Delray Commission Fires City Manager, Claiming Violations Of Hiring Practices, City Charter

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By: Dale King Contributing Writer

The Delray Beach City Commission is looking for a new city manager, again.

During a special meeting last month, commissioners unanimously voted to terminate City Manager Mark Lauzier’s employment on allegations he hired several new city employees who were not qualified for their jobs; gave them salaries or raises that exceeded municipal limits; added one new worker during a hiring freeze that he imposed, and allegedly did not comply with policies set in the city charter.

Lauzier vigorously denied all allegations. During his comments that followed a hearing, he waffled between wanting to stay on to improve on his performance and, at times, he seemed willing to accept his dismissal.

“I love you guys and I love this city,” he said, speaking patiently despite facing a plethora of charges contained in a report by Julia Davidyan, the city’s internal auditor who reports directly to the commission. “I made mistakes, but I have violated no ethics,” he said.

As he spoke late in the two-hour-plus meeting, Lauzier offered to leave under amicable terms instead of facing termination. Many in the audience yelled, “No.”

Lauzier explained that if he had worked “outside the lines,” it was to create an executive team he would work with to pull Delray out of a government quagmire that he called “utter and complete chaos.”

He said he violated neither the city charter nor the ICMA (International City Manager Association) code. The auditor’s report stated he violated both.

Giving salaries above pay grade, he said, was necessary to keep worthy workers. “I was unable to attract and maintain employees” with established wages.

As to not keeping up with evaluations, he said, “When I came, some evaluations were 2 ½ years behind.”

Commissioners appointed Fire Chief Neal De Jesus as interim city manager for 90 days. He asked board members to begin a search for a new city manager immediately, and added one proviso to accepting the interim post: That he be allowed to return to his job as head of the Fire Department.

It is a position that the fire chief has found himself in before. He served as the interim manager in between City Manager Don Cooper and Lauzier.

Ironically, the hearing – led by City Attorney Lynn Gelin, who gave Davidyan a chance to air a report she had prepared about “concerns” with Lauzier’s hiring practices – followed the public comment segment.

More than a dozen people came to the podium to support Lauzier. Many suggested the commission should have moved the comment period to the end of the meeting, after allegations against the city manager were presented. This was not done.

In her report, which she said was a compilation of her own notes, Davidyan said Lauzier created a position called “assistant to the city manager” on the city manager’s executive leadership team. She said he claimed that the new position, converted from a higher-paying assistant city manager job, would save taxpayers money. But six months later, Lauzier promoted that employee, India Adams, to assistant city manager and gave her a nearly 50 percent raise, Davidyan said, higher than the amount allowed in the municipal hiring policy.

The auditor also mentioned a couple of other employees hired by Lauzier that raised concern. For one position, she said she could find no job description.

For another worker, the city manager hired a person at a pay grade “not based on merit.” The manager authorized relocation expenses for that employee Vince Roberts, who was hired as a fellow, similar to an intern, which is not in alignment with city policy.

The city manager was also accused of being behind in the annual evaluation of several employees, a violation of city policy.

Initially, it appeared the commission would be shorthanded at the meeting. However,  Commissioner Adam Frankel, who was on a business trip to New Orleans, attended via video  chat. Deputy Vice-Mayor Shirley Johnson, who was hit by a car and injured, attended in a wheelchair, illustrating the urgency of the board’s move.

Commissioner Ryan Boylston said he called for the special meeting to discuss his own concerns with other members – and the only way to do it was at an open meeting. Commissioners unanimously agreed to fire Lauzier.

“This is a sad day,” said Mayor Shelly Petrolia, because of the multiple charges against Lauzier. “When you heard what happened here, there’s a broken trust.”

Johnson said Lauzier, “Caused great harm to our great city. He circumvented policies for his own egregious reasons. I have no further confidence in him.”

After he was terminated, Gelin told Lauzier he would have to leave the dais. He stood, picked up a few things on his desk and walked out without commenting.

Lauzier began his job in Delray in November 2017. He received a 4 percent raise in January, bringing his salary to $244,000.

Delray Beach has had three city managers since 2012, when 22-year manager David Harden retired.

Interim city manager Neal de Jesus said he has hired a search firm and has started filling key vacancies. He promoted parks and recreation department head Suzanne Fisher to assistant city manager and moved the assistant parks and recreation department head to the lead parks role. He also asked the assistant finance director to step into the interim role.

He said he plans to look internally to fill certain positions because “this city is filled with talent.”