Toxic Delray Beach Politics Continue as Tensions Flare on Commission

delray beach

It was full frontal and full volume last Tuesday on Delray Beach’s toxic politics.

The flashpoint was sea grapes. Where else but Delray Beach could a tree cause a verbal street fight among elected officials? These days, Delray doesn’t disappoint.

As usual, the central player was Mayor Shelly Petrolia. who tries continually to be the strong mayor the city charter prohibits her from being.

As I wrote last week, the commission was considering whether to overturn a 2017 decision that severely curtailed the sea grape trimming program that had been in effect since 2000. Three years ago, Petrolia and former Commissioner Mitch Katz demanded that the city ignore science in favor of allowing sea grapes along the beach to grow well beyond recommended guidelines and thus crowd out natural vegetation.

Commissioner Ryan Boylston led off with a presentation of photos that he had taken. He lamented that such a non-controversial topic had become “politicized” and that the city had stopped “focusing on science.” The beach, Boylston said, benefited most from the “biodiversity” that came from regularly trimming the quick-spreading sea grapes.

Commissioner Adam Frankel followed by saying, “It’s tough to follow that presentation.” He thanked Boylston for the “education you gave me.”

Then came Petrolia. “I’m going to jump in here,” she said. “This is about me.” Well, yes. From there, Petrolia rolled out her typical populist script. Her preferred villains were “businesses” near the beach that “want better views” and a few rich beachfront homeowners. Those who took the opposite side were telling “lies.”

Petrolia had her usual ally—Commissioner Julie Casale. She has the job because Petrolia recruited and backed her during the election last March. Casale sounded confused at several points, but she reliably backed Petrolia on wanting to keep the damaging status quo.

That left Commissioner Shirley Johnson. She voted with Petrolia in June to start the process of firing City Manager George Gretsas. This time, however, she would be the third vote on the other side.

When Johnson came to Delray Beach as a child, she said, “I never saw a sea grape. They’re a nuisance.” The city, Johnson said, should “put science first.” Much of that science came from Robert Barron, a former city employee who has spent decades in coastal environmental management.

After Johnson’s statement, the outcome was clear. But the politics were far from finished.

Frankel accused Petrolia of claiming falsely on social media that he wanted to “chop down” trees. He cited a communication from John Morgan, the city’s former sustainability director, backing Frankel’s position. Frankel said he was “setting the record straight” and advised residents to “get their facts here, not on Facebook,” where Petrolia dwells.

The mayor shot back that Frankel was “backpedaling” from comments at a meeting last month. Seeking to portrary herself as a victim of Delray Beach’s deep state, Petrolia said that she had been targeted for having “the audacity” to challenge Morgan.

Next March, Boylston and Frankel are up for second terms. Both opposed Petrolia on Gretsas. Not coincidentally, Petrolia saved her fire on sea grapes for them, not Johnson. She won a new term six months ago and can’t run again in 2023 because of term limits.

Boylston acknowledged the politics when he said that his vote is “going to be on a (campaign) mailer.” But that reality, Boylston said, “is not a reason not to do the right thing.”

“We’ve got a scientist here,” Petrolia said sarcastically, referring to Boylston. She mocked Barron for not having a biology degree, ignoring Barron’s decades of experience in coastal management and knowledge of Florida plants.

Then Petrolia made clear what everyone had suspected. “I will make sure the public knows,” she said, “how we’re voting. I will make sure the public is aware, based on the facts.”

To Boylston and Frankel, Petrolia said, “Govern yourself accordingly.”

I asked Boylston on Monday if he saw Petrolia’s tirade as an election challenge. “There’s no other way to read it,” he said. Would Petrolia, despite the vote, try to stop the trimming? “It’s 100 percent that she will try to thwart it.”

Indeed, Petrolia in mid-June had emailed Gretsas and Public Works Diretor Missie Barletto to lobby for retention of those sea grape arches that she calls “iconic,” asking that they be left “in tact (sic).”

Since becoming mayor, Petrolia has been responsible for abolishing the community redevelopment agency without public notice and running off the city attorney without public notice. She’s currently trying to run off the city manager she once claimed “checked every box for me.”

And who’s on the ballot with Boylston and Frankel?

Shelly Petrolia.

Update on the mall(s)

town center mall

The companies that own Town Center Mall and Mizner Park last week bought a failing retailer because it was in their corporate interest to do so.

Simon Property Group and Brookfield Property Partners bought J.C. Penney, paying $300 million in cash and assuming $500 million worth of debt. J.C. Penney, which dates to 1902, had declared bankrutpcy this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven several other legendary retail brands to seek bankruptcy protection. Among them are Lord & Taylor, which has a store on the southwest corner of Mizner Park.

Based on reporting in the financial press, Simon and Brookfield wanted to keep J.C. Penney alive because it operates anchor stores at their malls. J.C. Penney has no space at Town Center; the closest store is in Pompano Beach. But J.C. Penney, which still has 1,500 stores and a workforce of 70,000, has a presence at roughly 70 Simon malls.

Despite the pandemic’s hit on retailing, Simon’s stock price is slightly higher than it was six months ago, when COVID-19 restrictions kicked in. Brookfield hasn’t been as fortunate, but its price is down just slightly from pre-COVID-19 levels. In Boca Raton, Simon and Brookfield are local news.

Florida House races heating up

With Election Day still six weeks away, Mike Caruso has raised nearly $300,000 for his re-election campaign in Florida House District 89.

The district includes Boca Raton and coastal Delray Beach. Caruso won it by just 32 votes two years ago. He faces James Bonfiglio, the former mayor of Ocean Ridge, in a rematch. The district stretches north to Palm Beach.

For perspective, Emily Slosberg has raised just $17,000 to keep her seat in House District 91, which includes parts of West Boca. But Slosberg is a Democrat in a seat drawn to elect a Democrat. Caruso is a Republican in a swing district.

Though Republicans have a 73-47 majority, they don’t want to concede any seats. In Broward County, Chip LaMarca is the only Republican in the county’s house delegation. He represents another flippable district and has raised roughly the same amount as Caruso. Those are eye-popping amounts for a Florida House district.

Big Boca Regional donation

Boca Raton Regional Hospital has received another seven-figure gift.

This one comes from the Sands Family Foundation and Constellation Brands. Rob Sands is executive chairman of the company, which is based in upstate New York. Corona beer is one of Constellation’s many brands.

According to a news release, this is the 32nd seven-figure gift toward the hospital’s $250 million Keeping The Promise capital campaign. Boca Regional’s foundation has raised $165 million toward the campaign, from which will come the new parking garage and patient towers.