Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Whistleblower, The Sequel—And a New Plan for Palmetto Park Road?

Delray Beach and Boca Raton have something in common: each city has been sued by the same woman making the same accusation about the same subject.

That woman is Christine Ferrigan. In a complaint filed with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Ferrigan alleges that Delray Beach “harassed, intimidated, threatened” and eventually fired Ferrigan for investigating and pointing out problems related to water safety. In Delray Beach, water is the issue that won’t go away.

Delray Beach hired Ferrigan in June 2017. Three years earlier, she had settled for $537,500 a lawsuit against Boca Raton after claiming that officials in that city had retaliated against Ferrigan. In that lawsuit, Ferrigan also claimed that higher-ups had ignored her warnings about dangerously low water pressure and faulty connections in the reclaimed water system. Boca Raton denied the allegations.

The similarities between the two cases are startling. Both included an investigation by the Palm Beach County Health Department. Both involved accusations of “forever chemicals”—known as PFAs—in the drinking water. Both centered on reclaimed water, which is partially treated and used only for irrigation. Both cities have such systems, which depend on keeping that water separate from potable water.

Delray Beach’s problems began in late 2018, with reports from residents that water was making them sick. To read Ferrigan’s recounting of who was involved is to recall the revolving door of top management in City Hall. Ferrigan charges that Delray Beach “mishandled its attempt to remedy the problem” of cross-contamination. Some of that reclaimed water had got into the drinking water.

After its investigation, the health department concluded that Delray Beach’s water-quality issues began in 2007 and lasted until 2020. The department first recommended a fine of $3 million. After negotiations, the fine was roughly $1 million. Delray Beach also spent roughly the same amount on improvements to the system.

Boca Raton got off easier. After an initial recommendation of a $54,000 fine, the city approved a five-page settlement with the health department. Officials promised to report security problems, test for contaminants and corrected various violations. Boca Raton paid $2,500 in administrative costs and did not admit to any wrongdoing.

Former City Manager George Gretsas faced Delray Beach’s water controversy when he took over in January 2020. Five months later, Mayor Shelly Petrolia and commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson had forced out Gretsas. He has sued the city for wrongful termination and has alleged that he was fired for exposing the extent of the problems with reclaimed water.

In September 2020, Ferrigan sought whistleblower protection from the Office of Inspector General, which the office granted. Three months later, according to the lawsuit, city officials told Ferrigan to stop speaking with the office. In May 2021, the office issued a report critical of Delray Beach’s response to the water quality problems.

Ferrigan claims that in April 2021 she was passed over for a job as part of a “reorganization.” She also claims that in March of this year the city fired her son, an employee in the public works department.

Ferrigan, who still lives in Boca Raton, seeks back pay, legal fees and reinstatement. You wonder if water will be an issue next March when Casale and the seat of the term-limited Johnson are on the ballot.

As for Delray Beach’s new water plant, City Manager Terrence Moore said it will take “several months” before the commission can approve a bond program to pay for it. The city needs to hire a contractor and get a firm cost estimate.

A new plan for Palmetto Park Road?

Despite previous failures, there’s another effort in Boca Raton to develop a plan for East Palmetto Park Road.

At first, land-use lawyer Ele Zachariades was leading the group of citizens trying to refashion the stretch between Federal Highway and the Intracoastal Waterway. Unlike Delray Beach, Boca Raton never had a traditional downtown. Palmetto Park Road became the default option for attempts to create one.

andrea o'rourke
Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke

Now, though, Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke has taken more of the lead role that she and Zachariades had shared. O’Rourke lives not far away in the Mizner Court condominium.

Among those involved, O’Rourke said, are architect Juan Caycedo, Keith O’Donnell of the commercial real estate firm Avison Young, planning and zoning board member Larry Cellon and Andrea Virgin. She heads the group seeking to build an arts center in Mizner Park.

O’Rourke cited the arts center, the Brightline station, the coming Mandarin Oriental Hotel and The Boca Raton—formerly the Boca Raton Resort & Club—in saying, “It’s time to connect the dots of downtown: the pedestrian experience, the beauty, the draw.”

That was the goal when Mizner Park opened in 1991. But the city hasn’t been able to connect it with Palmetto Park Road. In addition, there are competing interests regarding Palmetto Park Road. Neighbors and business owners want slower traffic. Residents on the beach want fast trips to and from their homes.

O’Rourke said, “This is not a conversation about traffic per se. It is about good urban planning, which will take traffic into consideration.” She hopes that the city will hire an urban planner to make recommendations for the road.

New Chick-fil-A

chick-fil-a
Rendering of the proposed Boca Raton Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A fans who live on the east side of Interstate 95 in Boca Raton soon may have a double dip of their favorite fast food.

The company already has one restaurant near Town Center Mall. Now, work finally has begun on one that will replace a branch bank building next to Palmetto Square east of the interstate on Palmetto Park Road. Zachariades, the company’s attorney, believes that the restaurant will be open in seven or eight months.

Chick-fil-A also has applied to build a restaurant that would replace the Best Western Hotel at 2700 North Federal Highway. Zachariades said that application could go before the planning and zoning board in July.

City officials unsuccessfully appealed the board’s approval of the Palmetto Square Chick-fil-A plan because of concerns about traffic in the drive-through lane. The site is across an access road from a Valero gas station.

In Fort Lauderdale, a Chick-fil-A on Federal Highway has drawn complaints because drive-through vehicles back up onto the road. Zachariades said the plan for the Best Western site could accommodate “more cars than ever could back up” to Federal Highway.

I’ll update when the item goes to the planning and zoning board.

Hospital gift

Boca Raton Regional Hospital. Photo by Aaron Bristol.

Boca Raton Regional Hospital has another $1 million gift toward its Keeping the Promise capital campaign. It comes from Ken and Maggie Rosenberg, who are repeat donors. Their gift means that the hospital has $229 million toward its goal of $250 million.

ALF lawsuit discussion

boca square
Proposed ALF Property in Boca Square

I had reported that the owner of a property in Boca Raton envisioned as the site of an adult living facility (ALF) has sued the city. The lawsuit claims that city planners told the developer that approval of the facility would not require a comprehensive plan change and then reversed themselves.

On Monday, City Attorney Diana Frieser has set aside as much as two hours for city council members to discuss the lawsuit. The meeting, which is closed to the public, will precede the usual community redevelopment agency meeting and the council workshop meeting.

Council workshop on Brightline area

brightline
Rendering of the Boca Raton Brightline station

At that workshop meeting, council members will hear a presentation about improvements to Northwest First Avenue between Palmetto Park Road and the downtown library. According to a city spokeswoman, those improvements are tied to construction of the Brightline station east of the library.

Investors have been buying up properties in that area since the council approved the station, which Brightline hopes to open this year. West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale have encouraged development around the stations.

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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