaluations and “lack of consistent communication regarding departures of key team members.” Davidyan said Lauzier planned to hire more assistants—four—than in cities larger than Delray Beach.

Lauzier responded, essentially, that desperate times called for desperate measures. The city was in “utter and complete chaos” when he took over in November 2017. “What I needed was trust and understanding.”

Delray Beach’s salary ranges, Lauzier said, were “insufficient. The city can’t attract people.” New city managers “bring in their teams.” With his hires, “I’m creating a pipeline of talent.”

Lauzier did acknowledge that he failed to deliver a quarterly budget report on time.

“I have made mistakes, if you mean dotting i’s and crossing t’s.”

Regarding any problem with the “line of communication” to the commission, “I’ll own this.” He added, however, “I thought there was at least some level of trust.

“It’s not appropriate to attack my staff and call me incompetent. I’m not.”

None of it mattered. The commission voted 5-0 to fire Lauzier for cause, so he will get no severance.

One can make a case for firing Lauzier. One can make a better case that the commission botched it.

Consider the optics. Last-minute release of the documents. That the internal auditor prepared a “tone at the top” memo, not an audit. Refusal to allow public comment on the allegations. The absence of debate among the commissioners. The fact that the city had a lawyer—Gelin —but Lauzier didn’t. The immediate decision to make Fire Chief Neal de Jesus the interim manager, as he was for almost a year before Lauzier started.

It all looked scripted. When Gelin noted that Commissioner Adam Frankel could remain via Skype for only five more minutes, the commission quickly voted.

Commissioner Shirley Johnson said she and her fellow commissioners had shown Delray Beach residents “what good government is all about.” Actually, it seemed more like a setup. Even if the decision was right, the process felt wrong. As they left City Hall, residents who had supported Lauzier said he had been railroaded.

“There’s a broken trust,” Petrolia said. She was speaking of the commission and Lauzier, but she could have been speaking of residents and the commission. Just last month, the commission gave Lauzier a raise. Barely a month later, he’s out.

Commissioner Ryan Boylston, who approved that raise for Lauzier last month but also scheduled Friday’s meeting, explained the dichotomy by saying, “There was information about Mark that we just didn’t have at the time.” Boylston acknowledged, however, that things didn’t go Friday as he had hoped.

“I want to do a positive marketing campaign,” Boylston said Monday, for the city manager search. He hopes to include the Downtown Development Authority. “We have a great city, but our reputation sucks.”

And more fallout

The upheaval in Delray Beach City Hall didn’t end with Lauzier’s firing.

One assistant city manager whom Lauzier had just brought in resigned on Friday. Another has been suspended. So was an employee whom Lauzier had brought to Delray Beach on a management fellowship. Caryn Gardner-Young is the only remaining assistant.

In accepting the interim job, de Jesus reiterated that he has “no desire to be a city manager” and would leave as chief only if he had “the unfettered right to return.” He and the commission want the search to start soon.

However quickly a new manager arrives, the city will lose ground. The new manager—obviously, it will be an outsider—will want to evaluate key administrators. The commission had scheduled the city’s annual goal-setting session for April 26.

Despite that title, de Jesus showed the first time that he will make personnel decisions as if he were the permanent manager. The shakeup could continue.

Gelin’s backstory

On Feb. 4, Lynn Gelin was Delray Beach’s acting city attorney. She took over in November after Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioners Adam Frankel and Shirley Johnson had run off Max Lohman. Four months ago, Gelin said she didn’t want the job permanently.

On Feb. 5, Gelin became the permanent city attorney, having changed her mind. The item was not on the city commission meeting for that evening. Johnson brought it up during commission comments.

On Feb. 12, the commission negotiated the terms of Gelin’s contract. That item was added to the agenda after the city posted it.

She will make $195,000.

Seventeen days later, Gelin led the meeting to fire City Manager Mark Lauzier.

I spoke with several city managers who told me that it seemed unusual for the attorney to take the lead role. Gelin, they said, could have hired outside counsel. Or she could have questioned the internal auditor without first stating her own conclusions.

In an interview Monday, Gelin said the format resulted from conversations with the city’s labor lawyer. The proceeding, Gelin said, resembled those for any employee facing discipline. The city presents evidence and the employee gets a chance to rebut.

The manager, though, is not any employee. There’s a political aspect to the job. The commission might have scheduled a no-confidence vote on Lauzier after allowing more time for the public to see the allegations. He then might have taken the hint and resigned, which would have been much less messy.

Gelin called her role in the Lauzier hearing “typical. That’s my job.” She denied acting as finder of fact because she first said, “the evidence will show. It was more like an opening statement.”

As to whether her prominence could make the next manager cautious, Gelin said, “Is it important for me to get along with the manager? Yes. But I have an obligation to the commission. I’m a rule-follower. I would hope the manager feels the same way.”

If Lauzier was the loser Friday, though, Gelin was the big winner. As the meeting ended, Petrolia said of the city attorney, “She’s amazing.”

Boca Arts complex update

Rendering of Boca arts complex

I reported recently that the Boca Raton Cultural Consortium had hired a consultant to help with its effort to put a performing arts complex on city land next to the Spanish River Library. The company’s planners will be in the city Wednesday and Thursday.

In that first report, I quoted Boca Ballet Executive Dan Guin, one of two consortium representatives who presented the idea to the city council last October. The other was local architect Andrea Virgin.

In an email, Virgin said the consortium had formed a non-profit company as well as hiring the consultant—the DeVos Institute for Arts Management. The group has three goals before coming back to the council:

To get feedback “a broad cross-section of the community on issues pertaining to the cultural, civic, academic, and economic development opportunities and risks presented by the proposed project; to ensure that the project concept evolves in alignment with demand and a broad base of stakeholder interests, and; to provide a clear view on how the project can achieve and maintain fiscal and operational sustainability.”

Only if the consortium can persuade the council on that last point is there a chance of getting those 10 acres.

The new Wily C. threat

Forget iguanas. Coyotes have become the new wildlife threat in Boca Raton.

Reports of the wolflike creatures first came from the Hidden Valley neighborhood in the city’s north end. More recently there have been sightings in Palm Beach Farms and Camino Gardens, which are southeast neighborhoods. One resident posted a picture of a coyote making off with meat from a cookout.

Coyotes have been in the city before. Four years ago, a coyote suspected of killing pets was trapped and euthanized. Some residents had been feeding the animal, which shows South Florida at its stereotypic worst.

Boca Raton officials want residents to know that there’s nothing the city can do. As with iguanas, this is a matter for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. But pet owners should beware.

iPic grand opening

IPic holds the grand opening Wednesday night for its theater/office project in downtown Delray Beach.

With this addition, Florida is just the second state after Texas to have three iPics. There’s also in iPic in North Miami Beach. The two in Delray Beach and Boca Raton are among the nearest nationwide. There also are iPics in Los Angeles and Pasadena.

Founder/CEO Hamid Hashemi helped win city commission support in Delray Beach by promising to move the company’s headquarters from Boca Raton. Hashemi took the company public in early 2018. The stock price is about 40 percent of what it was for the initial public offering, but Hashemi told analysts last month that revenue for 2018 beat projections.

IPic will operate 16 theaters when the Delray Beach location opens. Hashemi hopes that the company eventually can have 200 locations, and will expand to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia this year. In addition, iPic plans to renovate the theater at Mizner Park in Boca Raton.

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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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