Delray commissioners point fingers, play blame game over failed city manager negotiations

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By: Marisa Herman

Associate Editor 

When news broke over the weekend that Michael Cernech backed away from becoming Delray’s city manager, the blame game began.

The finger pointing of who was at fault for the failed negotiations was on full display during a special meeting called to discuss the topic on Tuesday.

Out of the gate, Commissioners Ryan Boylston and Bill Bathurst placed the blame on Mayor Shelly Petrolia.

“Two people in the room told it was doomed from the he beginning because of the attitude of the mayor,” Bathurst said about the negotiations between the city and Cernech.

But Petrolia was quick to defend herself and often placed the pressure on city attorney Lynn Gelin to explain what happened in the negotiation room.

“He walked away,” Petrolia said of Cernech. “I didn’t ask him to walk away. I was absolutely dumbfounded. We were not prepared for that.”

Petrolia said some of the terms that Cernech wanted in his employment contract with the city were not terms she could support. She called some of the requests “outrageous.” 

But Boylston said the negotiations were “going smoothly” based off updates he received from Gelin. 

“How did we get here?” he asked. 

It was a question the rest of the commissioners, who were not in the negotiation room, wanted answered. 

Cernech was selected in a 4-1 vote after an extensive search and interview process. Commissioner Shirley Johnson cast the sole dissenting vote. Petrolia’s first option was George  Gretsas, but she ultimately supported Cernech.

Petrolia said she was “ready to have him on board.” 

But Bathurst quipped back, “That isn’t what we are hearing.”

Attorney Gelin said Cernech wanted to receive full support on his contract and that he wouldn’t be able to leave his job without a 5-0 vote from Delray commissioners. 

“He wanted his contract and he wanted my approval of it,” Petrolia said. 

She calculated the contract he proposed totaled nearly $400,000 when the salary and benefits were added up. She said she should “almost be thanked” that the deal didn’t happen. 

A proposed deal didn’t make it before commissioners to vote up or down. Cernech backed out of the entire process before that could happen. 

With Cerncech out, commissioners discussed what steps to take next. Commissioners agreed to reopen the interview process with the top four candidates.

Commissioners interviewed two of them already, George Gretsas and Joseph Napoli. Petrolia preferred Gretsas and Johnson Napoli.

Boylston suggested interviewing two more candidates, who were interested in the job and hail from out of state. The other two candidates are Leawood, Kansas city manager Scott Lambers and Jeff Yates. 

In a 3-2 vote, commissioners agreed to pursue that option with Petrolia and Johnson dissenting.

Commissioner Adam Frankel wanted to start from scratch with a new search, but agreed to open the interviews to the top four after he speaks with the recruitment firm who found them. 

The topic will likely be revisited during the next city commission meeting on Sept. 17.

Until a new city manager is hired, interim city manager Neal de Jesus will remain in the role. Commissioners voted 3-2 to increase his salary to what the former manager was making, $244,000 while he serves in the role, retroactive to March 1. They also agreed to change other terms including how much notice is required if he is fired from the fire chief position, once he returns, from 90 days to 180 days and eliminated a requirement that he have a bachelor’s degree. 

Petrolia and Johnson voted against his contract change.