Delray may spend the summer and fall trying to fire city manager

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By: Dale King
Contributing Writer

The city of Delray Beach has begun dealing with a harsh and unpleasant, but apparently necessary task similar to others it has conducted and survived more than a half-dozen times in the past eight years.

An effort is in the works to fire City Manager George Gretsas – and it may be almost Halloween before the final shoe drops.

Three members of the five-person City Commission endorsed an attempt to dump the top city official when they voted in favor of presenting him with a notice of “intent to remove” at a special commission meeting June 24. The meeting, held without an agenda and which referred to a report about Gretsas’ performance that had not been completed or viewed, found Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson voting “aye” and Commissioners Ryan Boylston and Adam Frankel casting negative votes.

In essence, three-fifths of the commission voted to get rid of Gretsas – who has only been city manager since Jan. 6 – for allegedly bullying several city employees.

Gretsas also tried to fire Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher on June 2 when, in a letter, he accused her of “misusing her office.” Fisher subsequently accused Gretsas of “creating a hostile work environment.”

While the removal effort is barely a month old, it could take months to complete. The text of Gretsas’ contract requires a meeting and a hearing – one to write a list of accusations and another to address the allegations against him. That means the process of firing Gretsas will likely rage on through late autumn.

The following summary of the June 24 meeting was posted on the city’s website at 6:50 p.m. on that date:

“Today, Delray Beach‘s City Commissioners met and voted, 3 to 2, to move forward with the termination of City Manager George Gretsas. The decision came as a result of an ongoing investigation into allegations, filed by two city employees, involving bullying and intimidation of staff on the part of Gretsas.”

“During the special meeting, the commission voted, 4 to 1, to appoint the city’s purchasing director, Jennifer Alvarez, as interim city manager.”

The document quoted Mayor Petrolia as saying: “Unfortunately, as much as I had hoped, this was not the right fit for Delray Beach, but I feel assured that the best candidate is still out there. Our city needs a manager that understands and respects the mission, vision and culture of Delray Beach, brings out the best in the city and its staff, and helps Delray Beach reach its full potential.”

Delray Beach has had eight different city managers in as many years. Gretsas, who came to Delray from his job as city manager in Homestead, replaced Mark Lauzier, who was fired at a special commission meeting March 19, 2019.

The posting on the city website continues: “Gretsas began working for the city after an outside recruiting agency narrowed dozens of potential candidates to a final three. The commission offered Gretsas the city manager position after negotiations with its first-choice candidate, Michael Cernech, were unsuccessful.”

The notice says Gretsas has been suspended with pay from his $265,000 a year job until the investigation is completed and commissioners are able to review the findings and vote on them, as stated in his employment contract.

The termination try is already raising concerns among city commission members. Boylston took exception at the June 24 meeting to what he believed was a rushed process, as a report on the investigation into Gretsas’ alleged behavior was not available.

“We’re rushing to judgment here. We’ve seen nothing but an allegation,” said Boylston.

Also, Commissioner Adam Frankel spoke out against proceeding with making any decisions about Gretsas’ future without seeing a final version of the report.

Gretsas himself addressed the commission during the meeting, saying “to go ahead and put me on some sort of notice, when you haven’t read the report yet, that doesn’t strike me exactly as fair.”

Soon after the June 24 meeting, the aforementioned incomplete report was finished and filed by Allen, Norton & Blue, the external law firm hired to probe the matter.

The 20-page document concludes: “City Rule 5.1 prohibits workplace bullying, which are ‘actions that create an on-going pattern of behavior that is intended to intimidate, degrade or humiliate the employee(s) often in front of others.’ The evidence reviewed demonstrates that Mr. Gretsas’ behavior towards at least five employees violates the bullying policy.”

The text continues, “There is substantial evidence that establishes that Mr. Gretsas’ behavior was directed at specific groups of employees – those who disagreed with him, those who participated in the investigation [of former Fire Chief Neal DeJesus, who quit after twice filling in as interim city manager], and those who complained about him.”

Investigators interviewed about two dozen people to complete the report. The document indicates that office in-fighting seemed to escalate at a May 14 incident between Gretsas and Assistant City Manager Suzanne Fisher.

“Ms. Fisher described [that] he yelled at her and [Director of Public Works Missie Barleto] for nearly four hours, first on the phone and then in person.”

The report about the soon-to-be-ousted manager concludes: “Through his statements, Mr. Gretsas raised some legitimate concerns relating to Ms. Fisher’s credibility and referred to prior instances where Ms. Fisher filed similar complaints against other city employees.”

The report finally points out that “Mr. Gretsas’ concerns, even if true, do not negate the findings of this investigation, which do not rely solely on Ms. Fisher’s account of the events that transpired.”

City Attorney Lynn Gelin said Gretsas’ contract “dictates a special meeting to adopt the written charges shall be held no sooner than 60 days after delivery of the notice of intent to terminate” – or Monday, Aug. 24.

The pact next requires the city commission to hold a public hearing on the written charged no sooner than 60 days after the special meeting held to adopt the written charges. It might take until Oct. 23 to conduct that session, which Gelin likened to a “trial.”