Here is what we think…

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By: Delray newspaper staff
Something is rotten at City Hall.
There we said it.
It’s out there now. And we better do something about it.
For close to three years, the morale and turnover at City Hall has been the quiet talk of the town. At first it was a whisper “did you hear so and so is leaving” and now it’s a roar: “wow, what’s going on.”
We get around. We speak to people who work at City Hall at every level from department head to entry level and the refrain is the same: morale stinks, there is a culture of fear and just about everybody who has options is exploring them.
That kind of conversation doesn’t happen in a healthy organization. We can deny. We can try to spin, fold and mutilate or we can blame it all on past administrations. But the truth is what we’re seeing here reminds people of the 80s, when Delray Beach suffered from divisive politics and instability in city government.
When young police officers leave it’s often in search of better wages and pension benefits. But when department heads leave—or shop for new jobs—it’s not usually because of salaries. They know what they’re making when they sign on for the job. They leave because of culture, micromanagement and or an inability to get things done.
Despite the tired old canard that libels government workers as lazy, the truth is many are motivated by public service and work in government because they are passionate about building great communities.
For many years, working in Delray was a source of pride. The city was transforming from “Dull Ray” to a vibrant, All America City and a talented city staff was integral to the process.
That does not mean that there weren’t problems, or bad eggs. There were—mistakes were made, but a whole lot of good work was accomplished and the city enjoyed a reputation as an innovator among local governments.
There’s an old saying, “fix gently and with humility.”
Like any large organization, City Hall in Delray Beach has strengths and weaknesses. There are things to fix and there are things to celebrate and build on. Leadership needs to encourage constant improvement, but not much good can occur when you lead with a bat across the head. Something is clearly going wrong at City Hall.
Like most cities in Florida, Delray Beach is a council/manager form of government.
That means the Mayor and city commissioners sit as a board of directors setting policy for a City Manager who acts as the CEO of the organization. In Delray, the City Commission has two employees: the manager and the city attorney. Both answer directly to the Commission, but every other city employee outside of the attorney’s office works for the City Manager.
There are strengths and flaws to this model of government, but generally speaking the best thing a political body can do to ensure effective and efficient delivery of services is to hire and support a good city manager. Managers should be held accountable for staff performance, budgetary discipline, staff behavior and ethics, oversight of vendors and contracts and customer service. They are also tasked with implementing commission goals and community visions—if they exist. If they don’t, he or she needs to ask commissioners to prioritize, otherwise you have a government driven by the crisis du jour and nothing gets done.
Political bodies have a responsibility not to micromanage and the city charter prohibits them from hiring or firing any employee other than the manager and attorney.
But while Mayors and City Commissioners don’t have day-to-day operational responsibilities, there is no question that a community’s political climate and a commission’s “style” has an impact. Delray Newspaper examined two years of attrition at City Hall. Something is clearly going on folks.
In recent months, we have seen wholesale resignations at the City Attorney’s Office, a fire chief retire unexpectedly and rumblings that many of our younger police officers are looking elsewhere. We have heard from local builders and homeowners that it is harder than ever to get permits from the Building Department or answers from the Planning Department.
We have also heard that many senior staff are shopping their resumes and we’ve have already seen key people leave our Planning Department, Economic Development Office and Department of Environmental Services. There are also lingering issues resulting from two different efforts (both aborted) to merge our Fire Rescue Department with the county and undo a 23-year agreement to provide fire rescue services to Highland Beach– a deal that also includes benefits for our city since the Highland Beach station handles many calls for residents of southeast Delray.
Local land owners and real estate professionals are reporting that potential buyers and businesses are reluctant to invest in Delray because they have heard how hard it is to put a shovel in the ground.
The city’s land use approval process is exhausting, lengthy and unpredictable. Even commissioners have expressed how painful the process can be. But they are the only ones who can fix it.
Delray Beach is an interesting case study. There is no doubt that the city achieved a remarkable renaissance over the past 30 years. But there is also no doubt that the city lags behind in salaries, technology, training, staffing level analysis and procedures in several key departments. Many buildings were not maintained, capital improvement projects get stuck in a clogged pipeline and there have been embarrassing problems in purchasing and serious legal and ethical gaps including employees doing business with their own city.
Still, we believe that there is much to build on in Delray Beach. Building a talented and passionate team is essential to having a quality city attractive to residents and businesses. Obviously, this task is the responsibility of our City Manager. But managers cannot succeed without a good culture and political bodies own culture. Managers can’t build a winning team if key players are constantly jumping ship or looking to bail on the organization.
When such environments take root, organizations tend to lose their good employees—after all talent always has options. It becomes a vicious cycle in which it becomes hard to recruit and retain capable professionals and operations begin to spiral.
Many commissioners ran on a platform of “fixing” City Hall. It’s clear that they haven’t. In our cover story this month, City Manager Don Cooper says he has never experienced this level of attrition in his long career.
This should be a moment of introspection for all five commissioners. Again, the best thing they can do is hire a good city manager and attorney and let them do their jobs. If they don’t perform—fire them. But they should also take a deep look at the culture and climate which is clearly having an impact on the organization. This is a burning issue for Delray taxpayers. It’s time to look deep and solve it. As the old adage goes; a boss creates fear, a leader creates belief. Belief leads to performance, fear leads to instability and paralysis.